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Welcome to “The Critical Points,” a new TPG column. Each month, TPG Senior Points and Miles Contributor Richard Kerr presents his opinion on a loyalty program, card product or recent news that he believes is overlooked, unsung or the result of groupthink taking mass opinion in a direction with which he doesn’t agree. His goal is not necessarily to convince you to agree with his position, but rather to induce critical thought for each of the topics and positions he covers.
The acronyms and vocabulary points and miles insiders use are certainly frustrating for beginners. Along with the never-ending airport codes, credit card slang and loyalty program abbreviations, one of the first terms you probably came across was the rather amusing nickname for Delta SkyMiles: Skypesos.
While I personally think SkyZimbabweanDollars may have been a better choice, most people quickly recognize the name exists due to the perceived lack of value and near-constant inflation of the SkyMiles currency. After Delta exited bankruptcy in April 2007 and the airline sold billions of dollars worth of SkyMiles to American Express in order to secure an influx of cash, the market was quickly flooded with the currency, causing a lack of low-level award availability.
Over the last few years SkyMiles has devalued time and time again. The program has become more opaque at every opportunity, with not only the removal of award charts, but also devaluations with no warning and increased award ticket costs. I too have bemoaned Skypesos for years, completing a few cursory award searches from time to time, seeing only sky-high award redemptions and writing off the program the vast majority of the time.
But that has now all changed. In the last six months, I grudgingly moved back to the Atlanta area, bolstered by proximity to family but dissuaded because convenient flight itineraries now meant traveling with Delta for a majority of my flights (and all the goodness of the Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport). But thanks to being forced to spend some time and effort once again researching the Delta program, I’ve compiled some reasons why the term Skypesos should be out, and why SkyMiles should be back in our good graces.
Go Any Time
I’m a self-admitted miles maximizer. I don’t want to redeem miles unless I’m maximizing every single mile. As such, I used to cast off the previously mentioned Delta marketing bullet point of “no blackout dates for Delta-operated flights” as hogwash. But as I’ve grown a bit older and had kids, what I’ve come to realize is this is truly a valuable aspect of the program. Sure, it can cost you an uncomfortable number of miles, but the option nonetheless exists. If you don’t have the cash but you’ve got the miles (or Amex points), you can get somewhere on short notice without undertaking financial hardship.
My most recent example of this policy coming in handy was an itinerary from Atlanta (ATL) to Las Vegas (LAS) over Memorial Day weekend. Memorial Day happens to be one of the biggest weekends in Vegas, and that means expensive airfare. Indeed, to maximize my time home with family and be in Vegas when I needed, I was staring at $600 round-trip tickets no matter which way I organized the Google Flights search results.
So what were the award options? Well, United had no saver award seats and American wanted two connections and 14 hours of travel time for 30,000 miles each way with AAnytime awards (on a US Airways legacy A321). But look at the mileage Delta wanted (and still wants) for the holiday-weekend flights:
Even if American and United had saver seats, it would be 25,000 miles for a connecting itinerary. I think we can agree it’s worth a 6,500-mile premium for nonstop flights on better aircraft. Swallowing my desire to maximize every mile and instead focus on getting where I need to be is crucial to my moving away from the Skypesos mentality.
See The World in Economy, Almost Anytime
Economy award availability on Delta’s own international flights is good — even borderline fantastic. Let’s look at a few examples of the availability from the US to Europe, South America and Asia with a minimum of four low-level seats on the same flight in a given five-week period:
Atlanta to Paris: 4 Passengers in July/August
Los Angeles to Amsterdam: 6 Passengers in September
Seattle to Santiago, Chile: 4 Passengers in May
Dallas to Tokyo: 4 Passengers in July/August
New York to Paris: 9 (nine!) Passengers in July/August
The number of readers I hear from whose goal is to fly the most luxurious airlines and routes is easily matched by the number who tell me they simply want to get from A to B, in a convenient manner that allows them to see as much of the world as possible. If the latter is your goal and you want your family to fly together, SkyMiles are the answer.
International Partner Redemptions
There are great sweet spots for flying international partners with SkyMiles, especially for flying between multiple non-US destinations. All SkyTeam partners are available for award redemptions, as well as non-alliance partners like Virgin Australia and Air Tahiti Nui. The biggest hurdle to maximizing these redemptions is when the flights do not show up on Delta.com and subsequently require using ExpertFlyer, another SkyTeam website such as Flying Blue or a phone call to find availability.
There’s also no shortcut for time and effort when finding value with SkyMiles. You need to become familiar with the non-published pricing and routes that represent good value. Let’s look at a few examples:
Virgin Australia and Air Tahiti Nui: Melbourne/Sydney – Auckland – Papeete
22,500 miles economy/40,000 miles business one-way
Use Delta.com to find Virgin Australia availability and ExpertFlyer to find Air Tahiti Nui availability, then call SkyMiles to book.
Tokyo – Singapore/Vietnam
22,500 miles economy/40,000 miles partner business/65,000 Delta One one-way
Intra South America on GOL and Aerlineas Argentina
Santiago – Buenos Aires – Rio de Janeiro
12,500 miles economy/25,000 miles business one-way
Auckland – Hong Kong
65,000 miles business one-way
I’m not confident any of the above routes are the best examples of partner redemptions. That’s because I believe there are routes I have yet to find which yield even better value. It could be Transrussia and Eastern Bloc routes operated by Aeroflot, Middle East Airlines and Saudia routes in the Middle East or China Eastern and China Southern flights and their ever-expanding route network. I’m sure there’s even more value hiding within SkyMiles partner redemptions than many of us know.
Hidden City Opportunities
Let’s start with the risks of hidden city ticketing…
- You can’t check a bag
- There’s no guarantee you’ll be routed through your intended destination in the case of irregular operations
- Delta can seek restitution from you if they catch on to you regularly skipping the last segment of your flight
- Delta can blacklist you from flying Delta-operated flights and close your SkyMiles account
For those reasons, you need to carefully consider if the savings represented by booking a hidden city ticket are worth the above risks. Because of those risks, I won’t spell out the routings where the savings exist nor condone these tickets, but I can tell you in a myriad of routings, the savings can be upwards of 30,000 miles each way.
Earn Miles Quickly
American Express and the ability to transfer Membership Rewards to Delta make it equally easy (or easier) to earn SkyMiles compared to other airline miles. 100,000-point Amex bonuses, 70,000-mile Delta co-branded card bonuses and everyday spend cards like the Amex EveryDay Credit Card from American Express mean your path to growing a sizable SkyMiles account is rather easy.
Compare Delta to the other legacy carriers: American doesn’t have a transferable points-earning partner (arguably this could be SPG or Marriott but there are better uses of these points) and Chase Ultimate Rewards cards and United co-branded cards are subject to the infamous 5/24 rule. Also, the number of Amex points earning cards dwarfs the number of Chase Ultimate Rewards earning cards.
Finally, you can earn more SkyMiles from SkyMiles shopping, SkyMiles dining and crediting partner flights to your Delta account. Ironically, the worst way to earn SkyMiles is flying a paid Delta flight thanks to the current revenue-based earning structure.
Welcome Back, SkyMiles
Is SkyMiles the best loyalty program in which you should stockpile miles? Absolutely not. Should you have a stash available to utilize? Definitely. The currency can certainly allow you, your friends and your family to travel together and see the world, partners have valuable redemptions when traveling around the world, you can quickly earn the currency, and if you need to get somewhere in an emergency, you can use the currency to forego a financial burden. The recent promos have also been pretty spectacular and Delta even lowered the miles required for award tickets to Asia. What about these options suggests that this currency is invaluable?
If you hope to hop on Delta.com and immediately find your most desired flight, on the best date, at the lowest amount of miles, you’ll find exactly what you see with American and United: disappointment. If you have the least bit of flexibility, or imagination to utilize SkyTeam partners, you’ll be excited with what you find. Welcome back, SkyMiles.
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- Earn 50,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $625 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®
- Chase Sapphire Preferred named "Best Credit Card for Flexible Travel Redemption" - Kiplinger's Personal Finance, June 2018
- 2X points on travel and dining at restaurants worldwide & 1 point per dollar spent on all other purchases.
- No foreign transaction fees
- 1:1 point transfer to leading airline and hotel loyalty programs
- Get 25% more value when you redeem for airfare, hotels, car rentals and cruises through Chase Ultimate Rewards. For example, 50,000 points are worth $625 toward travel
- No blackout dates or travel restrictions - as long as there's a seat on the flight, you can book it through Chase Ultimate Rewards