Delta SkyMiles: Value from domestic flights

Delta SkyMiles are often referred to as “Sky Pesos” because low level (AKA saver level) awards are rarely available.  Delta advertises being able to book round trip domestic flights for 25,000 miles, but in reality finding availability at that price can be nearly impossible.

If you live near a Delta hub, things aren’t so bad.  From a Delta hub, 25K availability is sometimes available.  Even better, if you live near a hub it is possible to tack on free one-way awards, or do other tricks to get even more value.  I may write some follow up posts regarding those tricks in the future.  For now, though, I plan to show how to get good value even if you do not live near a hub.

Free Stopover

All of the major airlines allow free stopovers on international travel, but only Delta allows them on domestic flights*.  You can use this to your advantage to get more value from your domestic awards.  Unlike other airlines, with Delta a single round trip award can include two destinations instead of just one.  Let’s look at an example…

* United allows a stopover if your award travel includes Hawaii

Example

Suppose you have a family of four and you live in Connecticut near the Hartford airport.  You want to take a trip out west with your family and you’d like to visit both Salt Lake City and Phoenix.  Like many families, your dates are not flexible.

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Image courtesy of Great Circle Mapper

When I picked some arbitrary dates for this trip, Kayak quoted a price of $771 per person.  In this scenario, that’s more than you want to spend, so you turn to your stockpile of United, American Airlines, and Delta miles.

In general, United and American have far better saver level award availability than Delta.  They also allow one-way awards.  With either of these airlines, you could piece together this trip by redeeming three one-way awards (Hartford to Salt Lake City; Salt Lake City to Phoenix; and Phoenix to Hartford).  If saver level awards were available for all three legs of this itinerary, then you could redeem as few as 37,500 miles per person for this trip.  In reality, though, you are very unlikely to find saver level awards for four people for the entire trip if your dates are inflexible.  If just one leg of this itinerary priced at the high level, then the trip would cost 50K miles per person.  If all three legs priced at the high level, then the trip would cost 75K miles per person.

With Delta, we can take advantage of the fact that Delta considers Salt Lake City to be a valid waypoint between Hartford and Phoenix.  Given that, it is possible to include a free stopover there within a single round trip award.  While 25K awards are almost impossible to find, medium-level (40K) awards are almost always available (except during holidays).  So, the same trip that would cost a minimum of 37,500 miles with United or AA, would cost 40,000 miles with Delta.  As I mentioned before, though, since your dates are inflexible in this example, the price via United or AA is more likely to be 50K miles or more per person.  With Delta, you can almost have your choice of dates and times and still keep the total price to 40K miles per person.

Advantages of this approach

By accepting the fact that you will book medium level awards (40K each), there are some big advantages to using your Delta miles for a trip like this:

  • You can pick the dates and times that work best for you.  While not every flight will be available at the 40K redemption level, you will likely find that most are available.
  • You can save your United and AA miles for more valuable international trips.  If you don’t live near a Delta hub, you will most likely find it frustratingly difficult to find saver level international awards on Delta.  It is much easier with United and AA.  Plus, Delta miles can’t be used to book first class international travel.
  • You can save your United and AA miles for simpler trips. If you have need of a one way trip or a simple round trip, you’re much more likely to find saver level availability on United or American.

 

Finding valid routes (new example)

The trick shown above works because, to Delta, Salt Lake City is a valid layover between Hartford and Phoenix.  To find out whether your desired destinations are valid, go to Delta.com and try booking a one-way flight between your home airport and one of your desired destinations.  Browse through the results to see if your other desired destination is ever used as a layover. 

For example, let’s say you want to fly from Hartford to Seattle and then later to Los Angeles before returning home…

map
Image courtesy of Great Circle Mapper

 

Go to Delta.com and search for flights between Hartford and Los Angeles.  If you scroll far enough through the results, you may find what you’re looking for.  For example, the following two flights route through Seattle:

image

So, given that Seattle is a valid route to LA, you should be able to use this trick.

Finding available dates & times

The way to book a two stop itinerary is to use Delta’s multi-city search.  The problem is that, when using the multi-city search, Delta does not tell you which flights are at the 25K, 40K, or 60K level.  So, it’s necessary to do some research first.  The trick is to plug in each leg as if you are booking a one-way award.  Look for one-way flights that price at 25K or 40K and write them down.  Do this for each part of the trip (i.e. Hartford to Seattle, Seattle to LA, and LA to Hartford).

 

Booking the trip

Once you have written down the dates, times, and flight numbers of the flights you want, you should now be able to book the trip.  Under “Book a Trip”, go to “More Search Options” (from other screens, this is called “Advanced Search”).  Select the “Multi-city” tab and enter in the flight dates you are interested in:

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Then, carefully select the flights you wrote down earlier.  If all goes well, the itinerary should price out at 40K:

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Tip: Make sure none of the one-way awards include a layover of over 3 hours. If it does, that flight will use up your one allowed stopover.

Tip: Avoid partner operated flights. The first time I ran through the above scenario, I chose an Alaska Airlines operated flight and the award priced out at 65K. In other words, it added a 25K award redemption on top of the 40K redemption. Not good. When I went back and replaced that flight with a Delta operated flight, the award priced out correctly.

Updated Tip: Sometimes an itinerary that looks valid will price out higher than expected (e.g. higher than 40K), if this happens to you, try the following:

  • Look for long layovers in your itinerary (e.g. 3+ hours) and replace those flights with shorter layovers. It’s not clear why this helps, but this worked for me several times.
  • Try to avoid mixing carriers. For example, book all Delta flights or all same partner flights (such as Alaska Airlines). It appears that mixing carriers causes the award to price incorrectly.

 

Variations

Delta’s booking engine sees the above itinerary as a round trip in which the outbound is: Hartford to LA with a stop in Seattle; and the return is LA to Hartford.  If you can find saver level awards for all of your outbound flights, or for all of your return flights, then you can save miles, or fly first class for just a few more miles.  Here are two examples:

Example 1 (save miles): Suppose 25K saver level flights exist for both Hartford to Seattle, and Seattle to LA.  In that case, you can book the outbound at 25K and the return at 40K, and the entire award will cost you the average: 32,500 miles.  This only works if you can find saver level availability for the entire outbound or return trip.  Of course, if you find saver level availability for both the outbound and the return trip then the whole thing will cost just 25,000 miles per person (good luck with that, though).

Example 2 (first class awards): Suppose that saver level flights exist for the return (LA to Hartford), but only in first class.  First class saver level awards cost 45K miles.  So, if you book coach outbound at the 40K level, and then first class return at the 45K level, the booking engine will charge you the average of the two: 42,500 miles. In other words, under the right conditions, you can upgrade half your trip to first class for only 2,500 miles!

Conclusion

Delta miles can be frustratingly difficult to use, at least if your goal is to get good value from them.  The example above, though, shows that under certain circumstances Delta SkyMiles can deliver excellent value.

Some readers will point out that there exist even better options such as using British Airways Avios for short flights (4500 points for each short flight).  And, that’s true when the circumstances allow it.  The point here is not to argue that Delta SkyMiles are the best (they’re not!), but that there are ways to get good value from them. 

About Greg The Frequent Miler

Greg is the owner, founder, and primary author of the Frequent Miler. He earns millions of points and miles each year, mostly without flying, and dedicates this blog to teaching others how to do the same.

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Pingbacks

  1. […] United Airlines led the pack in this category with 32%.  However, with the upcoming merger between American Airlines and US Airways (which came in at 28% and 21%, respectively), you could consider American Airlines to lead the pack with a combined total of 49%.  Last up (of the major players) was Delta with 15%.  All of these percentages work well for me.  I’ve been slow to amass American Airlines miles, so I’m psyched to have such a big leg up here.  Specifically, I’m looking forward to booking a family trip on Cathay Pacific in first class sometime in the next year or two.  United miles are always great thanks to being part of the Star Alliance, and their flexible international (and Hawaii) routing rules are awesome.  Delta miles are less valuable, but as a Platinum Elite with Delta I can book awards prospectively and cancel them or change them for free (up to 72 hours in advance), so I’ve been able to get great value from Delta in the past.  Plus, Delta has the most flexible domestic award routing rules of the big airlines, and I’ve been able to really stretch the value of my points by taking full advantage (see, for example, “Delta SkyMiles: Value from domestic flights“). […]

Comments

  1. “By accepting the fact that you will book medium level awards (40K each)…”

    …he says, as the execs in Atlanta grin from ear to ear, claiming victory.

  2. Perfect! I live near a Delta hub and this information is just what I need. It may make the men in ATL happy but it also helps me use the SM more efficiently.

    • Brian: When you add another stopover, Delta will charge you for an extra leg of your flight. So, if the extra leg is at the 25K level, they’ll charge an extra 12,500 miles. If it is at the 40K level, they’ll charge an extra 20K.

      Billy D: That’s very interesting. When I’ve looked at the value of using Delta miles to book cars, the value has been incredibly low (like 1/3 penny per mile). Maybe there are certain situations where the value is better?

  3. I live near Newark airport and as you said, Skymiles are practically useless when trying to get a 25K flight; the only thing I do like about Delta is you can pay with Points and Miles for flights; otherwise than that I use Skymiles for hotels and car rentals; I just got a great Hilton Suites hotel in Florida that was sold out on the Hilton website using Hhonors points and a four day rental car for 35,000 miles which otherwise would have cost me almost $1,000 if I had to pay.

  4. Refreshing piece about airline travel and FF miles as opposed to the usual credit card analysis. Very nice and informative.

  5. “Tip: Make sure none of the one-way awards include a layover of over 3 hours. If it does, that flight will use up your one allowed stopover.”

    I’m pretty sure the stop has to be <4 hours to constitute a domestic layover, not 3.

    • AJK: I think you’re right that Delta’s official rules are that <4 hours is a valid layover, but in my experiments anytime I picked a layover of between 3 and 4 hours, it priced as if it were a stopover. I don't know whether that's an error in Delta's award booking engine or something else…

  6. The admonition about partner flights is incorrect. Since Delta availability sucks so much, I find the best domestic use is on Alaska, where I have indeed been able to price a flight with stopover (e.g. LAX-SEA // SEA-ANC // ANC-LAX) at 25k.

  7. I like this post a lot, but I think the comparison between Delta and AA/UA miles is unfair. Yes, the award would cost 37.5k UA/AA miles, but that is not a great use of those miles probably. You’re better off saving those miles and buying the ticket with cash (better than $771 would appear through having Kayak run daily searches and breaking up the itinerary). Whereas this is a valid use of 40k SkyMiles because SkyMiles are worth so little because of the lack of low level space made available. In the end, I’m sure you could find a $500 ticket. You are spending 40k miles and foregoing 5k more, so you are getting less than 1.2 cents of value for Delta. My valuation of Delta miles is 1.2 cents, so it’s a fine redemption, but not a great one.

    • MileValue: I’m glad you liked the post, but I disagree that my comparison was unfair. My example was where a family wanted to fly on specific dates and they wanted to choose between using Delta, United, and AA miles. The best fare I could find for that trip was $771 (on US Airways, I think). And, that was with awful flight times. The Delta award is arguably worth more than that since I had my pick of flights. But even at that price, the value was more than 1.7 cents per mile. I agree that even at that value people might not want to redeem United or AA miles, but that depends on how much each person values their miles and how much cash they have available to spend

  8. Ditto what DBest said. You can get some pretty good values on partners. A few days ago we booked SEA-MEX // MEX-SEA // SEA-PHL, all in First on AS for 60K DL. Would much rather burn skypesos than other currency for these kind of trips to travel as comfortably as possible without breaking the bank.

  9. As far as mixing Delta and partner flights, I could only get the 60K pricing in my example above if I used AS flights only. Changing one of the flights to an AM flight made it price out as 105K. I did not bother testing with DL flights as finding low level DL award space was like finding a needle in a haystack. :p

    Re: “I don’t know whether that’s an error in Delta’s award booking engine or something else…”

    Perhaps the routing was not valid? I ran into a similar issue with a connection < 4 hours in MEX pricing as a stopover. I called the Platinum desk who were clueless (and actually quite rude). They transferred me to tech support who initially agreed it should not price as a stopover, but then apologetically came back and said it was pricing as a stopover (actually a separate award) per the following rule: "Routing restrictions apply for Award Travel. Valid routings vary based on the operating carriers of the Award Ticket. Any exceptions or variations to these routings may require additional mileage for the award."

    • HikerT: Thanks for providing more evidence that mixing carriers may be the issue. Regarding the layover issue, I love how helpful that language is: “Valid routings vary…” I don’t know what to make of that! Anyway, I’ll alter the Tips in the post a bit to make it clear that we don’t yet know the actual rules for certain.

  10. Some good points on making the best of a bad situation (having miles on by far the worst FF airline in the industry). But I must take issue with “If you live near a Delta hub, things aren’t so bad.” I live and fly out of ATL, obviously Delta’s biggest hub, and trying to book low-level awards to *anywhere*, at *anytime* is still virtually impossible. I’ve got a stack of Skymiles and recently I’ve needed flights to NYC, LAS, even Orlando (really, Delta?? 40k miles for a flight that’s so short they barely have time to serve drinks!??) and there is NOTHING. Literally. Flexible days, flexible times and the best case scenario is a connecting flight a week later or some nonsense. I know everyone acknowledges that Delta’s website is broken and that that they’re *not* the best FF program, but I just want to emphasize more strongly to those still getting started – do NOT put time/money into Delta, even if you’re in a hub. It’s just not worth it. I’d trade my Sky Pesos at a 25% discount for AAdvantage miles any day of the week.

  11. Oh, and I’ve several times made a point of searching for low-level availability to Hawaii from ATL for any day of the year. ANY DAY OF THE YEAR. None. I’ve never found one single flight on DL for any day of the entire 330 days that are open for booking at low-level. It’s Hawaii, so obviously it’s always a challenging flight to book, but at least on other airlines there is SOME availability.

    • OldManPeabody: As HikerT said, from a hub you can usually book 1.5 trips for the price of one, so you can get value even at the 40K level. Out of the Detroit hub I’ve had good luck finding low level awards as a Platinum elite (it is harder if you don’t have status), but maybe Atlanta is harder.

  12. No question skypesos are worth 25% less than other currency. That said, it’s (at least) 25% easier to achieve platinum status on DL (up to 50K MQMs from AMEX spend) compared to other carriers, so for those who wouldn’t be able to achieve comparable status elsewhere it may be worth it. With Platinum (or higher) DLstatus you get change fees waived which makes it much easier to extract value from the free one ways on domestic awards. If you count the value of the free one way, a 40K DL award equates to 27K vs. domestic awards on other airlines. As the saying goes, don’t get mad, get even. 🙂 DL will be taking it in the shorts with the 2 x 60K awards I booked.

  13. I am a bit confused, please help me regarding stopover vs. layover. Suppose I want to go from LAX-ATL-JFK (or EWR or LGA) spending a few days in Atlanta on the outbound. Return would be JFK-LAX. Would this work doing a Stopover in Atlanta using Skypesos if all flights are in the same award level?

  14. @Steve T, you should be able to do that. You don’t need for all awards to be on the same level. For example, if one of the legs is 20K, and the other two legs are 12.5K, it will price at 32.5K. As far as stopover vs. layover, they are the same thing.

    @FrequentMiler, next time an award isn’t pricing as you think it should, call DL tech support, tell them the online booking engine isn’t pricing your award as you would expect, explain why, and ask them to explain the pricing. I was pretty impressed with their ability to explain once the plat desk forwarded me to someone who could answer my question intelligently. Maybe it was because I hit the prompt to take a survey after the call. 🙂

  15. @HikerT —

    “As far as stopover vs. layover, they are the same thing.”

    They certainly are not the same thing. In airline routing rules parlance, at least in the domestic context, a stopover is anything longer than 4:00 hours whereas a layover is any break in travel 3:59 or less. Internationally, those figures are 24:00 or more and 23:59 or less, respectively.

  16. @AJK, as far as Delta is concerned there is no such distinction. Delta’s award rules and contract of carriage make no reference to the term “layover”, nor do their routing rules. Their award rules say “One stopover is allowed per Award” and their domestic contract of carriage (only) defines stopover as follows:

    “Stopover means a deliberate interruption of a journey by the passenger, agreed to in advance by the carrier, at a point between the place of departure and the place of destination. Unless otherwise noted, a stopover will occur when a passenger arrives at a point and fails to depart from such point on:
    a) The first flight on which space is available, or
    b) The flight that will provide for the passenger’s earliest arrival at an intermediate or junction point(s) or destination point, via the carrier and class of service as shown on the passenger’s ticket, provided however, that in no event will a stopover occur when the passenger departs from the intermediate/junction point on a flight shown in the carrier’s official general schedule as departing within four hours after arrival at such point.”

    Their international contract of carriage defines stopover as a break more than 24 hours.

  17. Why is MSP-BZN-MSP-LGA not working? I live in MSP and wanna go to BZN and LGA in a same trip. It prices out as 50000 mile.

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