5 things you need to know about Delta SkyMiles

Jan 31, 2020

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Editor’s note: This post has been updated with the latest tips and credit card offers. It was originally published on Aug. 13, 2019.

Are you a casual flyer that’s looking for an inexpensive way to get to Florida for spring break? Or, maybe you’re a serious Delta loyalty that’s been looking for ways to supercharge your SkyMiles account.

If you’re looking to pick up a personal credit card, here are the options (terms apply):

In This Post

It’s no secret that the SkyMiles can be confusing — and frustrating at times — to use, with no award charts and seemingly constant changes and devaluations. However, once you have a stash of SkyMiles in your account and are armed with the knowledge necessary to navigate this program, you will find that you can get a tremendous amount of value from your SkyMiles. For example, we’ve seen Delta award flash sales offering round-trip tickets on domestic routes for just 10,000 SkyMiles. Looking for a deal to Europe? Delta has run flash sales for round-trip economy for 16,000 SkyMiles and round-trip flights for 98,000 SkyMiles. You’re probably already starting to think about the possibilities!

While you’ll have to put in effort to understand and ultimately use your SkyMiles, there’s little doubt that Delta’s in-flight experience is tops among U.S. carriers. Today, I’ll tell you five things you need to know about Delta SkyMiles so you can put them to their best use.

There’s no published award chart

Put simply, we don’t know how many miles an award flight on Delta is supposed to cost. In February of 2015, Delta removed award charts from its website without notification, and they have not (and by all accounts will not) return. If you’d like to save miles for an award flight in the future, you need to search your intended route on a multitude of dates to estimate the approximate range of miles required, knowing that it could change at a moment’s notice.

The second point to make on the lack of published award charts is just how vast a range of SkyMiles can be required for the same route. Domestic flights that are 9,000 miles one day can be double (or more) just days later. Look at the one-week variance in price for a short flight from New York-JFK to Chicago-O’Hare (ORD):

When it comes to international routes and specifically premium cabins, the variance can be even more significant, like with this award search for one-way business class flights from Atlanta (ATL) to Seoul (ICN):

Availability with award programs is always a challenge, but without set prices, these significant variances end up forcing you to plan your trip schedule around availability, rather than SkyMiles rewarding you with your desired schedule.

Finally, with no fixed prices, last-minute SkyMiles award tickets function like revenue tickets: They tend to be significantly more expensive. Delta doesn’t charge a close-in ticketing fee like other carriers, but a higher amount of miles required within 21 days of departure is a de facto close-in fee.

This is a major drawback to collecting SkyMiles compared to other legacy carrier miles. If I need a last-minute ticket, I no longer bother even searching with SkyMiles. In this Detroit (DTW) to Indianapolis (IND) example, close-in award tickets are more than three times as expensive compared to booking more than three weeks out — typical for Delta:

Adding segments can lower your award ticket price

Counterintuitively, to pay less miles for a Delta award ticket, you sometimes need to fly more. This is a result of Delta taking advantage of little/no competition on routes from its hubs. Try to avoid starting a domestic award search on Delta.com from Atlanta (ATL), Detroit (DTW) or Minneapolis (MSP). Award tickets will usually be much higher due to no competition — especially when you’re hoping to fly in first class. Here’s a search from DTW to San Francisco (SFO) in first-class one-way:

When you shift your origin to Chicago-O’Hare (ORD), which happens to be served by plenty of other carriers, the prices drop significantly with many itineraries on these days connecting in Detroit:

This even holds booking far in advance. For example, at the time of writing, Delta is charging 45,000 miles for a one-way award ticket in first class on Flight 2930 from Detroit to San Francisco:

If you begin your itinerary in Chicago instead, you can take the very same flight at a lower price:

This principle seems to apply for all Delta hubs. If you live somewhere that allows you to have a choice of airports from which to depart, be sure to compare all your options and look to use SkyMiles on routes also operated by Delta’s competitors.

It may cost more miles to fly partners

In April of 2017, again without warning, Delta increased the SkyMiles required to book partner-operated award flights. It now may cost more SkyMiles to fly partner carriers rather than Delta on routes originating from the US. For example, Delta One from New York to London-Heathrow (LHR) costs 80,000 miles at its lowest price. The same route will set you back 86,000 miles if you opt to fly Virgin Atlantic.

You’ll see similar incremental prices on Aerolineas Argentinas, Aeromexico, China Airlines, China Eastern, Korean Airlines and Virgin Australia flights originating from the U.S. on routes that Delta also flies. When the change was originally announced, you could add a Delta-operated domestic segment on the itinerary and it would qualify for the lower pricing, but that loophole has since been closed.

Keep an eye on SkyMiles sales

Delta has been routinely publishing SkyMiles sales for specific routes and travel dates that can often yield tremendous value for both main cabin and Delta One bookings. However, a clear disclosure for these sales: many times these rates will incomprehensibly not be great values or any cheaper than is usually available. You can, however, find great deals like New York to Paris for 26,000 miles round-trip, though often you can find tickets for even lower:

Recently, we’ve seen 34,000-mile round-trip flights to Seoul (South Korea), 12,000-mile round-trip flights to South America, 20,000-mile round-trip flights to Europe, 128,000-mile round-trip Delta One tickets to Europe, 68,000-mile round-trip flights to Europe in Premium Select and 12,000-mile round-trip flights to the Caribbean. Domestic routes have started at 9,000 miles round-trip, but I can routinely find flights out of my home base of Atlanta for around 11,000 miles, even when there is not an advertised sale:

You can earn elite status without ever flying

Delta SkyMiles is the only program I’m aware of that still lets you earn top-tier status only through credit card spending. If you have both of the Delta cobranded cards issued by American Express that earn Medallion Qualification Miles (either the consumer or business versions of each card), you could spend your way to upper-level Platinum Medallion status.

Here are the four cards and the Medallion Qualification Miles (MQMs) they allow you to earn:

If you can put $170,000 of spending across a Platinum and a Reserve card, you’ll earn , you’ll earn 80,000 MQDs, and the Medallion Qualification Dollar (MQD) requirement will be waived. This means you’ll earn Platinum status (75,000 MQMs) in year one and roll over 5,000 MQMs to year two. While not Delta’s top-tier, Platinum Medallion still comes with unlimited upgrades and a selection of Choice Benefits that can make your flying experience much better.

Bottom Line

On one hand, it’s tough to pass up only paying 4,500 to 10,000 miles for domestic tickets and having the chance to book Delta One suites on the new A350 for 128,000 miles round trip from Detroit to Amsterdam. On the other hand, Delta’s President Glen Hauenstein doesn’t want people to use miles to fly for free, and I have a hard time trusting a program that is against award flights and is known for routinely making unannounced devaluations.

I continue to find great value in using SkyMiles for domestic flights for me and my family, and I find equal value in holding Delta Platinum Medallion status. However, if I’m looking for aspirational or long-haul premium cabin awards, SkyMiles isn’t the currency to hold.

Featured photo by Zach Honig / The Points Guy

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