6 Tips to Get the Most Out of Your Delta SkyMiles
We love Delta SkyMiles, but one thing’s for sure: The airline doesn’t make it easy to use them well.
Understanding SkyMiles can be a chore because Delta stopped publishing an award chart years ago. So without that cheat sheet that tells you how many miles you should spend to fly from point A to point B, prices are constantly changing. So Delta can often charge an arm and a leg for even simple, short flights.
But there are some important factors to keep in mind to make sure you’re using your SkyMiles wisely. Follow these tips, and you’ll be set.
Use the Five-Week View
Most airlines have award charts that can tell you how many miles you’ll need to book any flight. Delta isn’t one of them.
That means the amount of SkyMiles you need to book a flight can swing wildly day by day. So how can you ensure you’re getting a good deal?
The key is to use Delta’s five-week search function. This allows you to look at prices for – you guessed it – five weeks worth of flights.
Scroll through a few months, and you’ll start to get a good sense of what the normal price is. That way, you can ensure you’re getting the best deal possible – and not getting hosed by booking a day too early or too late. This five-week view feature is invaluable for ensuring you’re not overpaying on any flight, like these round-trip fares from Los Angeles (LAX) to Tokyo-Narita (NRT).
Avoid Delta Hubs
It may seem counterintuitive, but odds are you’re going to overpay if you’re flying from one of Delta’s hubs.
Whether you’re leaving from Atlanta (ATL), Minneapolis-St. Paul (MSP), Detroit (DTW), or Salt Lake City (SLC), you’ll often miss out on the lowest rates when using your SkyMiles.
We call it the Delta Hub Penalty, and it works like this. Delta flyers are loyal. And when they don’t have options for a flight on other airlines – as is often the case with flights from its major hubs – Delta can charge more. And that’s exactly what they do.
As an example, let’s look at flights from Seattle (SEA) to Salt Lake City (SLC), a Delta hub.
Meanwhile, check out how much cheaper it is to get from Seattle (SEA) to Denver (DEN) – a United hub. Awards are as low as 5,000 SkyMiles – albeit for one of Delta’s wretched new basic economy awards. And that’s about as low as it gets when using SkyMiles.
That’s just one example, but the same principle it holds up for almost any flight you book with SkyMiles – domestic or international. So what’s the solution?
You can often save some serious SkyMiles by departing from another airport – especially on international flight deals. On a recent SkyMiles flash sale on flights to South America, the best deal out of Minneapolis-St. Paul (MSP) was for 52,000 SkyMiles. But by popping over to Chicago-O’Hare (ORD), that dropped to 32,000 SkyMiles.
It’s always worth checking out neighboring airports and hub airports from other airlines. Even after adding in a connecting flight, you may still come out ahead.
Watch for SkyMiles Flash Sales
While Delta’s confusing pricing system is frustrating, there’s a tremendous upside: SkyMiles Flash sales.
Untethered from an award chart, Delta is free to slash SkyMiles award rates as it pleases. And the result is some screaming hot deals.
They keep a running a list of available sales on their site, and frequently push out two- or three-day occasional sales. Some of these are published, while other’s aren’t – but we always find those, too. Thrifty Traveler Premium members get first notice about the best of these sales.
So how good are these sales? How does 12,000 SkyMiles to get to the Caribbean and back sound? Or what about a trip to Colombia starting at just 10,000 SkyMiles round-trip? Or the long (and often expensive) flight to China and back for just 30,000 SkyMiles?
Take the trip to China, for example. Most airlines would charge at least 70,000 miles for that round-trip flight. So if you’re flexible and can make the dates work, the savings from these flash sales can be substantial.
Use Virgin Atlantic Instead
We have a rule here at Thrifty Traveler: When Delta is charging a boatload of SkyMiles, look at Virgin Atlantic.
Thanks to a close partnership between these two airlines, you can use Virgin Atlantic miles to book Delta flights. And it’s easy to get the Virgin Atlantic miles you need because you can transfer them from Chase, Citi, and American Express.
While Delta’s pricing jumps all over the place, Virgin Atlantic is far more stable for booking Delta flights. A domestic round-trip on Delta will always be 25,000 Virgin Atlantic miles, a one-way trip to Europe in business class is always 50,000 miles … you get the picture. Finding the award space can take some trial and error, but when you do, the savings can be huge.
Let’s say you want to fly to Tokyo in a flashy new Delta One suite. Flying from Minneapolis-St. Paul (MSP) to Tokyo-Haneda (HND) won’t be cheap with SkyMiles.
But you can book the exact same seat on the exact same day for just 60,000 Virgin Atlantic miles.
This is one of our favorite workarounds in the world of points and miles. It turns out, sometimes the most valuable way to use your SkyMiles is to not use them at all.
Avoid Booking Last Minute
Without an award chart, Delta SkyMiles function much like cash prices for a flight. And much like when you’re using SkyMiles, rates can skyrocket in the final two or three weeks before departure.
Look at the next month’s worth of flights from Boston (BOS) to San Francisco (SFO), and that much is clear.
Lesson learned: It pays to plan ahead when using your SkyMiles.
Don’t Use Your SkyMiles to Upgrade (or Other Add-ons)
You almost have to give them credit for their ingenuity. Delta wants you to cash in your SkyMiles for as little as you’ll take for them.
And while it may be tempting to use miles rather than cash to get a bigger seat upfront, it’s a poor use of your SkyMiles. The amount of SkyMiles you’ll use for the upgrade is tied directly to the cash price, and in almost every case you get just 1 cent for every SkyMile you use. You can do much better by using those miles for flights.
Still, thousands of travelers are upgrading with SkyMiles every day. The airline says it’s all about giving flyers more options to use their SkyMiles. The reality is it’s about limiting how much Delta is giving you when you cash in your SkyMiles.
Don’t do it.
Delta SkyMiles are easy to use, but harder to use well. Follow these tips and you’ll be traveling like a pro in no time.
Lead photo courtesy of Chris Lundberg via Flickr
Editorial Note: Any opinions, analyses, reviews, or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved, or otherwise endorsed by any card issuer.