17 Tips for Earning, Burning and Flying with Delta

Dec 9, 2015

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Whether you frequently travel with Delta or simply have a few flights scheduled on the airline, it helps to know the SkyMiles program’s rules so you can use them to your advantage. TPG Senior Points & Miles Correspondent Jason Steele goes through 17 of the top tips for earning and redeeming miles and booking award flights on Delta.

Of all the major airlines, few have aroused such strong feelings as Delta has in the last few years. On one hand, it prides itself on operating efficiently and delivering a consistent onboard product. At the same time, it’s angered travelers by leading the movement toward revenue-based mileage accrual and even taking the bizarre step of removing its mileage award charts. But love it or hate it, travelers who live in a Delta hub city are going to end up traveling with the airline if they want to get a nonstop flight to most destinations.

Today, I’ll continue my series that began with 13 Tips for Flying United and 14 Tips for Flying American Airlines by offering 17 tips for flying with Delta.

Earning Miles

1. Choose the right credit cards. — Now that Delta has switched to awarding miles on a revenue basis, it’s much harder for most travelers to get their miles in the air unless they travel on high-priced fares with little advanced notice. As a result, it’s more important than ever to focus on using your credit cards to earn SkyMiles. Delta currently offers four different cards for consumers, and three for small businesses issued by American Express. The consumer cards include:

  • Delta SkyMiles Credit Card: This entry-level offering features little beyond double miles for Delta purchases, and a 20% savings on in-flight purchases. There’s a $55 annual fee for this card.
  • Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express: This card currently offers new applicants 30,000 miles after making $1,000 in purchases within three months of account opening, and a $50 statement credit after your first Delta purchase. Benefits include priority boarding and a free checked bag. There’s a $95 annual fee for this card that’s waived the first year.
  • Platinum Delta SkyMiles Credit Card from American Express: This version offers 5,000 Medallion Qualification Miles (MQMs) and 35,000 bonus miles after you spend $1,000 within your first three months, along with a $100 statement credit after your first Delta purchase. Other benefits include the ability to earn 10,000 MQMs each year after spending $25,000 and another 10,000 after reaching $50,000 of annual spending. There’s a $195 annual fee for this card.
  • Delta Reserve® Credit Card from American Express: This top-of-the line card offers new applicants 10,000 bonus MQMs and 40,000 bonus miles after spending $3,000 within the first three months. Each year, cardholders can also earn another 15,000 MQMs after reaching $30,000 in spending and an additional 15,000 MQMs after reaching $60,000. This card also offers Sky Club membership and upgrade priority over others within the same elite tier. The card comes with a $450 annual fee.

American Express also offers business versions of the Gold Delta SkyMiles® Business Credit Card from American ExpressPlatinum Delta SkyMiles® Business Credit Card from American Express cards with nearly identical terms and benefits.

2. Earn flexible points that transfer to Delta. — In addition to the Delta SkyMiles cards, American Express also offers cards that earn Membership Rewards points, which can be transferred to Delta SkyMiles. These include the Premier Rewards Gold Card and the Platinum Card® from American Express. Another one of my favorites is the Amex EveryDay Preferred Card, which offers 3x points at US supermarkets, 2x at gas stations and 1x everywhere else, plus a 50% points bonus each month when you make 30 or more transactions. There’s a $95 annual fee for this card. Finally, the Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card from American Express also earns points that can be transferred to Delta SkyMiles.

3. Flight attendants can award miles. — Delta empowers its flight attendants to award miles to customers who are the victim of service failures, or who volunteer to switch seats. Examples of service failures can include a spilled drink, a malfunctioning entertainment system,or a broken seat. Sadly, there are also many reports of these promised bonuses not posting, so if you’re promised these miles, try to document it somehow.

4. Be careful with partner carriers. — A long time ago, flying a partner carrier meant that you’d earn the same miles that you would have with Delta. But today, Delta has four different partner “groups” and you have to look at the individual airline and fare class to determine what, if any, miles and MQMs you might earn for your flight (filing your taxes is probably easier). This chart is a good place to start, but Delta’s message is clear: Choose Delta flights to earn the most miles.

Earning Status

5. Request a status match challenge, even from Southwest. — Delta has a published status match challenge program that lists American, Alaska and United, but I also know of people who’ve also been able to receive a status match using their Companion Pass from Southwest.

6. Use the SkyMiles Platinum and Reserve credit cards to earn MQMs. — Delta is by far the most generous airline when it comes to offering elite-qualifying miles from its credit cards. You can earn MQMs from both the consumer and business versions of the Platinum and Reserve cards. In fact, you can earn enough miles through these cards (by meeting annual spending requirements) to jump up to the next level of status — or even Silver Medallion status without flying.

7. Avoid the MQD restriction. — People who fly on discounted economy class flights can miss out on Medallion status when they fail to earn the necessary amount of Medallion Qualifying Dollars (MQDs). The requirements are $3,000 for Silver, $6,000 for Gold, $9,000 for Platinum and $15,000 for Diamond. Thankfully, there are two ways to get around this restriction. The first is to have a foreign address, which is only valuable for those who have an overseas residence. However, the second option is to spend $25,000 per year on any of the Delta SkyMiles cards from American Express.

Ensure a pleasant trip by knowing the SkyMiles program's rules.
Ensure a pleasant trip by knowing the SkyMiles program’s rules.

Booking Award Travel

8. Consult the missing award chart. — One of the most egregious changes Delta made to its SkyMiles program was removing its 2015 award chart — just five weeks into the year! Nevertheless, it still seems to be relying on the old award chart to award (to some extent), especially when it comes to partner awards which always appear at the former Low or Saver levels. There’s a copy of the economy-class award chart in my 2015 Delta Air Lines SkyMiles Program Overview.

9. Consider positioning flights. — With the award chart out of the way, Delta has been free to apply some strange logic to its award-pricing engine, and there isn’t much you can do about it. A particular problem is that adding a domestic segment will often add tremendously to the price of an international award. Therefore, it may be worth it to book a separate positioning flight to your international gateway. This can be worth it to save thousands of SkyMiles — just be sure to leave enough time in between flights to allow for delays.

Delta adds fuel surcharges to award flights originating in Europe, in this case 219 EURO or about $239.
Delta adds fuel surcharges to some award flights originating in Europe — in this case, 219 euros or about $239.

10. Avoid booking one-way flights from Europe. — Delta will add fuel surcharges to some award itineraries originating in Europe, but not for round-trip flights to Europe from North America or other regions. To avoid this fee, try to book award itineraries to Europe as round-trip flights, and only do one-way segments to Europe.

11. Focus on partner awards. — Delta isn’t winning any fans here in the US with its high prices for award flights, and its total lack of transparency doesn’t help, either. But once you start booking flights that only involve partners, the prices start to make more sense, and it’s much easier to find award availability. Furthermore, Delta does a decent job of showing partner award flights on its site. For details, check out TPG’s post on how Delta Increases Partner Award Bookings Through Site and my post on How to Book Award Flights with Delta SkyMiles.

12. Consider the Miles + Cash option. — Delta has been pushing its Miles + Cash option this year, which is different than the old Pay with Miles. The big differences are that Miles + Cash flights are treated as award tickets (Pay with Miles bookings are treated as revenue tickets), but you can get as much as two cents per mile in value with this option. For more information, read TPG Senior Contributor Richard Kerr’s post, Is Delta’s Miles + Cash Option a Deal or a Dud?.

The quiet scene at my gate — once I finally got there.

Other Tips

13. Use the Delta SkyMiles companion certificate. — Both the Delta Platinum and Reserve SkyMiles credit cards offer a companion certificate once a year upon renewal. The Platinum card’s companion certificate is valid for the base fare (taxes are extra) on economy-class flights in the contiguous 48 states, while you can also use the Reserve card’s certificate for first class flights. These certificates are valid for all but the most heavily discounted tickets, such as those sold by consolidators and the new Basic Economy fare class.

14. Watch out for schedule changes on Saturdays. — Delta seems to alter its schedule more frequently than other carriers, and these changes are typically rolled out on Saturdays. When you’re informed of a schedule change, this can be your opportunity to request a flight at a more convenient time or with a better routing. To do so, don’t accept the changes, and call Delta to request the flights you want. If you are happy with your flights, be sure to double-check your seat assignments, as these are frequently lost during schedule changes.

15. Beware of Basic Economy fares. — To compete with ultra-low cost carriers like Spirit, Delta introduced a new fare class called Basic Economy, but flying on these fares can be a vastly different experience, especially for Medallion elites. Even Medallions won’t be able to receive seat assignments, even for a fee. In fact, there’s no seat selection at all, as you are assigned a seat at check-in.  Furthermore, there are no first-class or Economy +/Comfort upgrades. Other restrictions include no same-day confirmed or same-day standby availability, so you’ll be stuck with whatever you booked. Delta prominently discloses the nature of these fares when you purchase them from through its website, but it may not be as clear when you book through an online travel agency or a corporate travel system.

16. Be extra careful traveling on flights to Africa. — When you book a trip to Africa and other places in the developing world, you’ll find a statement in your confirmation about needing to present the credit card you used to check-in. In fact, Delta will deny you boarding if you don’t have the credit card on hand, even if it was only used to pay for a few dollars in taxes and fees on an award ticket. So remember which card you used for the purchase and hang on to it, even if it’s expired. I’m not sure how Delta would handle it if the card you used becomes lost or stolen, and I hope I never have to find out!

17. Visit the Delta Museum. — If you’re a true Delta fan, you have to take some time to visit the Delta Flight Museum, just outside of the Atlanta airport. Exhibits include full-size aircraft that have been part of Delta history, such as Boeing’s first 747-400, which will be arriving in 2016.

What are your favorite tips for flying Delta? Feel free to share them in the comments below!

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