Maximizing Delta's Award Routing Rules
Delta was the first US legacy carrier to shift to a revenue based frequent flyer program back in 2015, including the introduction (and then increase) of spending thresholds for elite status. The airline followed that by eliminating round-the-world awards and instituting major award-chart devaluations. Then even further devaluations, plus more devaluations and price hikes. All of this was partly enabled by its 2015 decision to stop publishing award charts altogether.
Over the course of a couple years, it has became more complex and more expensive than ever to book Delta awards. That makes knowing the rules of the carrier's program even more imperative so that you can continue to reap value from your SkyMiles. The program even took home the inaugural TPG Award for best US frequent flyer program, so clearly its members are getting some solid awards. To that end, this article is going to look closely at the rules for booking SkyMiles awards, including partner airlines, award fees, mileage and regional restrictions and more.
Although many people think of award tickets as "free," there are actually all kinds of fees associated with booking trips using your miles. It pays to know what these fees are, who is subject to them, and how much to budget for them in advance. Here is Delta's page explaining award fees, but we'll get into the specifics below.
Award redeposit/reissue fee: When you need to change (and reissue) an award ticket or need to cancel one outright, be prepared to fork over $150 per ticket. However, this fee is waived for Platinum and Diamond Medallions when using their own miles. Bear in mind too that award tickets are non-refundable if you need to cancel or change them within 72 hours of the original flight departure time. If you do need cancel or change your award, be sure to do it outside that window.
That being said, Delta is also one of the most notorious carriers for schedule changes if you've booked an award ticket months in advance. You may be able to avoid these fees and change your ticket to a better routing if a schedule change is significant enough.
Close-in booking fee: Delta really delivers here since it does not charge close-in booking fees for flights within 21 days, like many of its competitors do. The fact that you don’t have to pay any fees for a last-minute booking is a big plus. Just beware that, as mentioned above, if you want to cancel your award ticket and get your miles back, you must do so 72 hours or more in advance of travel, or you lose your miles.
Taxes, fees and surcharges: Award tickets booked with SkyMiles are subject to any government-imposed taxes, and you'll also need to pay additional surcharges for select partners. However, the most pernicious aspect of Delta's pricing involves the "International Originating Surcharge" included above. Depending on your departure city, this could add hundreds of dollars to your flight.
Delta is a member of the SkyTeam alliance, so you can earn and redeem miles on the following airline partners. Remember, you now earn miles based both on the fare class of your ticket and the specific airline partner you're flying.
- Aerolineas Argentinas
- Air Europa
- Air France
- China Airlines
- China Eastern
- Czech Airlines
- Garuda Indonesia
- Kenya Airways
- Korean Air
- Middle East Airlines (MEA)
- Vietnam Airlines
Here are Delta’s non-alliance partners:
- Air Tahiti Nui
- China Southern
- Hawaiian Airlines
- Jet Airways
- Shanghai Airlines
- Virgin Atlantic
- Virgin Australia
The nice thing about Delta is that you can book awards on most of these partners online at Delta.com.
Award Charts and Pricing
As I mentioned above, Delta no longer publishes award charts. I tend to use this chart on Travel Is Free as a (very) rough guide since it's not updated regularly, but it does give you an idea of how many miles you might need on certain routes. Sometimes. And not always accurately on partners. The airline seems to have thrown the old zone-based award system out the window (at least for its own flights) and now prices award-mileage requirements based loosely on current airfares and other factors. That's why we're seeing awards for the new Delta One Suites going for as much as 465,000 SkyMiles one-way in some cases.
Since there's no chart to which you can refer, the carrier can charge what it wants, when it wants, hardly a consumer-friendly approach.
Delta's rules on award tickets tend to be straightforward, and the introduction of variable pricing seems to have made booking even complex awards a bit easier ... albeit much more expensive.
One Ways, Open Jaws and Stopovers
A few years ago, Delta only allowed round-trip and open-jaw awards on which you could book stopovers (stays of over four hours domestically, or 24 hours internationally, in a city that was not your final destination). When SkyMiles opened up one-way awards in 2015, however, the stopover possibility was eliminated. Now, you'll just be billed for each flight separately.
For example, you used to be able to do something like flying from New York (JFK) to Paris (CDG) on Air France and stopover there for a few days then continue on to Rome (FCO) as your destination. You could catch a cruise from there that ended in Athens (ATH), from which you could fly as your open jaw back to New York (JFK). All for the price of a single round-trip award. Now, however, you'd have to book New York to Paris, Paris to Rome and Athens to New York all separately, which is bound to cost more miles.
On the plus side, with the advent of dynamic pricing, Delta does seem to have introduced some award flash sales and a lot more on economy awards that can be great deals.
Maximum Permitted Mileage
Like other airlines, Delta has Maximum Permitted Mileage (MPM) amounts for various city pairs. According to the SkyMiles Rules & Conditions: "For international Award Travel, if a published routing does not exist between two cities or service is not offered via a published routing, travel must be within the maximum permitted mileage. Completely open tickets will not be issued."
The MPM is not the actual distance between city pairs. Rather, it is a number that includes the possibility of connecting flights, which puts it at around 10% more miles than direct service in most cases, and it can be different if you route via the Atlantic or the Pacific. That means if there’s not a flight between two cities, you can book multiple segments that route through airports other than your origin and destination in order to complete travel. However, the entire distance of your itinerary must fall within Delta's maximum permitted mileage for that city pair.
Here’s where things get a bit complicated. Delta doesn’t publish its maximum permitted mileage numbers between various cities. To find out what they are, you find out the MPM for routes either by calling the airline directly, or by subscribing to ExpertFlyer.
To see the MPM for a route you're interested in, log into your ExpertFlyer account and go to the Travel Information tab on the left-hand side. Then select Maximum Permitted Mileage.
Enter your city pairs and airline, and the search will generate the MPM for you. For example, let's use New York-JFK to New Delhi (DEL). According to ExpertFlyer, the MPM for that route is 9,543 miles via the Atlantic (i.e. Europe), or just 8,752 via the Pacific (i.e. Asia).
As a result, you'll be able to route via Amsterdam (AMS) on KLM, London-Heathrow (LHR) on Virgin Atlantic, Moscow (SVO) on Aeroflot or Paris (CDG) on Air France. However, due to the mileage restriction, routings via Taipei (TPE) on China Airlines or Shanghai (PVG) on China Eastern are out because they're way over the MPM.
If we look at the MPM for Los Angeles (LAX) to Delhi (DEL) instead, that ends up being 12,031 miles via the Atlantic and 9,603 via the Pacific, which opens up more options. Flying via Taipei (TPE) would only be 9,520 miles and via Shanghai (PVG) would be 9,155 miles, both of which fall well under the maximum permitted mileage between those two cities. In addition, many routings via Europe fall within these parameters as well.
And in fact, if we do a quick award search, we'll come up with flights both via Europe on Air France and KLM...
And also via Asia on a combination of Delta and China Eastern.
Paying attention to your origin/destination and MPMs can have a big impact on your travel plans.
Married Segment Logic
There's one final aspect of booking Delta award flights that bears mentioning: the (relatively new) married segment logic the program uses. This is especially applicable to more veteran award travelers who, over the years, became accustomed to searching for awards segment by segment. Delta's website wasn't always able to piece together an award with one or more connections, but if you could find two individual flights with low-level award tickets, you could generally call to have an agent combine the two into a single, low-level itinerary.
That's no longer the case, as the SkyMiles system typically must see those flights as "married" in order to combine them. If not, you'll likely be left paying for two separate awards.
You may still want to search for award tickets by segment to get a feel for what's available, but don't expect to use this to your advantage when it comes time to pull the trigger.
Airline mileage programs are complicated enough, even without factoring in elements like maximum permitted mileage and stopover policies. However, by educating yourself on the ins and outs of each program's award routing rules, you can save yourself a lot of time and effort when searching for awards, not to mention miles when it comes time to redeem.
Delta's SkyMiles program in particular has undergone a lot of devaluations and other major changes, including the deletion of its award charts and the institution of somewhat dynamic pricing, all of which make it harder to determine what awards will be available and how much they'll cost when they are. But by familiarizing yourself with the program's rules and irregularities, you stand a better chance of booking the awards you want for a price you can accept.
Do you have any tips for maximizing Delta's award routing rules? Share them in the comments below!