During the last few years, Delta Airlines exited bankruptcy, acquired Northwest Airlines, and emerged as a global powerhouse. But despite their transformation, one lingering frustration for customers has been attempting to redeem their Delta SkyMiles without giving up an absurd amount of miles.
In fact, the Wall Street Journal reported on a survey of frequent flyer award availability and found that Delta ranked the worst among the majors with a mere 13% success rate in finding affordably priced awards. Delta even admitted its problem and promised to change, but observers have not noticed anything yet.
Fortunately, people who enjoy finding ways to travel for free have discovered all sorts of tricks to get around Delta’s faulty (or purposefully crippled) SkyMiles program and get to destinations using the fewest SkyMiles possible.
Introduction to Delta SkyMiles Awards
Currently, the Delta SkyMiles Awards program is based around three tiers: low, medium, and high. For specific flights, there are a set amount of frequent flyer tickets available at each tier. The goal is to obtain a ticket at the “low” level, which ensures you get your free ticket for the fewest amount of miles. The “medium” and “high” levels generally require too many miles to be a good value.
As an example, a domestic coach round-trip award can be 25,000, 40,000, or as high as 60,000 miles depending on which award level is available for the flight you want. You can view their award chart for flights originating in the U.S. and Canada here. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to obtain a flight at this lowest tier due to lack of availability and lack of assistance from Delta’s website and representatives.
Beyond awards on Delta flights, one of the key advantages to the SkyMiles program is its partnership with a long list of other airlines. As a member of the SkyTeam alliance, Delta miles can be used to book flights on Air France, Alitalia, Aeroflot, Aeromexico, Air Europa, China Southern, Czech, Kenya, KLM, Korean, TAROM, and Vietnam Airlines. Other non-SkyTeam partners include Alaska Airlines, Avianca, China Airlines, China Eastern, Gol, Hawaiian, Jet, Kingfisher, Malaysia, and V Australia. Finally, Aerolineas Argentinas, Saudi Arabian, and Garuda Indonesia are all scheduled to join the SkyTeam alliance in the future.
Booking Award Flights on Delta Airlines
As if the stingy availability of “low” tier award flights wasn’t bad enough, Delta’s own website makes it extremely difficult to search for flights based on the various tiers. Even though it presents this option, Delta’s website consistently misprices its various flights, making it difficult to rely on. However, there are still good ways to find the lowest-priced flights using their website.
1. Search for awards one-way, by individual flights.
Due to ongoing problems with Delta’s website, the most effective way to find award seats at the “low” tier is to search by one-way flights, even if you need a round-trip award. This is because when you search for a round-trip award ticket, Delta’s award calendar will display “low” tier awards that will generally fail to materialize when you select them. It can be time-consuming to search for each segment one at a time, but this is the only way to get around Delta’s buggy system.
2. Try searching for connecting flights via all Delta hubs.
Upon their acquisition of Northwest, Delta added a long list of hubs. These hubs include Atlanta, Minneapolis, Detroit, Cincinnati, Memphis, Salt Lake City, and New York’s JFK and LaGuardia airports. In addition, Los Angeles and Seattle can serve as gateway cities for flights to Asia. Look for flights that use one of these hubs even if they are not the most direct route to your destination.
3. Find first and business class awards by initially searching for coach.
The best value on a mile-to-dollar basis you can receive from any frequent flyer mile award is a seat in business or first class. They can cost more than three or four times the price of a coach award in dollars, but only 30% to 50% more in SkyMiles. Unfortunately, Delta’s website also consistently misprices business and first class awards when you select “Business/First.” To work around these errors, search for coach seats first. Then, select the Award calendar. Finally, choose the Business/First calendar. Only then will you see a complete view of business and first class seats at the “low” level.
4. Once you find flights with one-way searches, book them using a multi-city search.
As discussed earlier, Delta’s system has glitches that force frequent flyers to search using one-way flights to maximize the value of their miles. But because Delta won’t allow you to redeem two one-way awards, use the multi-city search option to actually book the flight. The multi-city tool will work not only for multi-stop flights, but also for simple round-trips that only consist of two non-stop flights.
Booking Award Flights on Delta’s Partners
Unlike awards booked on Delta flights, partner awards always price out at the “low” level. This is a distinct advantage of booking a flight on one of Delta’s partner airlines. Unfortunately, the Delta website is of little use when searching for partner awards. You will occasionally see flights on major partners such as Air France or KLM, but you are unlikely to ever see award availability on many of their smaller partners. This is unfortunate since these airlines travel to some exotic destinations not served by Delta.
The only way to book awards with their partners is to call Delta. As is the case with other airlines, Delta’s agents have little incentive to exhaustively search all possible flights over a range of dates to locate available award seats. Since airlines view award travel as a loss, they want to devote as few resources as possible to enable award reservations. Nevertheless, there are still ways to search for awards yourself before calling Delta to book them. By doing so, you can direct the Delta agent to the exact flight you want to get on. Here are some tips to get your started:
1. Use Air France’s award search engine.
As a fellow SkyTeam partner, Air France offers members of its Flying Blue frequent flyer program most of the same partner award seats that Delta does. The difference is that Air France’s website is extremely useful when it comes to searching for partner awards. All you have to do is sign up for a free account at AirFrance.us. Then, you can search for awards that are accurately displayed on a calendar. The availability you see will match what Delta agents can book for you at the “low” level. Their search engine can see award seats with KLM, Alitalia, Kenya, Air Europa, and TAROM, in addition to Air France itself.
2. Use advanced search tools from third parties.
To find award space on other partners, there are a few tools you can access. The person who blogs as The Wandering Aramean offers a free tool to search for awards on Aeroflot, Air China, China Southern, Czech, TAROM, and Vietnam Airlines.
Expert Flyer is a paid service that can search Air Europa, Air France, Alaska, China Airlines, China Eastern, China Southern, Czec, GOL, Hawaiian, Malaysia, and TAROM.
Finally, the KVS Tool is another paid service that searches Air France, KLM, Czech, Aeroflot, Alitalia, TAROM, Aeromexico, China Southern, Vietnam, Kenya, and Air Europa. As with searches for Delta flights, use these tools to search for awards segment by segment. It is time-consuming, but is the only way you’ll see all possible award seats.
The KVS tool, Expert Flyer, and the Wandering Aramean tools can also be valuable for finding awards with other major alliances, such as Star Alliance awards through US Airways. Unfortunately, none of these tools will allow you to check for availability on Korean Airlines, a major SkyTeam partner in Asia. You will have to call Delta to find seats with them.
Once you’ve done your research, you’ll then need to book the award on Delta’s partner airlines. Here are some tips to help you with this process:
- Give Delta’s website a try. Like booking Delta awards, perform a multi-city search and look separately for each individual connecting flight. The best chance you have of booking partner awards online is with KLM, Air France, and Air Europa. You will also need to rely on Delta’s web site to find “low” award seats on any Delta operated portion of your award.
- Call Delta. In the likely event that Delta’s website does not show the partner awards seats you find, you will be forced to call Delta’s customer service. Ask the agent to search for your flight one segment at a time. In fact, Delta’s agents have even better search tools, so they may be able to find routes you couldn’t.
- Try, try again. It’s rumoured that many Delta agents simply do not know how to find and book award seats with some partners, particularly Vietnam Airlines and Air China. If you encounter such an agent, politely end that call and try again.
Other Delta SkyMiles Tips
1. Look for stop-overs and open-jaws.
Delta is very flexible when it comes to non-standard itineraries. It is permissible to book an award trip with a single multi-day stopover at a SkyTeam hub such as New York or Paris, and there is no published time limit for your stop. You are also allowed to return home from a city other than where you arrived; airlines refer to this as an open-jaw itinerary. Utilizing an open-jaw will count as your stopover. These types of stops always cost more when paid for in cash, but they can be added for free to an award booking.
2. If you can’t find a “low” coach award, consider first/business.
“Low” awards are very difficult to find, but they are sometimes easier to find in first or business class. Before redeeming a “medium” or “high” award in coach, check to see if the same flight is available in a “low” award in first or business class. You might find yourself upgraded for almost the same price as a coach seat.
3. When searching for multiple awards seats, search for one at a time.
Delta, like most airlines, will price out tickets for multiple passengers at the highest level available. For example, if there is one “low” award left and you search for two seats, their system will show two “medium” tier awards. By searching for one seat at a time, you can book the remaining “low” award and redeem the “medium” award separately. Note that this trick works across various airlines and even when paying for tickets without miles.
4. Tag on another trip.
If you live in one of Delta’s hubs, consider getting more travel for your rewards. For example, let’s say you are flying from Atlanta (a Delta hub) to Madrid on an award. On the way back, instead of making Atlanta your final destination, you can instead choose to make a “stopover” in Atlanta for however long you’d like within eleven months of the time of booking (Delta only shows flights eleven months out). Then, you can continue on to another city like Denver once the stopover is complete. In essence, you will have gone from Atlanta to Madrid to Atlanta to Denver on a single trip. Of course, once you’re done in Denver, you will have to pay for your return to Atlanta, but you will have enjoyed a free trip out to Denver (by tacking it on to the end of your Madrid trip) without paying any additional dollars or SkyMiles. This strategy does not work for a trip purchased without miles as stopovers normally cost extra.
5. Take advantage of schedule changes.
Delta charges hefty change fees if you need to change your schedule, yet they change their schedule all the time. Changes typically occur every 90 days as they reshuffle flights, so your schedule could change multiple times between when you book the flight and when you actually fly. Delta should notify you of changes, but often they will not. Check your reservation periodically to see if they made any changes. If you notice one, you can either accept it or not. If you don’t like the change, or would like to make a separate change of your own, this is your opportunity to ask them to waive their change fee. Simply call Delta and explain why you are not satisfied with the change and what you would like the remedy to be. This is a great time to request a better route such as a shorter connection or a non-stop flight. Use Delta’s changes to your advantage!
6. Medallions have better award availability.
There are significant advantages to being a Delta Medallion member, or in the elite tier of their SkyMiles system. The main advantage is that a greater number of reward flights are available. If you are a Medallion member, make sure you are logged in when you perform award searches in order to access them all. If you want to become a Medallion member, but don’t fly enough, sign up and take advantage of the impressive offers that come with the Delta SkyMiles Platinum credit card and the Delta SkyMiles Reserve credit card.
7. Try searching last minute.
Delta has been rightly slammed in the travel press for having so few “low” tier awards. In an attempt to improve its reputation, Delta has started to open up award seats in the last few days before a flight. The best part is that Delta is one of a minority of airlines that have removed their hefty close-in booking fees for last-minute reward flights. So even if you’re looking to purchase a reward ticket without advance notice, you may get lucky and be able to cash in your Delta SkyMiles for a “low” tier award.
8. There are no one-way awards on Delta.
If you need to fly one-way, and are willing to pay the additional miles, you can book a round-trip award ticket and “throw away” the return. Just make sure that both the outbound and the return are in the “low” tier and always fly the outbound leg. Failing to show up for the first leg of a flight will cause the airline to cancel the rest of your itinerary. This can make sense when a one-way ticket is ridiculously expensive, especially at the last minute.
Delta’s continued devaluation of its frequent flyer program is making it harder and harder to redeem your SkyMiles at reasonable rates. It has even reached the point where some of Delta’s best customers are derisively labeling Delta’s program “SkyPesos.” However, by utilizing all available resources including your own dogged persistence, you can beat Delta at its own game and enjoy fantastic award possibilities.
Are you a member of Delta’ SkyMiles program? What other tips do you have to redeem award travel?