8 Delta SkyMiles sweet spots worth saving up for
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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 its mileage program, 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 backward to solve issues and making them feel like more than a number. On the earning and redeeming side, however, it’s slid in the opposite direction.
It was one of the first airlines to pull its public award chart and move to dynamic pricing. In turn, this led to the airline charging stratospheric rates for its most coveted flights, such as Atlanta (ATL) to Johannesburg (JNB) and Los Angeles (LAX) to Sydney (SYD).
To make matters worse, the airline has continually devalued its loyalty program — even during the coronavirus pandemic. In October 2020, the airline increased the price of most partner awards and added mileage surcharges for booking at the last minute. This further reduced the program’s value for those wanting to fly long-haul international flights in partner business class products.
That said, you can still get value from your SkyMiles if you know where to look. In fact, I’ve found that Delta SkyMiles can sometimes be the best miles for very specific redemptions.
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. By the end of this article, you should be able to get far more value.
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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 earn the SkyMiles you need to book them. There are various ways to earn Delta miles, from Delta-operated flights to trips on SkyTeam airlines and non-travel redemptions. 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 three months of account opening. $99 annual fee (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 three months of account opening. Plus, earn a $100 statement credit after making a Delta purchase with your new card within your first three months of account opening. $250 annual fee. (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. $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 three months of account opening.. $99 annual fee (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 three months of account opening. Plus, earn a $100 statement credit after your first Delta purchase on your new card in the first three months of account opening. $250 annual fee (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. $550 annual fee (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: 75,000-point welcome bonus after you use your new card to make $5,000 in purchases in your first six months of account opening, 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 annual airline fee credit and up to $200 annual Uber credit, all for a $550 annual fee (see rates and fees). Terms Apply.
- The Business Platinum Card® from American Express: Earn 85,000 points after you spend $15,000 on eligible purchases within the first three months of account opening. Plus, earn 5x points on eligible purchases in 5 select business categories, up to 80,000 bonus points per category in the first three 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.
This is my favorite way to use SkyMiles. 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 New York (LGA) 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 the date of departure pulls near, you won’t be penalized for booking that same ticket with miles, making Delta an excellent 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.
Flights from the U.S. to Canada
Delta has a large Canadian footprint and a partnership with WestJet, one of Canada’s largest airlines. This gives Delta loyalists many different options for flying to Canada once the border reopens in a post-coronavirus world. Better yet, it offers solid award pricing on these award tickets too. Flights from Newark (EWR) to Vancouver (YVR) start at just 8,000 SkyMiles one-way.
Likewise, New York-JFK to Toronto (YYZ) can be booked starting at just 7,000 SkyMiles. This flight can get expensive when booking at the last minute, so it’s a nice backup plan if you’re planning a no notice trip to Canada’s largest city.
Planning a tour of Canada? You can use miles to book intra-Canada flights too. Unfortunately, this isn’t quite as cheap — on all the dates I searched, all Canadian domestic flights on WestJet cost 12,500 SkyMiles or more. Regardless, this is a great option to have.
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 fair amount of value from SkyMiles.
While the lack of an award chart makes it tough to know if a given price is worthwhile, you can easily do the math to find 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 (LAX) 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.
The airline also occasionally offers discounted international economy tickets with its infamous Flash Sales — we’ll discuss these later!
Related: TPG’s picks for the best economy seats on domestic flights
Fly to Brazil with LATAM
Delta and LATAM recently announced a major partnership. Under this partnership, Delta purchased a large chunk of the South American carrier and LATAM left Oneworld.
Thankfully, LATAM awards are (mostly) unaffected by Delta’s recent partner devaluation, so SkyMiles members can still book LATAM award tickets at reasonable prices. For example, you can use 25,000 SkyMiles to book a one-way economy ticket from Miami (MIA) to Sao Paulo (GRU) on LATAM.
That said, you’ll pay a premium when booking these awards at the last-minute. Try and book at least 60 days before when you have to travel — otherwise, you’ll spend as much as 35,000 miles on the same ticket.
Unfortunately, it isn’t easy to find business class tickets on these routes. In fact, I wasn’t able to find any availability in early 2021. Regardless, 25,000 SkyMiles is a solid deal for an economy flight from the U.S. to Brazil and is something you should consider for a post-coronavirus vacation.
Virgin Atlantic flights to the U.K.
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. Flights from the U.S. to the U.K. have just $5.60 in taxes and fees when booking through Delta.
The downside is that these flights run 95,000 SkyMiles each way in business class when saver space is available. On top of this, you can’t get around the U.K. departure taxes on the way home. These will typically set you back between $200 and $300 for a round-trip itinerary. On the plus side, it lets you indulge in the fantastic Virgin Clubhouse lounges at London–Heathrow (LHR), Los Angeles (LAX), New York-JFK and other major airports worldwide.
Make sure you book these awards early — you’ll pay 170,000 SkyMiles for a business class ticket when booking 21-59 days from departure and a whopping 195,000 SkyMiles when booking less than 21 days out. This is a terrible deal and isn’t something I recommend anyone redeem their hard-earned SkyMiles for.
Another word of advice: don’t start your trip in Europe. Delta tacks on a few extra hundred dollars for flights starting on the continent. This is fine for those based in the States, but it can be incredibly frustrating for Europeans that choose to earn SkyMiles or those booking a one-way ticket home.
To find these Virgin Atlantic flights, 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.
Fly Air France to The Caribbean
Did you know that Air France operates a Caribbean route network from the U.S.? You can fly Air France from Miami (MIA) to Port Au Prince (PAP) and Pointe a Pitre (PTP).
Likewise, the airline operates flights between Caribbean islands. For instance, you can fly from Santo Dominico (SDQ) to Punta Cana (PUJ) on Air France metal.
Pricing is reasonable too. Miami to Pointe a Pitre costs 20,000 SkyMiles in economy and 35,000 in business class.
These flights are generally operated by an Air France A320, so don’t expect anything too special in business class. That said, it’s a great way to fly an international carrier without leaving North America.
Book tickets with Korean Airlines
Ever since Korean Airlines’ SKYPASS program was removed as a Chase Ultimate Rewards transfer partner, it’s been challenging to book reasonably priced Korean Airlines award tickets. And while Delta won’t meet the Korean carrier’s excellent award chart prices, it does offer reasonably priced award tickets on the airline — even in premium cabins.
As of this writing, you can book a nonstop Korean Airlines ticket from New York-JFK to Seoul (ICN) for 102,500 SkyMiles in business class and 40,000 SkyMiles in economy.
This is higher than the 85,000 SkyMiles this award used to require in business class but is an OK deal for Korean Airlines business class.
Better yet, these tickets have less than $7 in taxes and fees, making them an excellent way to travel to Asia.
That said, you will pay a tax surcharge if starting your travels in Korea. A one-way ticket from Seoul to New York costs the same number of miles but costs $41.04 in taxes and fees. This isn’t a huge deal, but it is something worth keeping in mind if you’re mixing and matching carriers when booking a trip to Korea.
This pricing applies to partner award tickets too. For example, you can fly Korean Airlines business class all the way to Hong Kong (HKG) for the same number of miles and only marginally higher taxes and fees. This can be an excellent way to book your next trip to Asia.
Again, you’ll pay a mileage premium when booking these tickets at the last minute. Economy tickets can cost up to 50,000 miles one-way when booking within 21 days of departure. Business-class flights, on the other hand, jump to a huge 120,000 SkyMiles one-way.
Keep an eye out for flash sales
Delta frequently runs published award sales, both for domestic and international flights. In the past, we’ve seen excellent fares to Europe offered through these sales. For example, a 2019 sale that offered round-trip tickets for 16,000 SkyMiles from San Francisco (SFO) to London was one of the best economy deals we’ve ever seen.
These sales are announced a few times per year, though we’ve seen less during the coronavirus outbreak. Keep an eye on Delta’s deals page for more sales. Of course, you can sign-up for the TPG newsletter or follow TPG on Twitter to get notified of these deals as well. We hope to see Delta start to offer them more frequently soon.
Delta isn’t doing you any favors by not publishing an award chart, but it’s possible to get far more than one cent per point in value. For the best redemptions, keep an eye on the airline’s award flash sales, book low-cost domestic flights and utilize the airline’s partners when it makes sense.
If you can’t get great value out of your miles for an upcoming trip, save them for next time. There’s no use in spending 200,000 SkyMiles for a New York to Los Angeles flight when you can redeem 95,000 for a business class flight to London later down the line. Use another type of miles or pay cash when it doesn’t make sense to use your SkyMiles.
Additional reporting by Darren Murph and Carissa Rawson.
Featured photo by Sean Pavone/Shutterstock.
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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