Delta rolled out the ability to use your SkyMiles to upgrade from economy up to Comfort Plus or first class late last year. And to call it a smashing success – at least from the airline's perspective – would be an understatement.
Delta executives said Wednesday that more than 4,000 flyers use their SkyMiles to upgrade every single day. Though this feature was initially only available on the desktop site, Delta pushed it to its mobile app in February, giving the numbers a solid boost.
All told, the overall use of SkyMiles was up 12 percent in the first three months of 2019 compared to the same period of 2019, Delta executives said in their quarterly earnings call. And airline President Glen Hauenstein said that's largely because flyers are “increasingly using SkyMiles beyond” simply booking award fares.
Delta's gain is your pain. We'll reiterate what we said when Delta first introduced SkyMiles upgrades: This is not the best use of your SkyMiles stash.
Why Using SkyMiles for Upgrades is a Bad Deal
Why is this a bad deal? Because the price in SkyMiles is clearly tied directly to the same cash price you’d pay for the upgrade. In almost every case, you’ll get exactly 1 cent for each SkyMile you use.
This is the clearest example yet of the control Delta has over SkyMiles and how much value travelers get out of them. By using your SkyMiles for an upgrade, you're handing them over to Delta for minimal value. And when you do that, Delta wins.
Delta's SkyMiles program is confusing, and the airline has made it difficult to get an amazing redemption out of them. Still, it's not hard to get more out of your SkyMiles by saving them for another trip. For example, you can currently fly round trip to Colombia starting at just 10,000 SkyMiles. These tickets typically cost $300 or more when paying cash, meaning you’re getting way more out of your SkyMiles. Even buying a bottle of champagne in the SkyClub with your SkyMiles is getting you more bang for your buck.
Of course, the extra comfort could be worth it. And if the cash prices are low for an upgrade, the mileage rate will be, too. It can make sense, but that's a question that only you can answer.
Just think hard about it before you click through for the upgrade. Delta is relying on unaware travelers trading in their hard-earned SkyMiles, thinking that they're getting a great deal for an upgrade that they'd never pay cash for.
This isn't the first instance of Delta trying to convince passengers to use their SkyMiles for something other than flights – and Delta executives have made clear it won't be the last. In the coming months, watch for the airline to start offering flyers to use their SkyMiles to pay for baggage fees.
Putting the Squeeze on Delta Medallion Members
We're not all frequent flyers with big perks. But perhaps the biggest losers in this situation are Delta Medallion status holders.
By handing out upgrades to any flyer who is willing to cough up the miles – and clearly, there are many – the free status upgrades will get harder and harder to come by. And let's be honest, anyone chasing after status with any airline is in it for those cabin upgrades.
Already, low-tier Silver Medallions and second-rung Gold Medallion members can never count on anything more than a Comfort Plus upgrade. Even for Platinum Medallions, a first class upgrade is almost never a slam dunk. As more flyers upgrade using miles, it will worsen.
And while that's great news for the average flyer who wants to fly First Class and doesn't mind using a hefty chunk of SkyMiles to do it, Delta will likely have to do something to offset the pain it's causing for its most loyal flyers.
From the airline's perspective, this is an obvious win. Delta is getting flyers to trade in their miles for upgrades rather than more costly flights.
But for the average traveler, it's probably a bad move.
Lead photo courtesy of Delta via Flickr
Editorial Note: Any opinions, analyses, reviews, or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved, or otherwise endorsed by any card issuer.