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On the list of perplexing loyalty programs, Delta SkyMiles sits at the top. Continual surprise changes and opaque policies are frustrating and leave loyal passengers feeling defeated. With plenty of confusing/unwritten rules complicating matters further, SkyMiles is a loyalty currency that can one day be near worthless and the next, invaluable.

Despite a rather turbulent loyalty program, Delta’s in-flight experience is arguably the best among US carriers — leaving you unsure about whether you should collect as many SkyMiles as possible or avoid the program entirely. Today, I’ll tell you five things you need to know about Delta SkyMiles to hopefully help you solidify your plan for the airline.

1.There’s No Published Award Chart

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 in order to estimate the approximate range of miles required.

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 2.5x as many miles the next. Look at the two-week variance in price for a short Washington Reagan (DCA) – Atlanta (ATL) route:

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

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Availability with award programs is always a challenge, but without set prices these significant price 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’re significantly more expensive. This is a major detractor 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 Atlanta (ATL) to Charleston (CHS) example, close-in award tickets are more than three times as expensive compared to booking more than three weeks out — typical for Delta:

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2. Adding Segments Can Lower Your Award Ticket Price

Counterintuitively, in order 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 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 (ORD), which happens to be served by plenty of other carriers, the prices drop in half with many itineraries on these days connecting in Detroit:

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On September 27, Delta flight 1658 from Detroit to San Francisco will cost you 65,000 SkyMiles in first class:

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If on the same day you begin your itinerary in Chicago, you can take the very same flight for half the price:

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

3. It Cost More Miles to Fly Partners

In April of this year, again without warning, Delta increased the SkyMiles required to book partner-operated award flights. It now costs more SkyMiles to fly partner carriers rather than Delta on routes originating from the US. Delta One from New York to London costs 70,000 miles at its lowest price. The same route now costs 85,000 miles on Virgin Atlantic-operated routes.

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You’ll see the same incremental prices on Aerolineas Argentinas, Aeromexico, China Airlines, China Eastern, Korean Airlines and Virgin Australia flights originating from the US 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.

As for why Delta decided to penalize members for flying partner airlines, and roll it out with no notice and no announcement, we’ll probably never know.

4. You Can Book Delta Comfort+ With Miles

Unique to Delta is the ability to book main cabin seats with extra legroom, priority boarding, free alcohol on flights over 250 miles and dedicated overhead bin space with miles. From the award search booking screen you can redeem extra miles for Comfort+ tickets and not have to worry about paying cash for more desirable economy seats.

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Of course, there’s no award chart to let you know how many more miles you’ll need to pay, and again the variance in range for required miles to get a more comfortable economy experience is vast. In the above example, it’s only 4,000 more miles for the three hour Atlanta-Denver flight but for a transcon JFK-LAX it almost doubles the price of the ticket:

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Whether this presents a good value or not is highly subjective depending on how much you value a few extra inches of legroom and how many miles you have in your account. Here’s a typical example of how many miles Comfort+ will cost you for a long-haul international route (the US to Tokyo):

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I personally wouldn’t fork over the extra 35,000 SkyMiles for long-haul international economy Comfort+, mainly because that’s more miles than United or American require to fly in business for the same route. However, I know many people who do whatever they can to be a little more comfortable for the long flights while avoiding having to pay cash.

5. 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 all four Delta co-branded cards issued by American Express that earn Medallion Qualifying Miles (MQMs), over the course of two years, you could put enough spend on the four cards to earn Delta Diamond status. Here are the four cards and the MQMs they allow you to earn:

If you can put $220,000 in spend across the cards over the course of a year, you’ll earn 100,000 MQMs and the Medallion Qualifying Dollar (MQD) requirement will be waived. This means you’ll earn Platinum status (75,000 MQMs) in year one and roll over 25,000 MQMs to year two. If you again spend $220,000 across all four cards in year two, you’ll again earn 100,000 MQMs which, in addition to your 25,000 rollover MQMs, will give you 125,000 MQMs and thus Delta Diamond status. This strategy assumes Delta will continue with the MQD waiver and allow you to earn all the way up to Diamond status without flying.

Bottom Line

On one hand, it’s tough to pass up only paying 8,000-10,000 miles for domestic tickets and having the chance to book Delta One suites on the new A350 for 80,000 miles from Seoul to Atlanta. 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 whose leadership is against award flights and that’s known for routinely making unannounced devaluations. Personally, I’ll continue to keep a stash of American Express Membership Rewards points earmarked for transfers to Delta, but I won’t be spending on Delta co-branded credit cards or crediting paid flights to the program.

What is your plan for collecting SkyMiles going forward?

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