How to redeem miles with the Delta SkyMiles program
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If you’ve kept up with the points and miles game over the past few years, you’ve probably heard Delta SkyMiles called “SkyPesos” at least once. This term is frequently used as the derisive name of the carrier’s currency thanks to unannounced devaluations and the removal of award charts in 2015, making the price of awards predictably unpredictable (and sometimes comically expensive).
But fear not: If you find yourself with a stash of Delta SkyMiles, they’re nowhere near worthless. In fact, there are still some solid redemptions available, especially when Delta runs one of its regular award sales. Delta even won the best airline loyalty program at the 2019 TPG awards.
Limited-time offers: Up to 100,000 miles on select Delta credit cards
With that in mind, today I’ll take a detailed look at how to redeem your Delta SkyMiles for optimal value. We’ll cover how to redeem for both Delta and partner flights and discuss using miles for merchandise. Let’s jump in!
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Redeem on Delta flights
As you’d expect, you can redeem your Delta SkyMiles for Delta, Delta Connection and Delta Shuttle flights. However, as noted earlier, Delta removed its online award charts in early 2015. This means that you must search for your award on Delta’s website (or call customer service) to get an accurate price.
Unfortunately, these prices change frequently based on the flight, the date, the number of people booking and other factors. Take a look at this week-long snapshot of availability in October/November for one-way award flights from New York-JFK to Chicago-O’Hare (ORD):
As you can see, prices vary from 8,500 miles to 40,000 miles for a one-way award flight. That level of price volatility is normal by Delta standards. Even individual flights on these dates have a wide range of prices. As a result, flexibility can save you a boatload of SkyMiles, so make sure to check all times for the best available price.
One big positive about this type of dynamic pricing is that Delta will frequently offer award flights below the “standard” rate of 12,500 miles each way. Booking the above route on an American-operated flight booked through the AAdvantage program would set you back at least 12,500 miles. Three of the above dates have rates at less than half those amounts.
Unfortunately, Delta did start rolling out Basic Economy on award tickets last year and expanded it in early 2019, so the lowest-priced awards will often book into this restrictive fare class. That’s great for those looking to minimize their mileage usage but not so great for those travelers who want added flexibility and perks on their tickets.
Taxes and fees are generally reasonable on Delta tickets. Expect to pay minimal taxes and fees on domestic tickets and international tickets departing the U.S. However, Delta does add carrier-imposed surcharges on many awards that start outside the U.S., most notably out of Europe.
Keep an eye out for SkyMiles Deals
One of the best ways to redeem SkyMiles is by booking a SkyMiles Deal (to which Delta has now dedicated an entire site). Delta posts these deals to its website on a regular basis, and they can offer deep discounts on tickets in both economy class and Delta One. These deals are generally between specific city pairs, so you may need to book your own connecting tickets.
Here’s a sample of recent offers:
We’ve seen a rash of award sales to destinations all over the globe. Here are some of the most notable (all prices were for round-trip flights):
- 20,000 miles to Europe
- 12,000 miles domestically
- 44,000 miles to Japan
- 86,000 miles for Delta One to Europe
If you have no immediate use for your SkyMiles, you may be best off saving them for the next big SkyMiles Deal — and be sure you’re following us on Twitter and Facebook to learn about these deals as soon as they launch.
Redeem on partner flights
Delta is a part of the SkyTeam alliance and also has a number of non-alliance partners like Virgin Atlantic and WestJet. This means that you can redeem your SkyMiles on a number of different carriers and routes worldwide. Here’s Delta’s full list of airline partners:
- Aerolineas Argentina
- Air Europa
- Air France
- China Airlines
- China Eastern
- Czech Airlines
- Garuda Indonesia
- Kenya Airways
- KLM Royal Dutch Airlines
- Korean Air
- Vietnam Airlines
- Xiamen Air
- Air Tahiti Nui
- GOL Airlines
- Hawaiian Airlines
- Mandarin Airlines
- Shanghai Airlines
- Virgin Atlantic
- Virgin Australia
Fortunately, partner award tickets are not priced the same way as Delta tickets, as they do have a set price despite the lack of online award charts. For example, here’s an award search for a nonstop, business-class flight from New York-JFK to Shanghai (PVG), a route operated solely by partner airline China Eastern:
That being said, without award charts, Delta can choose to raise these rates at any time (and the carrier has done that several times). To get an estimate on a Delta partner ticket, you’ll need to either call Delta directly or search its website for an up-to-date award price.
Delta has been enhancing its website to display partner awards, and at the time of writing, you can book virtually all SkyTeam and non-alliance carriers directly online. However, the site isn’t great at piecing together mixed-cabin itineraries and will often “force” you into Delta-operated flights, so we’d encourage you to search segment-by-segment — and be prepared to call if Delta.com won’t construct the trip you need.
Redeem for upgrades
Another way to redeem your SkyMiles is for upgrades to the next class of service, though be forewarned: The exact details can be very complicated. The simplest method was actually just launched at the end of 2018. When you have a confirmed ticket on Delta, you should now have the option to pay cash or use miles to upgrade your flight directly through Delta.com. However, the value of these redemptions are generally pegged to roughly 1 cent per mile, lower than TPG’s most recent valuation of Delta miles at 1.2 cents apiece. If you’re swimming in SkyMiles and don’t have any planned use for them, this might make sense, but personally I’d recommend sticking with the full award flights options noted above.
In addition, you can also redeem your miles to upgrade certain flights operated by Air France, KLM, Virgin Atlantic or Aeromexico. However, there are specific fare-class requirements, and this option is limited to select routes operated by each carrier, so be sure to check Delta’s upgrade with miles page for more details. You’ll also want to make sure there’s upgrade inventory available, but fortunately all four of these carriers publish business-class award inventory on ExpertFlyer (owned by TPG’s parent company, Red Ventures) making it easy to search and set alerts if the seats you need aren’t available at time of booking.
Redeem for rental cars, hotels and merchandise
Like most airline mileage programs, you can redeem your SkyMiles for many things other than flights, including gift cards, Apple products, cruises, car rentals, hotel rooms and even for experiences via auction. However, these redemptions will almost always yield a lower return than when redeeming SkyMiles for air travel on Delta or one of its many partners.
To illustrate this, I priced out a one-day car rental in Chicago through the SkyMiles Marketplace. An economy car through Alamo costs 10,437 miles. The same car rental booked directly through the Alamo website costs $48.17, giving you a value of just 0.46 cents per mile — less than half of TPG’s valuation.
SkyMiles Marketplace redemptions will vary from redemption to redemption, but it’s almost less than the value you’d get by booking Delta- or partner-operated award flights. Here at TPG, we always recommend using your miles for the maximum value, so if you can, redeem for flights.
Earning Delta miles
Of course, any of the above redemptions require you to have SkyMiles in your account, and there are many ways to boost your Delta account balance. One of the easiest is through the carrier’s cobranded American Express credit cards (terms apply):
- Delta SkyMiles® Blue American Express Card: 10,000 miles after you spend $500 on purchases in the first three months of account opening.
- Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card: Earn 35,000 bonus miles after you spend $1,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months. $0 introductory annual fee for the first year, then $99 (see rates and fees)
- Delta SkyMiles® Platinum American Express Card: 40,000 bonus miles and 5,000 Medallion Qualification Miles (MQMs) after you spend $2,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months. Plus, earn a $100 statement credit after you make a Delta purchase with your new Card within your first 3 months. $250 annual fee (see rates and fees)
- Delta SkyMiles® Reserve American Express Card: 40,000 bonus miles and 10,000 Medallion® Qualification Miles (MQMs) after you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first three months of account opening. $550 annual fee (see rates and fees)
- Delta SkyMiles® Gold Business American Express Card: Earn 40,000 bonus miles after you spend $2,000 in purchases on your new Card in the first 3 months. $0 introductory annual fee for the first year, then $99 (see rates and fees)
- Delta SkyMiles® Platinum Business American Express Card: 45,000 bonus miles and 5,000 Medallion® Qualification Miles (MQMs) after you spend $3,000 in purchases on your new Card in the first 3 months. Plus, earn a $100 Statement Credit after your first Delta purchase on your new Card in the first 3 months. $250 annual fee (see rates and fees)
- Delta SkyMiles® Reserve Business American Express Card: 45,000 bonus miles and 10,000 Medallion® Qualification Miles (MQMs) after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first three months of account opening. $550 annual fee (see rates and fees)
Despite Delta SkyMiles losing value over the last few years, there are still many great deals you can book. The program has been marching towards a set redemption value of 1 cent per mile, but you can still easily outstrip that, especially for premium-class awards on partner airlines. I highly recommend keeping an eye out for cheap domestic tickets and SkyMiles Deals to get the most bang for your miles, as doing this may actually save you miles when compared to other mileage programs.
Featured photo by Emily McNutt/The Points Guy.
For rates and fees of the Delta SkyMiles Gold Card, please click here.
For rates and fees of the Delta SkyMiles Reserve Card, please click here.
For rates and fees of the Delta SkyMiles Platinum Card, please click here.
For rates and fees of the Delta SkyMiles Gold Business Card, please click here.
For rates and fees of the Delta SkyMiles Reserve Business Card, please click here.
For rates and fees of the Delta SkyMiles Platinum Business Card, please click here.