Book This, Not That: SkyTeam Award Tickets

May 31, 2019

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Dynamic award pricing is all the rage lately, as loyal United travelers struggle to adapt to the carrier’s new, unpredictable and expensive pricing scheme. SkyTeam loyalists, however, are well-versed in the pitfalls of dynamic or variable award pricing. The two largest and most popular loyalty programs in the SkyTeam alliance — Delta SkyMiles and Air France KLM’s Flying Blue — both use dynamic award pricing. This makes it all the more important to hunt for deals and sales wherever they may be.

Today we’ll continue our “Book This, Not That” series and look at how you can save miles booking SkyTeam award flights.

Harness the Power of Virgin Atlantic

Though I’d still classify it as an underrated frequent flyer program, Virgin Atlantic Flying Club has started to get a lot more attention thanks to some of the incredible redemptions it offers on partner airlines. While the ANA sweet spot (round-trip first class from the US to Japan for as little as 110,000 miles) is probably the best-known, Virgin Atlantic also partners with Delta and allows you to get some incredible awards on Delta-operated award flights. Delta’s dynamic pricing has gutted a lot of value from the SkyMiles program, but on many days, Virgin Atlantic will sell you seats on nonstop Delta flights at a significantly lower mileage cost than booking with SkyMiles.

Let’s take a look at one-way business class flights from Detroit (DTW) to Beijing (PEK). This route is operated by a brand new A350 aircraft featuring Delta’s state-of-the-art, fully-enclosed Delta One Suites. Delta’s pricing on this route varies from about 120,000 miles on the low end all the way up to 360,000 miles for a one-way flight.

Meanwhile, Virgin Atlantic will sell you the exact same seat for only 60,000 Flying Club miles. You can see that the availability mostly lines up with the Delta site, allowing you to book flights through Virgin Atlantic when Delta is selling its “cheapest” seats.

Leveraging this option is especially important if you’re planning to transfer your credit card rewards to book Delta-operated flights. Since both Delta and Virgin Atlantic are 1:1 transfer partners of American Express, you can save your valuable Membership Rewards points by transferring to Virgin Atlantic instead of Delta. And right now, this can be even sweeter thanks to the 30% transfer bonus from Amex to Virgin Atlantic. Here’s how that translates into Amex points for the above award:

  • Transfer 120,000 points to Delta SkyMiles
  • Transfer 47,000 points to Virgin Atlantic

While the numbers are more extreme for international business class examples, the same principle can be applied to domestic flights as well. Take a look at Delta’s one-way economy pricing from Los Angeles (LAX) to Honolulu (HNL). The rates aren’t atrocious, but they aren’t great either.

Not only does Virgin Atlantic has great award availability (even on many days when Delta is using the more expensive 30,000 mile pricing tier), but the price is always fixed at 20,000 miles.

There’s a big caveat though: Virgin Atlantic prices awards on a per segment basis. As a result, you’re normally better off utilizing Virgin Atlantic for nonstop flights.

For more information on maximizing the Virgin Atlantic program for awards on Delta, be sure to check out this guide.

Earning Virgin Atlantic miles: Virgin Atlantic miles are incredibly easy to earn, as you can transfer 1:1 from Chase, Amex and Citi. This allows you to convert points from cards like the Chase Sapphire Reserve, American Express® Gold Card and Citi Premier Card directly to the program (though keep an eye out for transfer bonuses, especially from Amex and Citi). You can also transfer points 3:1 from Marriott, with a 5,000-mile bonus for every 60,000 Marriott points you transfer.

Awards Sales Are the New Norm

Flexibility has always been the most important thing for those seeking high redemption values, which is why transferable currencies — like Amex Membership Rewards and Chase Ultimate Rewards — are generally more valuable than any individual airline mile. Delta and Flying Blue awards might be outrageously expensive on a given day, but the flexible traveler can take advantage of the increasingly frequent award sales run by both programs.

Let’s start with Delta, which has recently been running multiple flash sales a month. Eligible city pairs and travel dates are set, but we’ve seen deals ranging from 12,000 miles for round-trip domestic awards to 44,000 miles for a round-trip to Australia. With Delta regularly charging 75,000 miles or more for a one-way economy ticket on its non-stop flight from LAX to Sydney, these sales can really bring the cost down. We’ve even seen sales in premium cabins as well, such as 128,000 miles for a round-trip Delta One award to Europe. In these cases, you’d likely be better off booking with Delta instead of Virgin Atlantic.

Flying Blue, on the other hand, offers monthly promo awards from select cities to anywhere in Europe. Unlike Delta’s fixed price flash sales, these promo awards offer a percentage off of the normal award price for that day. For May, it’s possible to book business class awards between Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW) or Toronto (YYZ) and Europe for 25% off. These flights often book up quickly once the promo awards are announced, but it’s still possible to get a one-way business class award from DFW to Paris (CDG) for only 42,000 miles and ~$220 in taxes. TPG values those miles at only $504, which is a steal for an international business-class ticket.

Since dynamic pricing is supposed to roughly reflect cash prices, you can score even cheaper awards by flying to less popular cities. I was able to find awards to Budapest (BUD), Warsaw (WAW) and Edinburgh (EDI) for only 39,750 miles.

Earning Flying Blue miles: Flying Blue is one of just two programs that partners with every major transferable points currency, meaning you can top up your account by transferring from Chase, Amex, Citi, Capital One (from cards like the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card) or Marriott.

Earning Delta miles: Amex Membership Rewards points transfer 1:1 to Delta, or you can apply for a cobranded SkyMiles credit card like the Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express.

Don’t Forget About Korean Air

Korean Air used to be an incredibly popular SkyTeam loyalty program, but it’s fallen by the wayside since Chase dropped it as a transfer partner. Just because SkyPass miles are harder to earn now, doesn’t mean the incredible value proposition has disappeared.

Flights to Asia on Korean Air metal are incredibly well priced, with one-way business class awards starting at 62,500 miles and first class starting at 80,000 (note that you can’t book any partner awards in first class with Delta SkyMiles). While Korean Air is eliminating first class on a number of routes, most of its US flights still feature first class on the A380, 747-8 or 777-300ER. My flight in the nose of the 747-8 (with the entire first class cabin to myself) was one of the best flights I’ve ever taken. Korean Air is also very generous with letting you put awards on hold for up to 60 days while you wait for your points to transfer.

There’s also great value to be had with Korean Air’s SkyTeam partner award chart, though you can only book round-trip awards. 80,000 miles for a round-trip business class ticket to Europe is a steal (since Delta will often charge more than that for a one-way ticket), but don’t stare for too long at the 100,000-mile first-class awards, since you can’t actually book them. Air France — the only SkyTeam airline to fly a true, first-class cabin between the US and Europe — restricts first class award bookings to Flying Blue elite members.

Korean Air also treats Hawaii as part of North America, so instead of overpaying to book directly with Delta, you can fly from the US to Hawaii for only 25,000 miles round-trip in economy, the same as any domestic flight.

Earning Korean Air miles: You can transfer Marriott points to Korean Air at a 3:1 ratio, with a 5,000-mile bonus for every 60,000 points you transfer.

Bottom Line

SkyTeam led the way with dynamic pricing, forcing travelers to work a little bit harder to find good value redemptions. However, if you’re careful about which points you accrue and which transfer partners you utilize, it’s still possible to score some incredible deals and entirely sidestep the day-to-day variability of dynamic pricing.

Featured photo by Fabrizio Gandolfo/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images.

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