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 change constantly. The airline gave flyers a rude reminder of that fact by drastically increasing award rates to book partner airlines like Air France or Virgin Atlantic – not once, but twice.
That can make it tempting to write SkyMiles off. Resist that urge: There is still value to be had when using SkyMiles for 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 and/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 New York City (JFK) to Bogota (BOG).
As you can see, shifting by just a day or two can be the difference between paying 27,000 SkyMiles and 44,000 SkyMiles – or even 50,000!
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. A round-trip award will typically clock in for at least 14,000 SkyMiles … if not much more.
Meanwhile, the longer flight from Seattle to Denver (DEN) – a United hub – is easy to book for just 10,000 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. You can even score a deal flying Delta One suites on a flash sale!
In just the last few months, we’ve found domestic flash sales as low as 8,000 SkyMiles round-trip, flights to the Caribbean starting at 11,000 SkyMiles, and even roundtrip fares to Hawaii from just 14,000 SkyMiles total! Most airlines charge double that or more.
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But the savings can get even better. Here’s a quick recap of some of the best SkyMiles we’ve seen over the last year or so:
- Flights to Europe and back for 22,000 SkyMiles
- Nationwide flights to Japan for just 30,000 SkyMiles round-trip
- Fly a swanky Delta One suite to Japan for just 90,000 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 business class flights to Japan, for example. Most airlines would charge at least 120,000 to 140,000 miles for that round-trip flight. If you’re flexible and can make the dates work, the savings from these flash sales can be substantial.
Use Virgin Atlantic Instead
We’ve had a rule for years 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 while Virgin Atlantic recently decimated some of the best sweet spots to book Delta flights, there are still some lucrative ways to book flights for fewer miles.
First, understand: While Delta’s pricing jumps all over the place, Virgin Atlantic is far more stable for booking Delta flights. A short one-way Delta flight under 500 miles will always cost 7,500 points, while flights under 1,000 miles will clock in at 8,500. 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.
Unfortunately, booking a Delta One suite to Tokyo-Haneda (HND), Seoul-Incheon (ICN), or elsewhere in Asia is no longer an option. Nor are sweet spots to get to Australia or South Africa.
But luckily, you can still snag a bargain on a Delta flight to Europe. Consider that flying Delta One business class often costs 200,000 SkyMiles or more each way, like this flight from Minneapolis-St. Paul (MSP) to Amsterdam (AMS).
But you can book the exact same seat on the exact same day for just 50,000 Virgin Atlantic miles.
You can’t transfer your Delta SkyMiles over to a Virgin Atlantic account, unfortunately. But it’s easy to get the Virgin Atlantic miles you need because you can transfer them from Chase, Citi, and American Express.
This is one of our favorite workarounds, and one of the best deals 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.
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 New York City (JFK) to Athens (ATH) we found earlier this summer. Booking Delta’s nonstop flight to Greece would have cost a whopping 120,000 SkyMiles.
But if you booked that exact same flight as part of a round-trip itinerary, the whole trip dropped to just 32,000 SkyMiles. In this example, you could book three round-trip flights to Greece for the cost of a single one-way flight!
That pattern plays out again and again 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 Minneapolis-St. Paul (MSP) to New York City (JFK), 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.
How to Earn Delta SkyMiles
Now you know how to use them well, it’s time to start piling up more SkyMiles.
Of course, there’s the suite of Delta’s co-branded American Express credit cards. From the Delta SkyMiles Gold American Express Card and Delta SkyMiles Platinum American Express Card to the top-tier Delta SkyMiles Reserve American Express Card, these cards frequently roll out bigger mileage bonuses that can be worth considering. Plus, they come with additional benefits like free baggage and priority boarding – and even more lucrative perks like a companion ticket or Sky Club access on the top cards.
Read our guide on which Delta credit card is right for you!
Already have those cards – or want to go even bigger? Some other American Express credit cards can get you there.
Take a hard look at the American Express Gold Card, which we think is one of the best all-around credit cards, period. That’s because it earns 4x points per dollar at restaurants worldwide and U.S. supermarkets, as well as 3x points per dollar on travel. It starts with a 60,000-point bonus after spending $4,000 within six months – but check to see if you’re eligible for a whopping 75,000-point bonus via CardMatch!
Best of all, you can instantly transfer these points straight to your Delta SkyMiles account.
Click Here to learn more about the American Express Gold Card.
And then there’s the Platinum Card from American Express, the king of all travel rewards credit cards. It comes with huge travel perks like unbeatable lounge access, a $200 annual airline fee credit, $100 towards your Global Entry or TSA PreCheck application, and many more.
At $550 a year, it’s not cheap. But that could easily be worth paying thanks to an earth-shattering bonus of up to 225,000 points (or more!) that’s currently on the table. It starts with a bonus of 75,000 points after spending $5,000 within six months – but you can get an even bigger bonus by using an incognito browser or trying via CardMatch. Then keep building your stash of points thanks to a 10x bonus at grocery stores and gas stations on up to $15,000 of combined spending in the first six months.
Click Here to learn more about the Platinum Card from American Express.
Want to earn even more Delta SkyMiles? Check out our master guide with all best ways to earn SkyMiles in 2021!
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.