Delta Air Lines may offer one of America’s best in-flight products, but its SkyMiles loyalty program leaves much to be desired. Not so much because redemptions values are always bad (though they often are), but because Delta breaks the cardinal rule of loyalty: Thou Shat Not Devalue Without Notice.
Delta even has the temerity to claim it is illegal to provide advance notice…
Since Delta does not publish award charts, fixed prices can (and do) change overnight, but at least for now Skyteam partner award travel is based upon fixed pricing. Two of Delta’s most valuable partners are Virgin Australia and Virgin Atlantic, both outside the SkyTeam group, and while Virgin Australia pricing remains fixed, we have recently seen fluctuations in Virgin Atlantic pricing, perhaps reflecting the close joint-venture relationship between the two carriers.
Top 5 Delta SkyMiles Redemptions
1. United States to Asia for 80K miles one-way in business class
China Airlines has rolled out a very nice new business class, China Eastern has a great hard product (though watch out for smoke), and even Delta’s 747-400 is tremendous in business. Space on partners like China Eastern, China Southern, and China Airlines will be much more common than on Delta. With just a bit of flexibility, you can find seats to most major cities in Asia and often enough for the whole family. Korean Air used to be a great source of space but has recently been very tight-fisted with award space.
Delta sometimes suggests routings on Air France via Paris or Aeroflot via Moscow to Asia. Avoid it! You will see that space is much more expensive because the price of the award is compounded: the flight between the U.S. and Europe is charged separately from the flight between Europe and Asia.
2. Japan to Australia or New Zealand for 65K miles one-way in business class
65K miles for what amounts to about 12 hours of flying in business class is a great value, especially when fares in this market tend to run high. A cache of partners are at your disposal here, including the ones mentioned above (all of which service Australia) and highly-acclaimed Garuda Indonesia.
Watch out for fuel surcharges on China Eastern and China Southern, but even those are not so high that they defeat the value of the award.
3. United States to Europe for 70K one-way in business class
Aeroflot and Virgin Atlantic offer the best source of transatlantic business class space. While moderate fuel surcharges are collected on Aeroflot, there are no fuel surcharges on flights originating in North America on Alitalia, Air France, Delta, KLM, or Virgin Atlantic.
Air France is odd. While it makes much more space available to its own members than to SkyTeam partners like Delta, it releases award spaces 331 days in advance yet only offers its own members access to the space about 305 days in advance. Ironically, if you can book 11 months in advance you stand the best chance of securing multiple premium seats on almost all Air France longhaul routes.
But once the space opens for Air France Flying Blue members as well, it is rarely available with Delta miles. The same is true for KLM longhaul routes.
Note that Delta tacks on very high fuel surcharges to flights that originate in Europe, so if you must start your round-trip in Europe, book it as two one-ways. That way, your return trip to Europe will not also have a fuel surcharge.
4. United States to Australia/Tahiti for 95K miles one-way in business class
This would have been #1 just a couple years ago — award space used to be ample on Virgin Australia whether booked close-in or months in advance. Not anymore.
Virgin Australia has a fancy new business class, but seems only to release award space in the final days before the flight. That doesn’t bode well for planning, though it does reward those booking last-minute trips.
95K one-way is a lot of miles, but prices remain high to fly to Australia or New Zealand in business class so this is still a smart redemption.
Delta also partners with Air Tahiti Nui, offering a way to get to Tahiti non-stop from Los Angeles. Note, however, that you’ll pay about $500 in round-trip fuel surcharges for Air Tahiti Nui redemptions. If you redeem for Air Tahiti on American Airlines, there are no fuel surcharges.
5. United States to Hawaii for 40K miles one-way in business class
It is extremely rare to find Delta saver space to Hawaii. Furthermore, prices for premium tickets have retreated so much it often does not make sense to redeem from the West Coast. But from Midwest and East Coast, Alaska redemptions to Hawaii can be very lucrative.
Warning: for this redemption you must be very flexible to find space this reasonable. In searching through January – May, I only found space on one date.
So What About Economy Class?
We all value miles differently, but I struggle to easily find economy class bookings that make sense on Delta. Delta advertises cheap redemptions, sometimes as low as 5,500 miles one-way, but when you compare the price of the flight, you are still getting under 1.5 cents per point, which is a poor exchange rate.
Take the Los Angeles to San Francisco shuttle–only 5,500 miles, but the ticket is only $73.
I don’t think that is a wise redemption when you can pay 160K miles for a $6,000 business class ticket…
Economy class awards can certainly make sense in some situations. Delta does not charge close-in booking fees for mileage bookings (AA and UA charge $75 for bookings made within 21 days of travel) and that makes last-minute bookings more attractive. More and more, though, we are seeing a stricter correlation between ticket price and mileage price with Delta, eliminating sweet spots.
For worldwide economy travel, there are some markets (like Australia) where 90K sure beats spending $2,000 on a coach ticket, but as a rule of thumb your value for premium cabin parter redemptions will be significantly better.
Fine, business class is a better value, but I just don’t have the miles…
If your miles are limited, I encourage you to keep saving. Delta miles do not expire and trust me on this: you will thank me later. On the one hand, I note that miles are a depreciating asset. On the other hand, I find it incredibly unlikely we will see premium cabin tickets become a poorer redemption option than economy. Time will tell, but if you are new to this game or just not much of a Delta traveler, don’t worry. Most of my points come from credit card spending and bonuses anyway.
Lately it has made more sense to redeem American Express points through its own travel portal than to transfer and redeem with Delta. With the American Express Business Platinum card now offering a 50% refund on points redeemed via the travel portal, transferring from American Express to Delta makes sense in few and fewer situations.
But for international longhaul premium cabin redemptions on partner airlines, Delta still represents a significant value.