Among the big-time points and miles aficionados, Delta SkyMiles are the butt of every joke.
They’re derided as worthless, they get called “SkyPesos.” These so-called experts are missing the point.
In focusing on Delta’s admitted shortcomings, they’re overlooking the massive amounts of value that average travelers can squeeze out of Delta SkyMiles. Let us show you what we mean.
We'll be the first to admit that Delta’s frequent flyer program is difficult to understand.
Delta pulled its published award chart, the cheat sheet that tells you how many miles a low-level award fare should cost, a few years ago. The history of overnight price hikes and wildly changing rates for even the same flight doesn’t exactly inspire confidence.
However, many of the knocks against the SkyMiles program simply don’t affect the traveler who takes a few vacations each year.
For example, take the close-in award fees, in which Delta charges a sizable SkyMiles premium for fares booked within three weeks of departure. While this might hit the jet-setting crowd hard, most travelers plan and book their flights months in advance.
The difficulty in stitching together complex itineraries with multiple legs can be a pain, but the vast majority of travelers are looking for simple round-trip flights that they can easily book through Delta’s own website.
If you're looking for a taste of the high life, it can be prohibitively expensive to use SkyMiles for a business class flight – it's not unusual to see a one-way flight to Europe or Asia for 200,000 SkyMiles or more. But for the average traveler, economy tickets are generally far more reasonable and predictable. And there's and lucrative workaround: You can use Virgin Atlantic miles to book the same Delta business class flights for a fraction of the cost.
The single biggest complaint is that Delta doesn't have an award chart. This means there is no standard amount of SkyMiles that are required for any award travel booking. As United moves its own mileage program this way – and American Airlines seems poised to do the same – this complaint looks more and more hollow.
And with Delta, the lack of an established award chart can often work out in your favor.
No Award Chart? No Problem
The lack of an award charts makes it harder to ensure you’re getting the most out of your SkyMiles. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t good deals to be had.
While Delta’s highly variable award chart means they can charge an arm and a leg for some redemptions, it also gives the airline more freedom to offer incredible fares on others. These fares often come at far cheaper rates than other airlines who are governed by award charts like American, for example.
Welcome to the world of SkyMiles flash sales. These deeply discounted flights are far and away the best way to use your SkyMiles. So while other airlines typically charge 60,000 to 70,000 miles for round-trip flights to Europe, a flash sale with Delta puts that in reach for just 20,000 miles … round trip.
Here's a look at some other recent flash sales that demonstrate SkyMiles' undeniable value:
- Flights to the Caribbean islands as low as 12,000 SkyMiles round trip
- A trip to China and back for just 30,000 SkyMiles
- Delta One business class to Europe for 128,000 SkyMiles round trip
… and many more. These sales are nearly constant. Delta advertises some of them, while we often find unpublished sales, too. To be the first to know about these sales, make sure to subscribe to Thrifty Traveler Premium.
Delta’s decision to ax its award chart allows the airline to price award redemptions as if they were straight cash fares. While that can mean some absurd and unpredictable award prices, that flexibility to adjust award prices also comes with some serious upside. Namely, dirt cheap award fares when demand on routes is low.
The unruly award chart also opens up a tremendous sweet spot for domestic flights. Shorter flights like Minneapolis-St. Paul (MSP) to Chicago-O'Hare (ORD) selling as low as 5,000 SkyMiles each way. Even extremely competitive routes like New York City (JFK) to San Francisco (SFO) often start at 9,000 SkyMiles.
In short: If you can be flexible, you can get a boatload of value out of SkyMiles.
Ultimately, it’s up to consumers to recognize what’s a good use of SkyMiles and what isn’t. That’s where the Thrifty Traveler team comes in.
Thrifty Tip #1: Read our Guide to Understanding Delta SkyMiles.
There are ways to redeem your Delta SkyMiles that the other frequent flyer programs in which air travel experts love cannot compete with.
Delta’s Pay With Miles option is unique. This feature gives you the option of using your SkyMiles to pay for a great flight deal with your SkyMiles. When doing so, your SkyMiles will be worth 1 cent each towards the cost of the cash fare. Snagging a cheap flash sale fare (via Thrifty Traveler Premium) is an easy way to save 10,000 SkyMiles or more compared to the cost of a normal award fare redemption.
By paying with miles, you’re also eligible to receive Medallion Qualifying Miles (MQMs) and Medallion Qualifying Segments (MQSs) towards Delta elite status. This is not the case with a standard award ticket.
Some will argue that getting 1 cent per SkyMile is not a good way to use them. We simply don't agree. When you combine the fact that the cash price is on sale and your mileage required will be less than a standard award ticket this can easily be worth it. Not to mention you would still be earning elite credits as mentioned above.
These features are often overlooked by big-time aviation experts who insist that SkyMiles are useless. However, we feel these sales offer an extra chance at getting more out of your miles.
Easy to Earn
Above all else, Delta SkyMiles are easier to pile up than any other domestic airline program. Delta has four co-branded American Express credit cards: The Delta SkyMiles Blue American Express Card, Delta SkyMiles Gold American Express Card, Delta SkyMiles Platinum American Express Card, and Delta SkyMiles Reserve American Express Card lifetime. If you were to apply to all seven cards over time, you'd be able to accumulate a sizable war chest of SkyMiles.
In addition, you can transfer American Express Membership Rewards points – from cards like the Platinum Card from American Express And Marriott Bonvoy points also transfer to Delta on a 3:1 basis. Add in some other one-off partnerships like with Lyft and Airbnb, and Delta SkyMiles are some of the easiest miles to earn.
An easy-to-follow award chart is pointless if you can’t get the miles to fund those travels. This is an area where Delta truly excels.
Thrifty Tip #2: Need some help deciding which SkyMiles card to get? See our post on which Delta credit card is right for you.
Look, we know we’re biased. We're based in a Delta hub and value SkyMiles higher than most. SkyMiles certainly deserve some of the scorn they get from well-known bloggers who we read and respect.
But the fact is that many of the downsides of the program only affect the lucky few who spend most of their time traveling the world for free. Rather than gripe about SkyMiles’ shortcomings, we’d rather help you squeeze the most value out of them.
So you don’t name any names, but Delta’s program is in fact complicated. Because there is no published award chart sometimes you need to fork over a boatload of SkyMiles that would only cost a fraction on e.g. AA.
This however is silly: “Offering flights nationwide to Cancun, Puerto Vallarta and Cabo San Lucas starting at 12,000 SkyMiles round trip in economy is unheard of” given how cheap flights currently are to/from Mexico and that the taxes/fees on some of these tickets are nearly $100. Even at 12,000 SkyMiles paying $95 in fees (do the math) isn’t much of a savings at all from a number of airports.
This however is serious: want to fly one-way between Europe and Africa for just 35,000 SkyMiles and a very small additional dollar amount? In such cases SkyMiles are awesome. That’s what you could’ve mentioned. For those going for the Platinum 70K bonus — and everyone who qualifies should — it’s an amazing deal.
Skymiles seriously worthless. Just try Nov from DCA to Cancun needs 52,000 miles! First class to China, one way is 550,000 miles!
“Some will argue that getting 1 cent per SkyMile is not a good way to use them. We simply don’t agree. When you combine the fact that the cash price is on sale and your mileage required will be less than a standard award ticket this can easily be worth it.”
Just because you spend fewer SkyMiles than usual does NOT make it a good deal. Not when the alternative of just buying the sale ticket for cash is a better deal. Whenever you have a cash alternative at $0.01/mile, the cash deal has much better value. You can’t just compare the SkyMiles used for the sale and the SkyMiles used normally when the best deal is the cash sale.
You’re right, but you’re coming at it from the proposition that you always have the cash to book the flight. That’s not the case for many travelers, who view miles as a way to take trips they couldn’t otherwise afford. And in those cases, you can save some SkyMiles when booking with Pay with Miles. That’s the point.
miles earned via delta skymiles are almost USELESS. For oneway USA – EUROPE they want 100k miles in 98% of their offers + super high fees. within in the US. I pay often for oneway 40k miles LOL. The fees are even more worse than the fees of lufthansas miles&more.
At delta 1 mile may be has a value of 0.3 Cents. At mileageplus probably 1.3Cents as 1k and at miles&more probably 1.5 Cent as Senator.
The “special sales” of delta are so limited that only some ppl can use them. But you will never see good offers on long haul flights lol
As a frequent flyer with more than 200k miles per year I def would prefer ALWAYS uUnited. first you get MUCH more miles.and by much, I mean much. Aprox 100%++ more. Plus you pay so much less for award tickets , also the fees are much smaller. GPUS do the rest…
The article literally states how to easily get at least one penny per mile on Delta – holding the co-branded card will let you pay with miles at a penny per mile. Valuing them at 0.3 cents per mile is foolish when it’s easy to get 1 cent a mile (and even that option is typically seen as a semi-poor value of those points.)
Also, while I’m not sure if it’s an unpublished sale or not, I did a quick search from MSP – LHR and found multiple non-stop flights for 54k + around $185 in fees. United’s award chart only offered options with connections at 60k + $175+ in fees, which seems pretty easily comparable. I’ll gladly pay $10 more if that gets me a non-stop flight and I save 6k in points! I’ve also seen plenty of domestic itineraries for under 10k each way.
I’m super confused how you’re getting “Aprox 100%++ more” miles on a United flight than a Delta flight. A quick skim of their websites suggests that both base their earnings based on flight cost, and they both earn 5x fare as base with equivalent step ups at each level. Unless there’s some edge case where someone can get 1k on United while not even becoming a silver medallion member on Delta, there’s no obvious way that someone can earn double the points on United.
Feel free to keep flying and earning on United, though. It’ll keep the lower fares and points sales available on Delta for me. 🙂
You can attempt to put lipstick on the Delta pig and it’ll still be a pig. There is no convincing me that SkyMiles have this hidden value…they’re practically useless. Dynamic pricing sucks because it allows Delta to screw you on a moments notice.
Here’s to hoping that American keeps their award chart!
Sign for Thrifty Traveler Premium and check out the almost weekly (unadvertised) nationwide flash sales we are finding on Delta. We collect AA miles as well but these Delta flash sales are simply bonkers.
I’m a silver elite Delta flyer (formerly Gold) and shifting my flights to other airlines with better redemption rates. I have 300,000 mile that I have not been able to use because other airlines required much lower miles for the same trip. I regret my choice to use Delta instead of other airlines to build point for vacation travel.
Hey Ron. I know I sound like a broken record but give Thrifty Traveler Premium a shot. We find almost weekly (unadvertised) nationwide SkyMiles flash sales on Delta. That is absolutely the best use of those 300k SkyMiles.
hanks for the excellent primer; most of what I’ve read online throws shade on SkyMiles for their dynamic pricing. Only solo travelers making YOLO trips would care about the downsides, while people with families would see this as mostly upside. Kids don’t see the value proposition of business/first, and wouldn’t care anyway. I’d rather fly 6 people for 60,000 SkyMiles R/T over flying alone in the pointy end for 250,000 SM all day, anyday. I just picked up the Delta Gold card since it’s the dominant airline at MLB, and I wanted to diversify my airline miles from just AA. Chase/Amex points are best used for luxury flights anyway, so the arguments are moot. Right tool for the right job. This article really summed up the program pragmatically for normal travelers, not those who live in airports.
Cheers for the kind words, so glad you found this helpful!