Everything you need to know about maximizing Delta SkyMiles award tickets

Mar 11, 2021

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For as much as Delta has done to improve its on-time performance, up-level its business-class product with Delta One Suites and expand its Sky Club lounge network, the SkyMiles program has taken its fair share of knocks over the years. TPG values each SkyMile at a paltry 1.1 cents, ranking behind the 1.4 cents apiece assigned to American AAdvantage miles and the 1.3 cents apiece assigned to United MileagePlus miles. Making matters worse, Delta itself has been on a steady march to peg the value of a SkyMile at just one cent, as evidenced by its SkyMiles seat upgrade option.

That said, the SkyMiles program holds decent — even occasionally outsized — value, particularly when you consider that the currency is just one piece of the overall Delta product. Below, we’ll provide an insider’s view on how to maximize the SkyMiles loyalty program.

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In This Post

Award change/cancellation policy

(Photo by Darren Murph/The Points Guy.)

One critical element of booking SkyMiles award tickets is understanding the cancellation and change policies. Luckily, in 2020, the carrier made award tickets more flexible than ever before.

All SkyMiles tickets, except for those booked in basic economy, now include fee-free changes and cancellations so long as your travel originates in North America. This includes both domestic and international flights.

Additionally, the carrier used to require that all voluntary changes or cancellations to award itineraries be made more than 72 hours before departure. However, it has done away with that policy as well.

Said another way, most SkyMiles award tickets are now essentially refundable tickets, which vastly increases their value. In the paid ticket world, a refundable ticket can easily cost quadruple what an equivalent nonrefundable ticket would cost. That’s because the airline feels justified in tacking on a massive price premium to give the purchaser the luxury of walking away from the ticket and leave that seat vacant. Just remember that you must pony up for Main Cabin (or above) seats to get the fee-free cancellation perk — basic economy tickets are always excluded, even if you have Delta elite status.

Related: What is Delta elite status worth?

First and coach class seating on Delta's new Airbus A220 (Photos by Darren Murph / The Points Guy)
First-class seating on Delta’s new Airbus A220. (Photo by Darren Murph/The Points Guy.)

SkyMiles award repricing

RDU Airport
(Photo by Darren Murph/The Points Guy.)

Unfortunately, this flexibility isn’t all good news. Just because you won’t be dinged with a change fee for altering SkyMiles award tickets, that doesn’t mean that the change will be completely free. The wrinkle here is that while the change itself is free, the passenger is still subject to repricing. So if you make a reservation on a given day and call Delta a few months later to change your day of departure or route, the agent will quote you how many more SkyMiles will be required.

The reason is that they will price the ticket at the current rates, not the rate you locked in during your initial purchase. The real bummer here is that this even applies to one way of a round-trip or multi-city itinerary. I had a round-trip SkyMiles award ticket to Orlando (MCO), which I purchased for 20,000 SkyMiles total. When ringing up Delta to cancel the front end of that trip while keeping the return, I fully expected the agent to cancel the first leg, refund 10,000 SkyMiles and wish me a good day.

That’s not at all what happened. Even if you try to outright ax one leg of a round-trip SkyMiles award ticket, the agent will reprice the remaining leg you’re looking to keep at today’s one-way prices. In my case, the return leg had increased by 5,000 SkyMiles, so I was told I’d be refunded all 20,000 SkyMiles and then I’d have 15,000 deducted to cover the newly-priced return.

The lesson here? If it doesn’t impact pricing, consider booking two one-way SkyMiles award tickets for added flexibility. That way, if you need to cancel one leg or the other, it won’t negatively impact the rest of your trip. Of course, there can be massive savings in booking round-trip flights (particularly when there’s an international destination involved), so two one-ways isn’t always the most cost-effective.

Leveraging schedule changes

A Boeing 777-200 sits in a Delta hangar at ATL (Photo by Darren Murph / The Points Guy)
A Boeing 777-200 sits in a Delta hangar at ATL. (Photo by Darren Murph/The Points Guy.)

Although basic economy tickets typically don’t offer this flexibility, you may be able to make fee-free changes and cancellations if you book your SkyMiles award ticket far enough out. Delta is notorious for schedule changes, which are generally implemented each Saturday. In fact, Delta loyalists have a habit of checking their upcoming flights each Sunday morning to see if anything was thrown out of whack the day prior.

While schedule changes can negatively impact your travel, they also create an opportunity. Delta’s U.S. contract of carriage states the following:

If there is a flight cancellation, diversion, delay of greater than 90 minutes, or that will cause a passenger to miss connections, Delta will (at passenger’s request) cancel the remaining ticket and refund the unused portion of the ticket and unused ancillary fees in the original form of payment.

In other words, if Delta alters your schedule in any way, on any leg, by 1.5+ hours, you can ring them up and request a full refund. However, there may be times where a less-significant change can lead to a refund as well. Below is a more granular list of changes that can unlock the ability to make fee-free changes and cancellations to SkyMiles award tickets regardless of elite status. Of course, I recommend being exceptionally kind when calling in and making these requests, as agents do have some autonomy to make things happen if it’s a judgment call on whether or not a given change is enough to justify a fee waiver.

  • A schedule change of 90+ minutes across all connections. For example, if your initial leg is moved up by 55 minutes and your connection is moved back by 45 minutes, you’re within your right to make the change/cancellation request.
  • An operator change. For instance, if you’re on a Delta Connection flight between Raleigh–Durham (RDU) and New York-LaGuardia (LGA) operated by Republic Airline (YX), and Delta shifts that carrier to Endeavor Air (9E), you may get an agent willing to waive the change/cancellation fee. The magic phrase to use is “the operating carrier has changed.” In essence, the airline you paid to operate your original flight is no longer doing so, which opens the door for you to request a change.
  • A routing change. If you book a nonstop flight and Delta ends up removing it from its flight schedule, you’ll be automatically rebooked to your destination via a connection. Because Delta is adding a connection to your itinerary, you’re now clear to call Delta and request a different routing of your choice at no charge or a full refund. Similarly, if Delta shifts your flight from one connection to two or changes your connection airport (say, from Detroit to Atlanta), you’re clear to request a fee-free change/cancellation.

You can maximize this further if you don’t mind living on the edge. Oftentimes, SkyMiles award tickets with very unfriendly routings will price out lower than alluring, sensible routings. If you’re booking a trip that’s six or more months away, it may be worth buying the ticket with three connections, a red-eye and a 10-hour layover to save miles. Then, you cross your fingers that a schedule or routing change occurs over the next six months.

Assuming that change does indeed happen, you should check new routings at Delta.com and call with your preferred route ready to go. Do not call Delta up, kvetch about the schedule change and then ask the agent to find you a superior routing. Do that work in advance to ensure that you’re placed on the route you actually want. Even if the new itinerary shows a higher price than the one you originally paid, the agent should be able to move you without requiring any additional miles (again, kindness goes a long way in making this happen).

Married-segment logic

Delta Premium Select on a refurbished Boeing 777
Delta Premium Select. (Photo by Benji Stawski/The Points Guy.)

Much to the chagrin of mile maximizers the world over, Delta has started enforcing married-segment logic on SkyMiles award seats. In the halcyon days of yore, you could search award availability at Delta.com for individual legs, and if those legs both priced out at a given level, you could phone Delta up and create an itinerary where the total price was the same as one of those legs.

For example, if you found low-level award space between Richmond (RIC) and Atlanta (ATL) as well as Atlanta (ATL) to Los Angeles (LAX), you could call Delta and piece those two legs together into a single one-way trip. That no longer works.

As of now, you should search Delta.com for your origin and destination and take what you see as gospel. The results that populate adhere to married-segment logic, which means they are pre-paired by Delta and sold as a single ticket. This definitely limits how creative you can get when it comes to assembling low-priced SkyMiles award tickets.

That being said, Delta.com doesn’t always do a great job at pairing together Delta-operated award flights with segments operated by partners. This is the one time where searching segment-by-segment (or using a site like ExpertFlyer, which is owned by TPG’s parent company, Red Ventures) can help. If you find a Delta flight to an international gateway and then (separately) find a partner flight from there to your ultimate destination that won’t appear online, you should be able to call and have them ticketed together.

SkyMiles deals and flash sales

delta a330-900neo
TPG reader Nick enjoys a Delta One Suite on an Airbus A330-900neo. (Photo by Darren Murph/The Points Guy.)

While standard SkyMiles pricing for award tickets has continued to inch up over the years, Delta has extended an olive branch of sorts with recurring deals and flash sales. The airline now has a web portal devoted to deals and segmented by region. Once there, you can click into the region you’re interested in visiting and click further to segment SkyMiles deals from cash deals.

Now, these “deals” aren’t always scorching. They tend to rotate weekly or monthly, and you need to be a savvy Delta flyer to see an offer and know right away whether it’s worth taking advantage of. The good news for casual flyers is that our staff at TPG does that for you, and we post the SkyMiles deals that are actually worth your while over at our TPG Deals portal.

Related: Ultimate guide to Delta One Suites

Sometimes you can get lucky with these flash sales, but note that some of the lowest deals book into basic economy. Other times, you can score big and find Delta One seats to, say, Europe for under 100,000 SkyMiles.

Upgrading SkyMiles awards

Delta recently made several positive changes to its Upgrade Certificates, available exclusively to some Delta Platinum and Diamond Medallion members. Specifically, you can now apply Global Upgrade Certificates and Regional Upgrade Certificates to award tickets, as well as Miles + Cash tickets on Delta-operated flights. This is especially great since the prices for booking Delta One or first class awards outright can sometimes be extremely high.

Related: All the tips and tricks you need to use Delta Upgrade Certificates

Earning SkyMiles

To utilize the tips I’ve outlined above, you need to actually have SkyMiles in your account. Here are some ways you can earn them:

There are many ways to boost your Delta SkyMiles account balance, but one of the quickest is leveraging the carrier’s cobranded credit cards with American Express. These come in a variety of flavors (terms apply):

Related: Choosing the best credit card for Delta flyers

Note that you could also open an American Express card that earns Membership Rewards points, as you can transfer these directly to Delta at a 1:1 ratio. Top picks include:
(Photo by Christian Kramer/The Points Guy.)

Bottom line

Delta has a few strange restrictions on its SkyMiles award program, but knowledge is power! So long as you aren’t booking basic economy, you should have a lot of flexibility with SkyMiles award tickets. Top-tier elites can now squeeze more value out of their awards by applying Upgrade Certificates to them. If you’re short on Delta miles, there are lots of ways to top off your account.

Featured photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy.

Additional reporting by Benji Stawski and Victoria Walker.

Related video:

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