Understanding Delta SkyMiles and How to Make Them Work for You
Whether you’re a recent convert to points and miles or a seasoned pro, you’ve heard the knock on Delta SkyMiles: They’re “worthless,” “unpredictable” and “not worth the trouble.” Let the Thrifty Traveler team set the record straight: That’s all wrong.
Sure, it’s a tricky program with some major challenges and a history of sudden price hikes that make your SkyMiles balance less valuable. However, that doesn’t mean that they’re useless. In fact, they are far from it. In this post, I will outline some of our best tips for understanding Delta SkyMiles and redeeming them for maximum value.
Rules of Thumb
The main thing you need to understand about Delta’s loyalty program is that the guidelines that govern most frequent flyer programs don’t really apply to SkyMiles. That’s because Delta long ago stopped publishing an award chart. Most airline’s use an award chart to set the base amount of miles charged for any given award flight. In its place, Delta uses a highly variable award system that looks more like a cash fare calendar, changing based on demand, seats sold, time of year, price of the flight, and so on.
Further, while most airlines have two or three price tiers at which they offer award fares, Delta has five or more. So even on the exact same route, the amount of SkyMiles charged for a flight can vary wildly day by day.
Get A Long View
Without an award chart, using Delta’s calendar view of award fares is the key to getting the best bang for your buck with SkyMiles. Once you’ve zeroed in on your route, use the “flexible days” search function, then look for 5 weeks of availability.
Scrolling through a few months, you’ll get a feel for what the absolute base price is for a given award fare, like the 30,000 SkyMiles it will take you to get from Minneapolis to London-Heathrow (LHR) in economy.
Thrifty Tip #1: Ensuring you’re getting your flights for the lowest amount of SkyMiles possible is the key to getting the most out of Delta’s program.
Sweet Spot for Short Flights
We’ve cautioned against using your miles for domestic flights in our guide on when to use points vs. paying cash, but it’s an area where SkyMiles actually shine. There is no shortage of routes available for between 5,000 and 10,000 SkyMiles each way. Minneapolis to Chicago for 5,000, Minneapolis to Boston starting at 7,000 SkyMiles and even the highly competitive route between San Francisco and New York City-JFK for as low as 9,000 SkyMiles.
The trick is finding them at the lowest price tier, as you learned above. When you can, it’s a win, considering American and United charge at least 12,500 miles for many of these flights.
Avoid Last-minute Bookings
Pros in the miles and points game will tell you that booking last-minute is a great way to snag award availability. But that’s not a winning approach with SkyMiles. The dynamic award chart allows Delta to treat its award bookings much like any cash fare. This means that prices can skyrocket in the week or two prior to departure. Take a look at the next two weeks of fares between MSP and JFK, which generally sell as low as 9,000 SkyMiles one way.
Thrifty Tip #2: When redeeming with SkyMiles, it pays to plan ahead.
Big Savings on Flash Sales
Delta regularly offers occasional sales on award fares, giving you a chance to make your SkyMiles go even farther. There are regular discounted rates on domestic flights that are worth checking out, offering a decent discount on round-trip award fares when you use your SkyMiles. But it’s Delta’s monthly flash sales you’re really looking for, often with steep discounts on award fares.
Just last week, there was an incredible flash sale for round-trip flights to South America, starting at 36,000 SkyMiles for flights to Sao Paulo, Buenos Aires, Bogota and more. Seeing as these flights normally start at between 60,000 to 100,000 SkyMiles and can easily cost $1,000 or more if paying cash, these flash sales are a great way to redeem your SkyMiles. One thing to note is that you’ll need to act fast, as these sales often last just a few days.
Pay With Miles
This extra little feature of Delta’s isn’t always the best strategy, but it can be an absolute steal. Available only to holders of Delta’s American Express cards, Pay With Miles allows you to use each SkyMile as a cent toward a flight in cash. It may not sound like much of a deal, but it can easily save you 10,000 or more SkyMiles if you spot a cheap cash fare here or through your Thrifty Traveler Premium subscription.
One of the best parts of the Pay With Miles feature is that these fares are eligible to earn Medallion Qualifying Miles (MQMs) and Medallion Qualifying Segments (MQSs) towards Delta elite status where standard award tickets are not.
Learn how to earn SkyMiles with Amex Credit Cards:
Avoid Partner Airlines
Delta is notorious for devaluing SkyMiles. Their latest price hikes on award flights last spring hit SkyTeam partner airlines the hardest. Depending on your destination, booking on a partner airline like Air France or Virgin Atlantic will now cost you at least an extra 5,000 SkyMiles in economy and generally another 15,000 or more in business class than the exact same route on a Delta plane.
There are some terrific first class cabins on Delta’s SkyTeam partners flying international routes, including Air France’s La Premiere and Garuda Indonesia. Unfortunately, they’re all off limits when booking with SkyMiles. The SkyMiles program limits you to business class no matter what airline you’re booking as that’s Delta’s highest service on long-haul routes.
Thrifty Tip #3: Unless SkyMiles are all you’ve got, you’re better off booking other SkyTeam airlines with a different mileage currency.
Delta gets a lot of heat for how it handles their SkyMiles program, but with some extra legwork, you can make excellent use of your miles. Unlike most major airlines, SkyMiles never expire. By using this guide, you can be sure you’re spending them wisely.