5 things you need to know about Delta SkyMiles

Jan 9, 2022

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Editor’s note: This post has been updated with the latest tips and credit card offers.

It’s no secret that 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 for just 5,000 SkyMiles. And Delta has run flash sales to Europe like round-trip in economy for 32,000 SkyMiles and even Delta One flights as well. You’re probably already starting to think about the possibilities!

While you’ll have to put in the effort to understand and ultimately use your SkyMiles, many feel that Delta’s in-flight experience is tops among U.S. carriers — and it earned recognition as TPG’s top airline of 2021. Today, I’ll tell you five things you need to know about Delta SkyMiles so you can put them to their best use.

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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 2015, Delta removed award charts from its website without notification, and they have not returned (and by all accounts never will). 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 10,000 miles one day can be half that just days later. Look at the one-week variance in price for a short flight from New York-JFK to Chicago-O’Hare (ORD):

(Screenshot courtesy of delta.com)

When it comes to international routes — and specifically premium cabins — the variance can be even more significant. Look at this award search for one-way, business-class flights from Detroit (DTW) to Tel Aviv, Israel (TLV):

(Screenshot courtesy of delta.com)

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 Chicago (ORD) example, close-in award tickets are more than three times the price compared to booking two to three weeks out — typical for Delta:

Last-minute Delta award prices from Detroit to Chicago in January 2022
Screenshot courtesy of Delta

Adding segments can lower your award ticket price

Counterintuitively, to pay fewer 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 in price thanks to no other nonstop options — especially when you’re hoping to fly in first class.

As an example, here’s a search from DTW to San Francisco (SFO) in economy:

(Screenshot courtesy of delta.com)

When you shift your origin to New York-JFK, which happens to be served by plenty of other carriers, the prices drop significantly — with many itineraries on these days connecting in Detroit:

(Screenshot courtesy of delta.com)

Delta increased the number of miles needed to fly partners

In late 2020, Delta again increased the SkyMiles required to book partner-operated award flights. It now costs even more miles to fly with partner airlines across the board on flights to and from the U.S.

Business-class awards were especially hard-hit by these changes. For example, Virgin Atlantic flights to and from the U.S. now cost 120,000 miles — instead of the previous 86,000-mile price. The price of economy tickets has also risen by 10,000 miles, now costing 35,000 miles one-way.

(Screenshot courtesy of delta.com)

You’ll see similar increases on Aerolineas Argentinas, Aeromexico, China Airlines, China Eastern and Korean Airlines flights originating from the U.S.

Keep an eye on SkyMiles sales

Before the coronavirus pandemic, Delta routinely published SkyMiles sales for specific routes and travel dates that often yielded tremendous value for both main cabin and Delta One bookings. As the pandemic took its toll on the travel industry, Delta stopped publishing these. However, they are starting to make a comeback. You can find domestic routes starting at 10,000 miles round-trip. And you can often find one-way tickets starting at just 4,500 miles.

(Screenshot courtesy of delta.com)

We even saw select flights from Seattle (SEA) to beach destinations at just 2,500 miles each way back in Feb. 2021.

Keep an eye on Delta’s SkyMiles sales page, which is where you can find these deals. They used to be more common with a larger number of offerings, but they are slowly returning. That’s good news for travelers.

You can earn elite status without ever flying

Delta SkyMiles is one of the only programs that lets you earn elite status solely through credit card spending. It previously was the only one among the big three U.S. carriers — but American Airlines has joined the list as of 2022 with the introduction of Loyalty Points.

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 without ever setting foot on a Delta plane.

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

If you hold the Delta Platinum Amex and the Delta Reserve Amex and can put $50,000 and $120,000 in spend on them (respectively), you’ll reach Platinum status. That’s because you’ll have 80,000 MQMs (just ahead of the required threshold of 75,000) and will waive the Medallion Qualification Dollar (MQD) requirement for Silver, Gold and Platinum Medallion status.

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.

Remember too that all MQMs earned in 2021 rolled over to 2022. As a result, that should give you a big head start on earning status this year.

Bottom Line

On one hand, it’s tough to pass up paying as little as 2,500 miles for domestic tickets. On the other hand, Delta’s President Glen Hauenstein doesn’t want people to use miles to fly for free. Additionally, I have a hard time trusting a program that 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.

For rates and fees of the Delta SkyMiles Platinum Amex Card, please click here.
For rates and fees of the Delta SkyMiles Platinum Business Amex Card, please click here
For rates and fees of the Delta SkyMiles Reserve Amex Card, please click here
For rates and fees of the Delta SkyMiles Reserve Business Amex Card, please click here

Featured photo by Zach Honig / The Points Guy

Additional reporting by Ryan Smith and Nick Ellis

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