We love Delta SkyMiles, but one thing’s for sure: The airline doesn’t make it easy to use Delta SkyMiles 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 Price Calendar
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 price calendar, or five-week search function. This allows you to look at prices for – you guessed it – five weeks worth of flights. This option should show up after you’ve started your initial search.
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 price calendar feature is invaluable for ensuring you’re not overpaying on any flight, like these round-trip fares from Los Angeles (LAX) to Tokyo-Haneda (HND).
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. For example, on a 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, dynamic 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 that are easily the best way to use your Delta SkyMiles.
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 others 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 14,000 SkyMiles to get to the Caribbean and back sound? Or what about a trip to Colombia starting at just 12,000 SkyMiles round-trip? Or the long (and often expensive) flight to China and back for just 40,000 SkyMiles? Or a trip in Delta One to Europe for just 98,000 SkyMiles round-trip?
We could go on and on and on. There are so many of these outstanding Delta SkyMiles deals, and they seem to only get better – and cheaper.
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.
Or Fly Partner Airlines Instead
Your Delta SkyMiles aren’t just good for flights on Delta Air Lines.
Thanks to its place in the SkyTeam alliance and other one-off partnerships, you can book flights on more than a dozen airlines using your SkyMiles. And it’s often much cheaper to fly on a partner airline.
While Delta’s award pricing is all over the place for its own flights, the rates you’ll find to fly on partner airlines like Air France, KLM, Virgin Atlantic, or China Airlines is far more stable. Finding award availability to book these flights with SkyMiles isn’t always a sure thing. But when you can, the savings can be enormous.
Here’s an extreme example. You could use SkyMiles to fly from New York City (JFK) to London-Heathrow (LHR) in Delta One business class. Or you could fly the exact same route in Virgin Atlantic’s brand new Airbus A350-1000 business class.
In this case, flying Virgin rather than Delta would save you a whopping 234,000 SkyMiles! And while it’s an extreme example, that’s not unusual. And it just underlines the importance of exploring partner airlines when using SkyMiles.
Book Round Trip, Not One-Ways
While the flexibility of booking one-way flights can be nice, it will cost you with SkyMiles.
With few exceptions, Delta almost always charges more for booking one-way flights rather than a round-trip itinerary. Even when you’re booking the exact same flights separately, it can cost you substantially more.
For example, take a look at these flights from Los Angeles (LAX) to Tokyo-Haneda (HND) booked separately as one-way flights.
It works out to 86,000 SkyMiles plus taxes and fees. But if you book those exact same flights as a round-trip itinerary, that drops to 68,000 SkyMiles.
It’s just one example, but that principle holds up across almost any SkyMiles award booking, whether it’s a long flight or a short one. If you can, book a round-trip flight – it will save you SkyMiles.
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