Best sweet spots with Delta SkyMiles
This post contains references to products from one or more of our advertisers. We may receive compensation when you click on links to those products. Terms apply to the offers listed on this page. For an explanation of our Advertising Policy, visit this page.
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.
For more TPG news delivered each morning to your inbox, sign up for our daily newsletter.
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):
- Delta SkyMiles® Blue American Express Card: Earn 10,000 miles after you spend $500 on purchases in the first three months of account opening. No annual fee (see rates and fees).
- 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. Annual fee $99 (waived the first year, see rates and fees).
- Delta SkyMiles® Platinum American Express Card: Earn 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. Annual fee $250 (see rates and fees).
- Delta SkyMiles® Reserve American Express Card: Earn 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. Annual fee $550 (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. Annual fee $99 (waived the first year, see rates and fees).
- Delta SkyMiles® Platinum Business American Express Card: Earn 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. Annual fee $250 (see rates and fees)
- Delta SkyMiles® Reserve Business American Express Card: Earn 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. Annual fee $550 (see rates and fees).
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:
- The Platinum Card® from American Express: 60,000-point welcome bonus after you use your new card to make $5,000 in purchases in your first three months, though be sure to check the CardMatch Tool to see if you’re targeted for a 100,000-point welcome bonus (offer subject to change at any time). The card also provides Sky Club access when flying Delta along with an up to $200 airline fee credit and up to $200 Uber credit, all for a $550 annual fee (see rates and fees). Terms Apply.
- The Business Platinum Card® from American Express: Earn 75,000 points after you spend $15,000 on qualifying purchases within the first 3 months of account opening. The card also includes Sky Club access and a wealth of other perks that can largely cover the $595 annual fee (see rates and fees). Terms Apply.
Short-haul flights in the U.S.
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 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.
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
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.)
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.
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.
WELCOME OFFER: 60,000 Points
TPG'S BONUS VALUATION*: $1,200
CARD HIGHLIGHTS: 2X points on all travel and dining, points transferrable to over a dozen travel partners
*Bonus value is an estimated value calculated by TPG and not the card issuer. View our latest valuations here.
- Earn 60,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $750 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®
- 2X points on travel and dining at restaurants worldwide & 1 point per dollar spent on all other purchases.
- Get 25% more value when you redeem for airfare, hotels, car rentals and cruises through Chase Ultimate Rewards. For example, 60,000 points are worth $750 toward travel
- Get unlimited deliveries with a $0 delivery fee and reduced service fees on orders over $12 for a minimum of one year on qualifying food purchases with DashPass, DoorDash's subscription service. Activate by 12/31/21.
- Earn 5X points on Lyft rides through March 2022. That’s 3X points in addition to the 2X points you already earn on travel.