5 Things You Need to Know About Delta SkyMiles

Aug 13, 2019

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On the list of perplexing loyalty programs, Delta SkyMiles sits at (or at least near) the top. Continual surprise changes and opaque policies are frustrating and leave loyal passengers feeling defeated. Even with these confusing/unwritten rules which complicate 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.

In This Post

1.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 in order 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 even triple that rate the next. 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 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:

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-O’Hare (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:

This even holds booking far in advance. For example, at the time of writing, Delta is charging 47,000 miles for a one-way award ticket in first class on Flight 725 from Detroit to San Francisco:

If you begin your itinerary in Chicago instead, you can take the very same flight at a significantly 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.

3. 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 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.

4. 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 Spain for 20,000 miles round-trip:

This year alone we have seen 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 11,000 miles round-trip, but I can routinely find flights out of my home base of Atlanta for those prices or just a bit more, even when there is not an advertised sale:

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), you could spend your way to upper-level Platinum Medallion status.

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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. 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 4,500-10,000 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. Personally, 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 Alberto Riva / The Points Guy

Platinum Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express

This card comes with several great perks for Delta flyers like a Domestic Main Cabin round-trip companion certificate each year, first checked bag free, priority boarding and discounted Delta Sky Club access for you and up to 2 guests.

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More Things to Know
  • Earn 5,000 Medallion® Qualification Miles (MQMs) and 35,000 bonus miles after you spend $1,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months.
  • In addition, earn a $100 statement credit after you make a Delta purchase with your new Card within your first 3 months.
  • Earn 2 miles per dollar spent on purchases made directly with Delta. Earn 1 mile for every eligible dollar spent on other purchases. Miles don’t expire.
  • Check your first bag free on Delta flights – that’s a savings of up to $240 roundtrip for a family of four.
  • Receive Main Cabin 1 Priority Boarding on your Delta flights, stow your carry-on bag and settle in sooner.
  • Enjoy 20% savings on eligible in-flight purchases in the form of a statement credit with the American Express Delta Card.
  • $195 Annual Fee ($250 if application received on or after 1/30/2020).
  • Terms Apply.
  • See Rates & Fees
Intro APR on Purchases
Regular APR
17.24%-26.24% Variable
Annual Fee
$195 Annual Fee ($250 if application is received on or after 1/30/2020)
Balance Transfer Fee
Either $5 or 3% of the amount of each transfer, whichever is greater.
Recommended Credit
Terms and restrictions apply. See rates & fees.

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