Our Least Favorite Part of Delta SkyMiles: The Hub Penalty
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Our Least Favorite Part of Delta SkyMiles: The Hub Penalty

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We post all the time about how much we value Delta SkyMiles, even when others don’t. This isn’t one of those posts.

We get that Delta’s frequent flyer program has some major shortcomings, especially the lack of an award chart and the constantly changing prices for award flights. But as Delta flyers based in Minneapolis-St. Paul (MSP), our least favorite part about SkyMiles is a little different. We call it The Hub Penalty.

If you live in a Delta hub like Atlanta (ATL), or Detroit (DTW), or Salt Lake City (SLC), you can often expect to shell out a few more SkyMiles on many flights. We’ll explain why. 


What is the SkyMiles Hub Penalty?

With no award chart, Delta award prices act more like cash fares. But that’s not all bad. One of the biggest benefits is the constant flash sales Delta holds for flights with SkyMiles. They’re an excellent way to book flights on the cheap, and it wouldn’t be possible if Delta were tied to an award chart.

However, you can see how Delta’s hub penalty works in some of the unadvertised SkyMiles flash sales we keep finding for discounted flights to Hawaii, the Caribbean and more.

Take the flash sale we found for flights to Hawaii starting at 30,000 SkyMiles round trip. While there were still good deals out of Delta hubs like MSP, DTW and SLC, they were among the priciest to make the cut. And ATL, Delta’s primary hub, often misses the boat altogether on these deals.


SkyMiles Hub Penalty
Delta’s major hubs often miss the boat on the best SkyMiles flash sales. That’s not an accident.


It’s not just flash sales where you may pay more when flying in or out of a Delta hub. The same logic holds true for short domestic hops. Say you’re in Seattle (SEA) and want to pop down to Denver (DEN). You’re in luck because it’s pretty easy to find a good deal for just 7,500 SkyMiles each way – and less if you’re willing to book a basic economy award.


Delta SkyMiles Hub Penalty


However, if you want to fly to SLC, expect to pay more – even for a much shorter flight. Why? Because you’re flying into a Delta hub, on a route with far less competition.


Delta SkyMiles Hub Penalty


Meanwhile, airports big and small where Delta doesn’t have a huge presence – like Chicago-O’Hare (ORD) or even Chicago Midway (MDW) – are often the best ways to score a good deal with SkyMiles, on long-haul or short flights.

Thrifty Tip: If Delta wants to charge you too many SkyMiles for your flight, try adding in a short flight on either side to see if it brings down the price.


Our Analysis

Delta has a stranglehold on many of its hubs. Outside of the behemoths like New York City-JFK (JFK) and Los Angeles (LAX), its major competitors like American Airlines and United don’t have much of a presence in Delta’s primary areas of service. Less competition = more control over fares. And because Delta is untethered from an award chart, it can exploit that.

It’s safe to say that because Delta’s flyers are loyal and don’t have as many alternative options on other airlines, it can charge more for a flight out of one of its hubs. And that’s exactly what they do.

That’s a bummer, especially for loyal Delta flyers based in their hubs (full disclaimer: the whole TT team fits that bill). However, that doesn’t negate the value in SkyMiles, and it opens up some opportunities for travelers based elsewhere


Bottom Line

Delta’s hub penalty is a byproduct of the lack of an award chart, and it’s an unfortunate one. However, Delta SkyMiles are still worth collecting and using. It’s just another complicating factor that Delta flyers need to keep in mind when they’re looking to burn some SkyMiles for a free flight.


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Lead photo courtesy of Delta

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.

6 Responses

  • Delta’s decisions are business decisions not sky miles convenience decisions. Money makes the business work. Sky miles do not. (Just an observer’s opinion)

  • “Thrifty Tip: If Delta wants to charge you too many SkyMiles for your flight, try adding in a short flight on either side to see if it brings down the price.”

    So this author is advocating hidden city practices, which although not expressly prohibited, is unethical and cheating the airline.

    • You’ll notice that I never actually recommended throwing away a segment. Because I’m not. Merely suggesting that readers look to see if adding a segment lowers the price and actually taking it if feasible.

    • For example, a few years ago, I used SkyMiles to fly from Minneapolis to Madrid. It was actually less miles to depart out of Chicago Midway with a stop in Minneapolis. Taking a positioning flight on Southwest airlines to get to Midway ended up saving me 12k SkyMiles. This is what Kyle is referring to.

  • An irony is that many of Delta’s posted fares and points sales do not list Chicago! I’ve complained to Delta that their “personalized” email promotions should be tailored to the city of their member. Technically, this is not hard to do, and many third-party travel sites already do this. I didn’t get much more than a “thank you for your suggestion” response. In fact, I even offered to connect them with a programmer who does this type of work.

  • The flip side of the Delta hub penalty is that, because of Delta’s dominance (e.g., at MSP), you can often get some pretty good fares on United and American. We were able to go from MSP to Melbourne, Australia last month for $676 on United. You just have to spend some time looking

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