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Delta’s SkyMiles was voted the Best US Airline Loyalty Program by readers in the inaugural TPG Awards. 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, so we strive to find redemptions that net you at least 2 to 3 cents per SkyMile used.
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 free trips is by adding one of the cards below to your arsenal.
- Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express: Earn 30,000 Bonus Miles after you make $1,000 in purchases on your new card within your first three months and a $50 statement credit after you make a Delta purchase with your new card within your first three months. Earn 2x SkyMiles miles on Delta purchases and 1 mile elsewhere. Enjoy perks like a checked bag fee waiver, priority boarding and 20% off in-flight purchases (in the form of a statement credit), and the $95 annual fee is waived for the first year (See Rates & Fees).
- Platinum Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express: 35,000 Bonus Miles + 5,000 Medallion® Qualification Miles (MQMs) after you use your new card to make $1,000 in purchases within your first 3 months and a $100 Statement Credit after you make a Delta purchase with your new card within your first 3 months. Earn 2x SkyMiles miles on Delta purchases and 1 mile elsewhere. Enjoy an annual companion ticket plus bonus MQMs for reaching certain spending thresholds along with the same in-flight benefits as the Gold Delta Amex, all for a $195 annual fee (See Rates & Fees)
- Delta Reserve® Credit Card from American Express: Earn 40,000 bonus miles and 10,000 MQMs after you spend $3,000 in purchases on your new card in your the first three months. Earn 2x SkyMiles miles on Delta purchases and 1 mile elsewhere. The card comes with SkyClub access, an annual companion ticket in first class and bonus MQMs through spending and additional in-flight perks, though the annual fee is $450 (See Rates & Fees).
- The Platinum Card® from American Express ($550 annual fee; See Rates & Fees); 60,000-point welcome bonus after you use your new card to make $5,000 in purchases in your first 3 months, though be sure to check the CardMatch Tool to see if you’re targeted for a 100,000-point welcome bonus (you can transfer Membership Rewards points directly to Delta SkyMiles; offer subject to change at anytime).
- The Business Platinum® Card from American Express ($595 annual fee; See Rates & Fees); 50,000-point welcome bonus after you spend $10,000 and an extra 25,000 points after you spend an additional $10,000 all on qualifying purchases within your first 3 months of card membership
Short-Haul Flights in the US
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 most 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.
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 4+ 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 San Francisco (SFO) in the above example is $324.
You can opt to use miles for this cross-country jaunt and spend just 18,000 SkyMiles plus $11.20 in taxes and fees, representing a value of nearly 2 cents per mile. 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 44,000 SkyMiles plus $182 in taxes/fees. That breaks down to just 22,000 SkyMiles each way.
If you sign up for newsletters from Delta, you’ll frequently see long haul flash such such as a recent one to Australia for 44,000 SkyMiles round-trip and Africa for 54,000 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 less 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.
Flying to the Maldives
Newer to the game is a way to redeem SkyMiles for flights to Velana International Airport, also known as Malé International Airport (MLE). Now, just because we classify a trip as a sweet spot doesn’t mean it’s cheap — it means it’s a solid value.
In this case, it’s by leveraging Air France’s seasonal flights between its hub at Paris–Charles de Gaulle (CDG) and the Maldives. While this route was traditionally operated by Boeing 777-200ER in the past, it appears that the carrier is now using a 787-9 Dreamliner, and service kicks back into service at the start of November. We spotlighted a deal offering a one-way business class seat from practically anywhere in the United States to Male for 100,000 SkyMiles (or 50,000 SkyMiles in economy) when it first launched, but now we’re seeing flights price even lower than that:
One-way business class tickets from the United States to the Maldives via Delta and its SkyTeam partners range from around $3,800 to $10,000. If you land on the right award price, you can cash in a large chunk of SkyMiles for outsized value (upwards of 5 cents per mile) on a trip that many would consider once-in-a-lifetime.
Of course, getting to this island paradise is just part of the equation; you’ll also need to find a place to stay once you’re there. For tips on how to do so on the cheap, check out our guide to points hotels in the Maldives.
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 100,000-mile redemption to a slice of Indian Ocean paradise.
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 Gold Delta SkyMiles card, please click here.
For rates and fees of the Platinum Delta SkyMiles card, click here.
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