Why Delta is my go-to airline for last-minute domestic flights

Sep 6, 2021

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I know I’m not alone when I say that Delta Air Lines is my favorite U.S. domestic carrier.

The airline has a solid onboard product, and it has always treated me well when there’s been any hiccup in operations. And as a Platinum Medallion member, I’ve scored countless upgrades on domestic flights this summer — so all in all, it’s an excellent experience for my situation.

My only gripe with the carrier is its mileage program, SkyMiles. It’s hard to deny that the program has been severely devalued over the years, with sky-high international award prices and ever-devaluing partner award prices. That said, I have found one excellent use case: last-minute, domestic award tickets.

I redeem most of my SkyMiles this way, and it’s saved me countless dollars over the years. During the pandemic, almost all of my personal domestic trips are booked at the last minute (think less than 10 days in advance) due to changing regulations and variable COVID-19 case numbers.

Let’s take a closer look at why I love using Delta SkyMiles for last-minute domestic awards — and how I look at SkyMiles.

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In This Post

Award prices are great on the flights I book most

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

Let’s start with the most important point: Delta has great award pricing on the last-minute routes I fly most.

For example, I was recently able to book a one-way nonstop ticket from New York-JFK to San Francisco (SFO) in Main Cabin economy for 22,000 SkyMiles one-way. I booked the ticket two days prior to departure, while carriers like United were jacking up their award prices to capitalize on last minute bookings.

This isn’t a one-off occurrence either. Right now, I can book the same route two days in advance for just 18,000 SkyMiles one-way.

JFK to SFO SkyMiles award ticket
(Screenshot courtesy of delta.com)

If you read my articles often, you know that I fly between New York City and Chicago on a regular basis to visit friends and family. Oftentimes, these trips come up with less than a week’s notice, when cash fares can be quite expensive.

Luckily for me, Delta often offers the best redemptions on this route when booking at the last minute. At the time of writing this article, I can book a one-way ticket from New York (LGA) to Chicago-O’Hare (ORD) for as few as 7,500 SkyMiles just seven days in advance. Plus, prices rise moderately to 9,500 SkyMiles even closer to the departure date.

LGA ORD SkyMiles award ticket
(Screenshot courtesy of delta.com)

Looking ten days out from departure, I can book a one-way ticket from New York (LGA) to Detroit (DTW) for just 8,500 SkyMiles.

LGA to DTW SkyMiles award ticket
(Screenshot courtesy of delta.com)

But that’s not to say that these award tickets get the best redemption value, per se. Each of these gets me roughly 1.2 cents per mile in value, which is slightly more than TPG’s valuation of 1.1 cents per mile. At the same time, however, this is money I don’t have to spend, and it lets me put my otherwise-unused SkyMiles to work.

You can get a better redemption value when booking early

While I usually book at the last minute, you can get an even better value for your SkyMiles when you book in advance.

Say I need to fly to Chicago for a friend’s birthday, and I book my ticket a month-and-a-half out. Delta awards start at 4,500 SkyMiles in basic economy or 6,500 in Main Cabin. Even domestic first class is a good deal at 17,000 SkyMiles one-way.

LGA to ORD SkyMiles advance booking award ticket
(Screenshot courtesy of delta.com)

This same ticket costs $94 in Main Cabin, giving me 1.35 cents per mile in value. This isn’t the world’s greatest redemption by any means, but it gives me 0.25 cents per point more in value when TPG’s valuation.

(Screenshot courtesy of google.com/flights)

This trend continues when looking at other routes too. On average, you should get between 1.3 and 1.35 cents per point when booking domestic flights in advance, and 1.25 to 1.3 cents per point in value when booking at the last minute. To me, both are good redemptions since I don’t have to pay more than $5.60 out of pocket, and they’re higher than TPG’s valuation.

Generally, this is a higher value than international awards

Further, domestic awards through SkyMiles usually yield a higher value than international awards.

Delta is famous for its insane award pricing — think 320,000 miles for a one-way ticket Europe in Delta One business class. It used to be a better deal when flying Delta partners like Air France or Virgin Atlantic across the pond, but Delta has massively devalued these awards. A one-way transatlantic partner ticket in business class costs 120,000 miles at a minimum.

Given these high award rates, you don’t generally get a great value for your SkyMiles on these flights. A one-way Virgin Atlantic ticket from New York-JFK to London-Heathrow (LHR) booked nearly three months in advance costs 35,000 SkyMiles in economy or 70,000 in premium economy. Both awards charge $5.60 in taxes and fees.

Virgin Atlantic JFK to LHR SkyMiles award prices
(Screenshot courtesy of delta.com)

The same ticket costs roughly $682 in premium economy. Since I generally avoid transatlantic economy flights, the premium economy seat I’d otherwise redeem SkyMiles for yields just 0.97 cents per point in value. To me, this is a poor value for SkyMiles — and it’s unfortunately the norm for international Delta award tickets.

JFK LHR Virgin Atlantic flight on Google Flights
(Screenshot courtesy of google.com/flights)

Related: 9 Delta SkyMiles sweet spots worth saving up for

Earn elite status on award tickets through 2022

The view from the Delta SkyClub at Sea-Tac (Photo by Alberto Riva/TPG)

Another upside to redeeming SkyMiles for domestic flights is that Delta award tickets earn Medallion Qualification Dollars (MQDs), Medallion Qualification Segments (MQSs) and Medallion Qualification Miles (MQMs) through the end of 2022.

Better yet, all Delta flights — including awards — earn up to a 75% bonus on elite-qualifying metrics through the end of this year. Economy flights earn a 50% bonus while Comfort+, Delta One and Delta first class earn a 75% bonus.

And since most of my flying is domestic during the coronavirus pandemic, I’m more easily able to qualify for Delta Medallion elite status when I use SkyMiles to book domestic flights without breaking the bank.

Plus, if I can fly further for fewer SkyMiles when redeeming for multiple domestic flights over one international flight, I’ll earn more MQMs and MQDs in the process. Again, this has had a huge hand in helping me qualify for Delta status this year.

Related: How to redeem Delta SkyMiles for maximum value

Rethinking how I value SkyMiles

(Photo by Theodorie / Shutterstock.com)

Almost all of my paid work travel is on Delta, so I’m able to rack up SkyMiles relatively quickly. Likewise, I almost solely fly SkyTeam carriers on paid international flights when I can find a good deal.

In a similar vein, I put my monthly rent and non-bonus spending on my Delta SkyMiles® Reserve American Express Card to earn additional MQMs and the MQD waiver. This works out to roughly $30,000 spent per year on my card, which means I earn 30,000+ SkyMiles every year through spending alone.

This is a long-winded way of saying that I earn a lot of SkyMiles, and I need to burn them. Redeeming them for domestic flights frees up my more valuable transferable points for aspirational redemptions like long-haul business- and first-class award tickets.

In an abstract way, this adds more value to my SkyMiles, because I can conserve other points for more valuable flights instead of burning them on less valuable domestic flights. This change in thinking made me less concerned about the fact that SkyMiles have limited value. Now, I see them as a helpful reserve for whenever I need to book a domestic flight at the last minute or otherwise.

Related: Your complete guide to the Delta SkyMiles program

Bottom line

Domestic award prices with Delta SkyMiles are great on the routes I fly the most, and with the carrier’s limited-time promotion, these awards help me quickly boost my MQM and MQD balance through at least the end of next year.

On top of this, using SkyMiles for domestic flights means I can use more valuable points to book aspirational awards instead of less valuable domestic tickets.

All of these points make Delta SkyMiles my favorite currency for domestic award tickets — and one I’ll use as my first choice for domestic awards through at least the end of next year.

Feature photo by Carlos Yudica / Shutterstock.com

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Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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