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10 Tips to Use Delta SkyMiles for Maximum Value

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Travelers love their Delta SkyMiles, but one thing's for sure: The airline doesn't always 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. And the airline has given members rude reminders of that fact by drastically increasing award rates to book partner airlines, sky-high prices to book business class abroad, and stingy basic economy award tickets spreading worldwide.

For many travelers and even diehard Delta fans, the state of Delta SkyMiles is sad. 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

Many 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 is often unpredictable, swinging 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.


delta skymiles calendar


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 roundtrip 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 32,000 SkyMiles and 42,000 SkyMiles – or even 52,000 or more!


jfk to bogota


Avoid Delta Hubs When You Can

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. Delta flyers are loyal, and Delta knows it. 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.


delta skymiles salt lake city


Meanwhile, the longer flight from Seattle to Denver (DEN) – a United hub – is easy to book for just 10,000 SkyMiles.


delta skymiles denver


That's just one example, but the same principle 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 recent SkyMiles flash sale on flights to Cancún (CUN), the best deal out of Minneapolis-St. Paul (MSP) … nonexistent. But by popping over to Chicago-O'Hare (ORD), that dropped to 18,000 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: Delta 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 sometimes publish available sales on their site, but many of the best deals are never advertised. Either way, we're constantly searching for unpublished flash sales and sending them to our Thrifty Traveler Premium+ members.

These amazing deals disappeared earlier this year … but they've made a comeback lately. It doesn't get much better than this.


New Zealand SkyMiles deal


Want more award alerts like this one? Try out Thrifty Traveler Premium+!

SkyMiles can be frustrating, but this is where they shine. While most airlines charge 80,000 miles or more for roundtrip flights to New Zealand, Delta briefly slashed award rates as low as 37,000 SkyMiles! And that's just one of the stellar recent deals we've seen:

But that's just the tip of the iceberg. Here’s a quick recap of some of the best SkyMiles we’ve seen over the last year or so:

  • Days after that Auckland (AKL) deal, we sent Thrifty Traveler Premium+ members another alert for roundtrip flights to Santiago (SCL) in Chile for 44,000 SkyMiles … or just 37,4000 SkyMiles with Delta's TakeOff 15 discount for Amex cardholders.
  • Even as it charged 130,000 SkyMiles or more for roundtrip flights to Honolulu (HNL), Delta made a splash on its brand-new nonstop route from Minneapolis-St. Paul (MSP) to Maui (OGG) by briefly selling tickets as low as 42,000 SkyMiles roundtrip next winter!
  • Delta followed that up this week with an even cheaper SkyMiles sale to Maui and other Hawaiian islands, with roundtrip fares from across the country this summer and fall starting as low as 13,600 SkyMiles!
  • We also saw fares to Cancùn (CUN) tumble as low as 9,000 SkyMiles roundtrip!

We could go on and on and on. There have been so many of these outstanding Delta SkyMiles flash sales over the years. We're just hoping this trend keeps up, as they're easily the best way to use your SkyMiles.

Read more: Delta SkyMiles Deals Have Been Crazy Lately, Stop Missing Out!


Focus on Domestic Flights

While we generally warn travelers against using their miles for short domestic flights, it's a sweet spot with Delta. And even when there isn't a hot SkyMiles flash sale, you can regularly snag a good deal with SkyMiles.

Shorter routes are fairly easy to find for roughly 10,000 SkyMiles round-trip. Flights shorter than 750 miles seem to be easiest to snag at this price, but even some longer flights make the cut. Be sure to book well ahead of your flight to ensure the lowest-priced SkyMiles award space is available.

For all the faults of Delta SkyMiles, you'll rarely find roundtrip domestic flights this cheap through other airline programs. Booking a cheap domestic flight for just a few thousand miles is one of the best you can make with SkyMiles.


portland maine skymiles deal


Check out our roundup of the cheapest domestic SkyMiles deals we've found lately!


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 decimated some of the best sweet spots to book Delta flights, there are still some lucrative ways to book flights for fewer miles – far fewer.

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.

The issue is actually locating Delta flights that are bookable through Virgin – and that's another matter, as finding the award space can take some trial and error. You'll often come up empty-handed … but when it works, the savings can be enormous.


use delta skymiles


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, South Africa, or even South America. 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) earlier this year year that clocked in at a whopping 340,000 SkyMiles.


msp to ams delta one


But you could have the exact same flight – same route, same day, same flight number – for just 50,000 Virgin Atlantic points. 


msp-ams delta one


Finding the award space to book these Delta One seats through Virgin Atlantic can be a chore … especially lately. It's been many months since we've sent Thrifty Traveler Premium+ members an alert for wide-open award space to utilize this workaround to book Delta One to Europe for 50,000 points. But we're always searching.

It's one of the best deals in the world of points and miles. And while it might be the sweetest of all sweet spots using Virgin Atlantic points to fly Delta, there are plenty of other worthwhile ways to book Delta flights using Virgin Atlantic points. For example, while Delta typically charges 100,000 SkyMiles or more to fly economy on the nonstop between Minneapolis-St. Paul (MSP) and Honolulu (HNL) and back…


delta skymiles msp to hnl


… you can find those same flights for fewer than half the miles via Virgin Atlantic instead!


delta minneapolis to honolulu


You can't transfer your Delta SkyMiles over to a Virgin Atlantic account, unfortunately. But it's easy to get the Virgin Atlantic points you need: They're a Chase transfer partner, Amex transfer partner, Capital One transfer partner, a Citi transfer partner, and even a Bilt transfer partner if you're earning points on rent. That means you can instantly transfer points from cards like the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card, the American Express® Gold Card, or the Capital One Venture X Rewards Credit Card straight to a Virgin account to get the points you need to book.

It turns out, sometimes the most valuable way to use your SkyMiles is to not use them at all.


Wanna Fly Biz Class? Look Elsewhere

Read our lips: SkyMiles are not worthless. But there's one major reason why you might have heard that from other sites and travel influencers – they're focused solely on top-dollar business class redemptions.

And they're not exactly wrong about that. If your primary goal is scoring a lie-flat business class seat, Delta SkyMiles are … not great. And that's putting it lightly.

Consider this:

  • Booking a Delta One flight using your SkyMiles now regularly costs 250,000 SkyMiles each way to Europe … and much more to Asia or Australia
  • Just a few years ago, booking a one-way to Europe in Air France business class or other partner airlines was 75,000 SkyMiles. Today, those same seats now match whatever Delta is charging for its own flights, meaning they'll now cost at least 200,000 SkyMiles – or much, much more.
  • Delta also decimated a sweet spot to fly partner carriers to the Middle East for 85,000 SkyMiles each way. After another devaluation, those regularly top 300,000 SkyMiles now, too.


air france business class cabin


Slowly but surely, Delta has eliminated all the once-reliable redemptions and workarounds to squeeze outsized value out of SkyMiles for top-dollar business class redemptions. If that's not your goal, then SkyMiles can still be great.

That said, there's still a workaround to book cheaper business class awards by starting (or ending) your trip down in Mexico or elsewhere, though this sweet spot is steadily disappearing. And you can find decent rates on business class cabins when traveling wholly outside the U.S., like between Europe and Asia.

But the overall trend is clear: If flying business class is at the top of your list, earning Delta SkyMiles shouldn’t be. 

Check out some better ways to book business class flights than 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 New York City (JFK) to Athens (ATH) we found a while back. Booking Delta's nonstop flight to Greece would have cost a whopping 120,000 SkyMiles.


use delta 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!


use delta skymiles


It's an extreme example, but that pattern plays out again and again across almost any SkyMiles award booking – especially long-haul trips. 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 cash, 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. In this case, booking at least a few weeks in advance could be the difference between using just 8,500 SkyMiles … or triple that amount.


msp to jfk


Lesson learned: It pays to plan ahead when using your SkyMiles.


Get a Delta Credit Card

These days, having a Delta credit card in your wallet is less about earning SkyMiles and more about unlocking benefits when you fly Delta: free checked bags, Delta companion certificates, and Delta Sky Club access.

But one cardholder benefit is key to book Delta flights for fewer SkyMiles. It's called TakeOff 15, a fairly new perk for most SkyMiles credit cardholders that provides an automatic 15% discount on award tickets when redeeming SkyMiles for any and all Delta-operated award flights. And Delta cardholders can get that discounted an unlimited amount of times.


Delta One DTW AMS skymiles take off 15 example


This benefit couldn't be any simpler: You'll see the discounted price automatically applied when logged into your SkyMiles account and searching for award flights. The discount even applies to additional passengers in your travel party, meaning the savings can add up in a hurry if you're using your SkyMiles to book flights for a group. Unfortunately, this discount is only available to the primary cardholder – authorized users on your card won't get a 15% discount of their own.

To get the discount, you'll just need to have a Delta credit card open and attached to your account. From the Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card to the Delta SkyMiles® Platinum American Express Card to the top-tier Delta SkyMiles® Reserve American Express Card, almost any card will do – only the no-annual fee Delta SkyMiles® Blue American Express Card misses the cut.

But if getting the most out of your SkyMiles is your top priority, getting that 15% discount every time you book a Delta flight is key.


Don't Use Your SkyMiles for Add-ons like Free Bags

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.

Case in point: Delta allows flyers to use their SkyMiles to upgrade to Comfort Plus or First Class seats. The airline has even started selling checked baggage fees in SkyMiles. You can also avoid basic economy by burning your SkyMiles.

And while it may be tempting to use miles rather than cash, 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.


Bottom Line

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.


Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser’s responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

3 Responses

  • Dear Thrifty Traveler Kyle,
    Thank you for your well written, understandable, and useful article. As a flying-with-points newbie as well as being worried about accumulating credits cards, I took the leap, convinced my bery skeptical husband to followy lead, and got two sign-up bonuses; one with Delta and one with Citibank.

    I am excited to say that I successfully arranged round trip flights from a different than our home airport to europe and back with Citibank Thank you points as well as using miles to get to that different city’s airport with points I had forgotten we had! I also opted to pay for a better main cabin seat instead of using my miles; very much like in this article!

    The key was your tip 9n using Virgin Atlantic as the airline to book the U.S. to Europe trip instead of Delta. That was brilliant!
    Basically using about 30,000 miles rt for each ticket on a flight that was trending at about $1,700!
    Getting the connecting flights for free eas the cherry on top.

    Thankn6ou again for your article and insight.
    Whee! Whew! Keeping my finger crossed that our trip flights go as planned.

    Phyllis Nakayama

    How do I calculate the value of those points I used? The value seemednhigh and I ‘m thinking that maybe I miscalculated.

    RT $1,700 on 30,000 miles
    RT $309 on 25,000 miles
    (This one doesn’t look like a great deal but we had the points and we don’t usually fly with Alaska so I used them figuring it was a good opportunity to do so.)

  • This reads like a paid PR piece. Award charts have nothing to do with sales. UA used to regularly run “sales” even when it had a chart. DL is basically 1 mile per 1 cent of airfare now. Worse than southwest and jetblue which have similar award pricing based on airfare.

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