How to Redeem Miles With the Delta Air Lines SkyMiles Program

Dec 23, 2018

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If you’ve kept up with the points and miles game over the past few years, you’ve probably heard Delta SkyMiles called “SkyPesos” at least once. This term is frequently used as the derisive name of the carrier’s currency thanks to unannounced devaluations and the removal of award charts in 2015, making the price of awards unpredictable (and sometimes astoundingly expensive).

But fear not: if you find yourself with a stash of Delta SkyMiles, they’re nowhere near worthless. In fact, there are still some solid redemptions available, especially when Delta runs one of its regular award sales (which happened to win the inaugural TPG Award for best airline promotion of 2018).

So with that in mind, today I’ll take a detailed look at how to redeem your Delta SkyMiles for optimal value. We’ll cover how to redeem for both Delta and partner flights and discuss using miles for merchandise. Let’s jump in!

Redeem on Delta flights

As you’d expect, you can redeem your Delta SkyMiles for Delta, Delta Connection and Delta Shuttle flights. However, as noted earlier, Delta removed its online award charts in early 2015. This means that you must search for your award on Delta’s website (or call customer service) to get an accurate price.

Unfortunately, these prices change frequently based on the price of the flight, the number of people booking and other factors. Additionally, different flights on the same route may have different pricing, as seen in this example from New York-JFK to Chicago-O’Hare (ORD):

Delta pricing fluctuares frequently.
Different flights on the same route may have different prices.

As you can see above, there are multiple flights on this route, but each one has different pricing for Economy and Comfort+, ranging from 5,500 to 14,500 miles. As a result, flexibility can save you a boatload of SkyMiles, so make sure to check all times for the best available price.

One big positive about this type of dynamic pricing is that Delta will frequently offer award flights below the “standard” rate of 12,500 miles each way. Booking the above route on a United-operated flight using the MileagePlus program would set you back at least 10,000 miles, while an American-operated flight booked through the AAdvantage program starts at 12,500 miles. Three of Delta’s four flights fall below these prices.

Taxes and fees are generally reasonable on Delta tickets. Expect to pay minimal taxes and fees on domestic tickets and international tickets departing the United States. However, Delta does add carrier-imposed surcharges on many awards that start outside the US, most notably out of Europe.

Finally, be aware that Delta just started testing Basic Economy on award tickets in select markets, a move that will strip significant value from the program if it expands across the carrier’s entire network.

Keep an eye out for SkyMiles Deals

One of the best ways to redeem SkyMiles is by booking a SkyMiles Deal (to which Delta has now dedicated an entire site). Delta posts these deals to their website on a regular basis, and they can offer deep discounts on tickets in both economy class and Delta One. These deals are generally between specific city pairs, so you may need to book your own connecting tickets.

In 2018 alone, we saw a rash of award sales to destinations all over the globe. Here are some of the most notable (all prices were for round-trip flights):

If you have no immediate use for your SkyMiles, you may be best off saving them for the next big SkyMiles Deal (and be sure you’re following us on Twitter and Facebook to learn about these deals as soon as they launch).

Redeem on Partner Flights

SkyTeam partner, Czech Airways has a hub in Prague.
SkyTeam partner, Czech Airways has a hub in Prague.

Delta is a part of the SkyTeam alliance and also has a number of non-alliance partners like Virgin Atlantic and WestJet. This means that you can redeem your SkyMiles on a number of different carriers and routes worldwide. Here’s Delta’s full list of airline partners:

SkyTeam partners:

  • Aeroflot
  • Aerolineas Argentina
  • Aeromexico
  • Air Europa
  • Air France
  • Alitalia
  • China Airlines
  • China Eastern
  • China Southern (though the carrier is leaving SkyTeam on Jan. 1, 2019, which will certainly impact Delta flyers)
  • Czech Airlines
  • Garuda Indonesia
  • Kenya Airways
  • KLM Royal Dutch Airlines
  • Korean Air
  • MEA
  • Saudia
  • Tarom
  • Vietnam Airlines
  • Xiamen Air

Non-alliance partners:

  • Air Tahiti Nui
  • GOL Airlines
  • Hawaiian Airlines
  • Jet Airways
  • Mandarin Airlines
  • Seaborne Airlines
  • Shanghai Airlines
  • Transavia
  • Virgin Atlantic
  • Virgin Australia
  • WestJet

Fortunately, partner award tickets are not priced the same way as Delta tickets, as they do have a set price. For example, here’s an award search for a nonstop business class flight from New York-JFK to Shanghai (PVG), a route operated solely by partner airline China Eastern:

That being said, without award charts, Delta can choose to raise these rates at any time (and the carrier has done that several times). To get an estimate on a Delta partner ticket, you’ll need to either call Delta directly or search its website for an up-to-date award price.

Delta has been enhancing its website to display partner awards, and at the time of writing, virtually all SkyTeam and non-alliance carriers can be booked directly online. However, I’ve found that the site isn’t great at piecing together mixed-cabin itineraries and will often “force” you into Delta-operated flights, so I’d encourage you to search segment-by-segment (and be prepared to call if Delta.com won’t construct the trip you need).

Redeem for Upgrades

Another way to redeem your SkyMiles is for upgrades to the next class of service, though be forewarned: the exact details can be very complicated. The simplest method was actually just launched at the end of 2018. When you have a confirmed ticket on Delta, you should now have the option to pay cash or use miles to upgrade your flight directly through Delta.com. However, the value of these redemptions are generally pegged to roughly 1 cent per mile, lower than TPG’s most recent valuation of Delta miles at 1.2 cents apiece. If you’re swimming in SkyMiles and don’t have any planned use for them, this might make sense, but personally I’d recommend sticking with the full award flights options noted above.

In addition, you can also redeem your miles to upgrade certain flights operated by Air France, KLM, Virgin Atlantic or Aeromexico. However, there are specific fare class requirements, and this option is limited to select routes operated by each carrier, so be sure to check Delta’s upgrade with miles page for more details. You’ll also want to make sure there’s upgrade inventory available, but fortunately all four of these carriers publish business class award inventory on ExpertFlyer, making it easy to search and set alerts if the seats you need aren’t available at time of booking.

Redeem for Rental Cars, Hotels and Merchandise

Photo courtesy of Hyatt Hotels
Photo courtesy of Hyatt Hotels

Like most airline mileage programs, you can redeem your SkyMiles for many things other than flights, including gift cards, Apple products, cruises, car rentals, hotel rooms and even for experiences via auction. However, these redemptions will almost always yield a lower return than when redeeming SkyMiles for air travel on Delta or one of its many partners.

To illustrate this, I priced out a one-day car rental in Chicago through the SkyMiles Marketplace. An economy car through Alamo costs 10,437 miles. The same car rental booked directly through the Alamo website costs $48.17, giving you a value of just $0.0046 per mile.

SkyMiles Marketplace redemptions will vary redemption to redemption, but in my experience, it’s almost less than TPG’s valuation of 1.2 cents per SkyMile. Here at TPG, we always recommend using your miles for the maximum value, so if you can, redeem for flights.

Bottom Line

Despite Delta SkyMiles losing value over the last few years, there are still many great deals to be booked. Even though the program has been marching towards a set redemption value of 1 cent per mile, you can still easily outstrip that, especially for premium class awards on partner airlines. I highly recommend keeping an eye out for cheap domestic tickets and SkyMiles Deals to get the most bang for your miles, as doing this may actually save you miles when compared to other mileage programs.

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