Best sweet spots with Delta SkyMiles

Feb 6, 2020

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Editor’s note: This post has been updated with the latest credit card information and benefits. It was most recently published on Aug. 19, 2019.

Delta SkyMiles was voted the Best U.S. Airline Loyalty Program by readers two years running in the TPG Awards. And while the loyalty program can sometimes get a bad rap for miles sometimes seeming unusable, TPG’s Loyalty and Engagement Editor Richard Kerr addressed the overlooked sweet spots of the SkyMiles program on the Talking Points Podcast. Domestic award flights can provide great value and are readily available.

In many ways, it’s a two-faced program. On the customer experience side, Delta has made great strides in treating its Medallion members well, bending over backwards to solve issues and making them feel like more than a number. On the earning and redeeming side, however, it has slid in the opposite direction.

By yanking its public award chart and charging stratospheric rates for its most coveted flights such as Atlanta (ATL) to Johannesburg (JNB) and Los Angeles (LAX) to Sydney (SYD), Delta hasn’t exactly won the hearts of value-minded points aficionados. Yet, Delta is recording record sign-ups for both its SkyMiles program as well as its assortment of cobranded American Express cards.

Many travelers are voting with their wallets to stick with Delta for its on-time performance, modern fleet and overall experience, which means they’ll need to dig deeper to find great value for the SkyMiles they earn. In this guide, we’ll spotlight a few of our favorite ways to get outsized value from SkyMiles. Remember that Delta values each SkyMile at roughly 1 cent if used for things like seat upgrades, and TPG pegs them at 1.2 cents apiece.

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Boosting your SkyMiles balance

Of course, before you can even start thinking about the below sweet spots, it’s critical to actually earn the SkyMiles you need to book them. There are a variety of ways to earn Delta miles, from Delta-operated flights to trips on SkyTeam airlines to various non-travel partners. However, one of the best ways to boost your SkyMiles balance to score a few trips is by adding one of the cards below to your arsenal (terms apply):

Related: Choosing the best credit card for Delta flyers

You could also pick up one of the following American Express Membership Rewards-earning cards, as the points transfer to Delta at a 1:1 ratio:

Related: Redeeming American Express Membership Rewards for maximum value

Short-haul flights in the U.S.

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Delta aircraft at LaGuardia Airport. (Photo by Darren Murph /The Points Guy.)

It’s far from glamorous, but sometimes you just need a weekend getaway. Delta has been on a tear of late with SkyMiles flash sales, and many of them target flights in the 500- to 1,500-mile range. Flights such as San Francisco (SFO) to Seattle (SEA), Austin (AUS) to Los Angeles (LAX), Boston (BOS) to Nashville (BNA) and Seattle (SEA) to Chicago-O’Hare (ORD) can routinely be found for around 10,000 SkyMiles round-trip.

To sweeten the deal, Delta does not charge close-in fees to book SkyMiles award tickets within days or weeks of departure. In other words, as cash fares skyrocket when a date of departure pulls near, you won’t be penalized for booking that same ticket with miles, making Delta a great option for last-minute award tickets.

Not only is 10,000 SkyMiles easy to earn through a welcome bonus attached to a new credit card, but these short-haul flights can be fairly pricey when looking at cash rates. Many are frequented by business travelers, and Delta knows it. Thus, they nudge the prices up accordingly. The higher the cash price compared to the mileage price, the better the redemption value.

Virgin Atlantic flights to the UK

Virgin Atlantic Dreamliner at SFO. (Photo by Alberto Riva/The Points Guy.)

Virgin Atlantic is well-known for its horrendous fuel surcharges on award flights when booking direct. However, you can book those same Virgin Atlantic flights using your Delta SkyMiles balance to avoid them. The downside is that these flights still run 86,000 SkyMiles each way in business class, and you can’t get around the UK departure taxes, which typically set you back between $200 and $300 for a round-trip itinerary.

That said, it does allow you to indulge in the fantastic Virgin Clubhouse at London–Heathrow (LHR). One other note here — avoid originating your trip in Europe, as Delta tacks on a few extra hundred dollars for flights starting on the continent. To find these flights, just use the booking engine at Delta.com and look for flights with a “VS” operator code. You can also search for Virgin Atlantic award space on ExpertFlyer, which is owned by TPG’s parent company, Red Ventures.

Related: How to search award availability for the major airlines

Long-Haul Economy Flights

The longer the flight, the more noticeable the increase in legroom, seat width and service. If you’re okay sitting in coach for four or more hours, you can extract a good amount of value from SkyMiles. While the lack of an award chart makes it tough to know if a given price is solid or not, you can easily do the math on your redemption value by looking at what it’d cost to buy that same flight with cash.

For example, Delta’s cheapest round-trip fare on this flight between Orlando (MCO) and Los Angeles (SFO) in the above example is $221.

You can opt to use miles for this cross-country jaunt and spend just 16,500 SkyMiles plus $11.20 in taxes and fees. That’s not the kind of value you’d stop to call your mom over, but it’s still a solid bargain to cover some 4,200 total flight miles.

Here’s an example of Delta selling a round-trip, nonstop itinerary between New York-JFK and London (LHR) for just 26,000 SkyMiles plus $192 in taxes and fees. That breaks down to just 13,000 SkyMiles each way.

If you sign up for newsletters from Delta, you’ll frequently see long-haul flash sales such as a recent one to Japan for 30,000 SkyMiles round-trip. And of course, you can sign-up for the TPG newsletter or follow TPG on Twitter to get notified of these deals as well.

Flying to Tahiti, French Polynesia

Air France Boeing 777-200 in PPT (loading)
Air France’s Boeing 777-200 parked at PPT. (Photo by Darren Murph/The Points Guy.)

While Delta doesn’t fly its own metal to one of the most picturesque locales in the world, you can use SkyMiles to access French Polynesia. SkyTeam partner Air France flies between Los Angeles (LAX) and Papeete (PPT) thrice weekly, and you can use miles to book this flight with Delta.

I’ve used SkyMiles to book a complete itinerary that began with a Delta positioning flight to LAX and continued on to Tahiti. (Be sure to read our reviews of the premium economy and business-class products on Air France’s Boeing 777, the plane utilized on this route.)

Hilton Moorea Lagoon Resort and Spa - sitting on overwater bungalow porch
If you use your SkyMiles wisely, this could be you hanging at the Hilton Moorea. (Photo by Darren Murph /The Points Guy.)

But that’s not your only mileage option to Tahiti — there’s a lesser-known partner in Air Tahiti Nui that’s worth considering as well. Delta’s partnership with Air Tahiti Nui is essentially identical to that of American, as you can only redeem your SkyMiles on Air Tahiti Nui’s flights.

These flights rarely, if ever, show up on Delta.com, so I’d recommend phoning up Delta’s reservation line with a few hours of leisure time and play with potential dates. Delta’s agents will have to “long-sell” into Air Tahiti Nui’s inventory and wait for a response. While data points vary on how many SkyMiles are required, I booked a round-trip to Tahiti from Raleigh–Durham (RDU) last year for 125,000 SkyMiles in coach. That tally includes my flights to and from North Carolina; the cost would’ve been much lower if I lived in Los Angeles.

Note that both Air France and Air Tahiti Nui appear on ExpertFlyer as well, so you can search for award inventory there first. Any economy or business class awards displayed there should be bookable using SkyMiles.

Related: How points and miles helped my family book a dream vacation to Bora Bora

Bottom line

Delta isn’t doing you any favors by not publishing an award chart, and its persistence in pegging the value of a SkyMile to a single cent makes it tough to realize outsized value from your collection. That said, those who keep an eye on the airline’s award flash sales can find great values, and Delta’s decision to not charge a close-in fee for last-minute award bookings is appreciated.

One of the bigger lessons to learn with redeeming SkyMiles is patience. If you can’t get great value out of your miles for an upcoming trip, bite the bullet and pay cash (or use another airline) and hold your miles a little longer. While it may be frustrating in the short term, a bit of hoarding is necessary to eventually score a redemption to a slice of paradise.

Additional reporting by Carissa Rawson.

Featured photo by Darren Murph/The Points Guy.

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

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