How to Get Great Value From Delta SkyMiles

Oct 10, 2017

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Among frequent flyers and points and miles buffs, Delta’s SkyMiles program doesn’t have the best reputation. It’s been derided since the early 2010s, with the general consensus being that SkyMiles aren’t worth much, and consequently aren’t worth investing in.

That idea has continued to spread over the last few years as Delta has removed award charts, added — and then rolled back — surcharges on award tickets flown on Virgin Atlantic and raised rates for award flights on partner airlines.

While it’s true that the program has changed a lot in the past few years, there’s still plenty of value to be had; all it takes is a little patience. Over just the past year I’ve made a few SkyMiles redemptions and always managed to get a value of at least 2 cents per mile — a nice premium over TPG’s valuation of 1.2 cents. By searching availability and being a little flexible, it’s definitely possible redeem your SkyMiles for valuable flights.

Delta’s Missing Award Chart

One of the biggest challenges to getting top value from Delta SkyMiles is that — unlike competitors American and United — Delta doesn’t publish an award chart. That means that Delta can, in theory, set prices to whatever it wants.

Instead of being based on a fixed chart, prices are variable, changing depending on flight, day, number of stops and more. However, even though it’s not published, most routes seem to have a bottom “saver level” award price. Without having a chart to refer to, it’s just a matter of doing various searches to figure out what that saver rate is for the route you want to book.

It’s actually pretty easy to figure out the saver-level award price for a given flight. For instance, let’s say you want to fly between New York and Paris. As you can see in the screenshot below, round-trip economy award flights between the two cities range from 60,000 to 100,000 SkyMiles. By searching a few other months, both last-minute and a long time out, it becomes clear that 60,000 SkyMiles for a round-trip flight — or 30,000 for a one-way — is the lowest price available for flights from the US to Europe.

By searching a few months for flights between the east coast and Paris-area airports, you can figure out that the lowest "saver" rate for a roundtrip is 60,000 Delta SkyMiles

In another example, searching for a round-trip award flight between New York (JFK) and Boston (BOS), the saver rate seems to be 15,000 SkyMiles. While there’s a lowest price to look for, it seems there isn’t much of an upper price limit; if you leave on November 19 in the below search, rates start at a whopping 52,000 SkyMiles, while leaving a few days earlier or later can be much cheaper.

In this search for a Delta roundtrip JFK-BOS award flight, the price can vary widely

If you’re looking to get the most value for your miles, you’ll want to look for days with low award prices and high cash prices, especially when buying a ticket that would cost a lot of cash. That kind of redemption means that each individual mile is worth more.

Let’s take a look at how I’ve been able to put this into practice over the past year, using my SkyMiles when cash prices were high but saver award tickets were available.

Long-Haul Economy: JFK-EDI

This redemption was a nice reminder that planning ahead can be helpful when redeeming points and miles; because I started looking for saver availability more than a few months in advance, I was able to wait for space to open up.

Last summer I flew on Delta from New York to Edinburgh. My fiancée and I only had a little bit of flexibility in our dates due to work projects, but since the flight was during peak travel season, cash prices were fairly expensive. Fortunately, though, because we started looking for tickets in April, I was able to keep checking even though initially I couldn’t find saver rates on the dates we wanted.

I kept an eye out, and after a couple of weeks, I noticed an award price drop for the day we were hoping to leave. The round-trip was available for the saver rate of 60,000 miles, plus around $136 in fees and taxes. Right before booking the award ticket, I checked the cash price: $1,325. That meant that the redemption was worth about 2 cents per SkyMile.

Short-Haul Economy: LGA-BTV

I’ve also been able to pull great value from my SkyMiles on trips a little bit closer to home.

This summer, I flew from New York (LGA) to Burlington, Vermont (BTV) to visit family. Although I originally planned to pay cash, prices went up before I got around to actually booking the flight. I was reluctant to pay $311 for the round-trip ticket, especially since the LGA-BTV flight is often in the $100s.

Luckily, this was one of those cases where the award rate stayed low when the cash price became higher. I searched for award flights and found round-trip saver availability on both weekends I was considering. The tickets ended up costing just 15,000 SkyMiles (plus $11.20 in taxes). This gave me almost exactly 2 cents per SkyMile in value.

Transcontinental Delta One (Business Class): LAX-JFK

Want to snag some Delta awards? Here's what you need to know.

As part of a multi-stop itinerary this coming fall, I had to book a connecting flight for two from California to New York. It’s a special trip (my honeymoon!) and we’re flying most of it in first or business class thanks to points and miles, so I wanted to fly the last leg in style.

Unfortunately, finding premium-cabin saver availability on transcontinental routes can be tricky. We considered paying cash, but any discount business-class fares that might have been available had already been snatched up.

I spent a few weeks checking award availability on every airline that flies from either Los Angeles (LAX) or San Francisco (SFO) to New York, using ExpertFlyer to make the searches easier. I also checked cash prices to see if any additional discount fares were released.

Delta’s saver rate for Delta One from Los Angeles to New York is 40,000 SkyMiles, which I figured out by searching a few different months. Two saver seats opened for the day we were looking to fly home, so I quickly checked the cash price — about $1,058 each — before booking the award flight. That meant each SkyMile would be worth 2.6 cents, a personal record. To make things even better, the flight, which was originally on a Boeing 767, was switched to an Airbus A330, which should make for a much more enjoyable flight.

Getting Outsized Value

With some frequent flyer programs, you can find outsized value by booking international first class, including on partner airlines — business class works too, although the value per mile is usually a bit less. For instance, you can use 110,000 United MileagePlus miles, plus $80.60 in taxes, to book a one-way Lufthansa first-class flight to Munich. In a sample search for a flight with first-class saver availability, the same flight is $9,354 — that’s about 8.4 cents per mile. TPG currently values United miles at 1.5 cents each.

The same thing works with American Airlines AAdvantage. First-class “MileSAAver” tickets from the US to Japan on American’s partners are 80,000 AAdvantage miles each way — or 160,000 round-trip. That round-trip ticket would normally cost as much as $29,694 on Oneworld partner Japan Air Lines (JAL). If you can find the saver availability on JAL, that would be an incredible 18.6 cents per mile — TPG’s valuation of AAdvantage miles is currently 1.4 cents.

It’s a bit harder to get that outsized value with Delta SkyMiles because they can’t be used to book international first class on partner airlines — only business class. However, that option can still help you get more value for your SkyMiles than you could get flying in economy.

For example, a search for flights next June from JFK to Jeddah on SkyTeam partner Saudia Airlines turns up a seat for 85,000 Delta SkyMiles in business class (plus $31). If I tried to purchase that same seat as a revenue fare, it would cost $3,118. That means that with that redemption, each SkyMile would be worth about 3.6 cents.

You can book partner awards in business class using Delta SkyMiles
You can book partner awards in business class using Delta SkyMiles

Similarly, I found availability in Korean Airlines’ Prestige (business) class in April for $3,161 one-way, with a saver seat available to book for 95,000 SkyMiles. That’s about 3.3 cents per SkyMile.

Bottom Line

The biggest issue with Delta is that without formal award charts it can be hard to figure out the baseline price for awards. Beyond that, the airline has had a habit of devaluing its frequent flyer program without warning. However, all this really means in practice is that you need to do a little extra work to figure out the saver-level price on economy and business-class awards. By keeping an eye out for saver-level awards around your travel dates and being a little bit flexible, you can still find great value for your Delta SkyMiles.

What are your tips for getting maximum value from Delta SkyMiles?

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