The truth about Delta

Delta has long been the punching bag of airline programs for those in the miles & points hobby… for good reason.  For years, their award booking website was famously broken; saver level awards (e.g. such as 25,000 mile domestic round trip awards) seemed to be more myth than reality; one-way awards used to cost as much as round-trip; and Delta freely changed their award chart without notice.  Getting outsized value from Delta SkyMiles was possible, but it was a lot of work.

Delta sucks

Now things have changed, but not all for the better:

  • Delta changed the way miles are earned.  Customers now earn miles based on the amount paid rather than miles flown.
  • Delta took away free award stop-overs and open-jaws. Previously, these were key to eking out value from SkyMiles.
  • Delta introduced true one-way award pricing (a good thing!)
  • Delta’s online booking tool now works pretty well, BUT when an itinerary includes multiple legs on different aircraft types, all heck breaks loose.  This important nuance is outside of the scope of this post, but you can read all of the gory details over at  One Mile at a Time.

And, more recently:

  • Delta removed their award charts from their website.  Today, the only way to know how much an award might cost is to actually try to book it.
  • Delta increased award rates for most flights departing within 21 days.  As I’ve explained before, this seems to be an alternative to adding a close-in booking fee, which is common with other airlines.
  • Delta announced that “For travel on or after June 1, 2016, the number of miles needed will change based on destination, demand and other dynamics.”  Most industry observers interpret this to mean that Delta will move even closer to a revenue based redemption model.  That is, award prices will based on the cash price of the same itinerary at the time of booking.

In reaction to the above changes, many blogs and forums have weighed in against Delta.  I’ve done so myself a few times, too, including this recent post: What Delta said. What Delta meant. What Delta wanted to say.

Now, ridiculing Delta’s program has gone mainstream.  On August 1, the New York Times published “Guesswork in Cashing In Delta’s Frequent-Flier Miles”.  There, the main complaint was Delta’s removal of award charts, and the fact that they have been increasingly tying award prices to paid ticket prices.  The end result of this move will likely be that it will be impossible to get outsized value from SkyMiles.  When earning rewards from credit card spend, the article accurately states that most people will get better value from 2% cash back cards than from miles earned from the Delta Gold credit card.

Then, there was this article from The Business Journals, that held back no punches:

SkyMiles, its frequent flyer program, is offensively, aggressively awful. And the general public and business travelers in specific are beginning to judge everything the airline does through the lens of the carrier’s parsimonious, disingenuous and disreputable management of SkyMiles.

The truth is… complicated

If you walk into a room full of miles & points enthusiasts and ask about Delta, you’re likely to hear more than one person assert vehemently that “Delta sucks”.  Many blogs say the same thing, but usually with a bit more nuance.  So, is that true?  Does Delta suck?

Flying Delta doesn’t suck

No one that I’ve talked to argues that Delta is a worse airline for flying.  In fact, in many ways I’d argue that they’re better than their primary rivals: United and American Airlines.  In my opinion, Delta has done a better job than AA and United in on-time arrivals, avoiding cancellations, dealing with delays, upgrading their aircraft, providing wi-fi and inflight entertainment on all flights, and providing reasonably tasty food on-board.  In other words, relative to their competition, flying Delta does not suck.

Delta’s elite program doesn’t suck

Even Delta’s loyalty program does not suck across the board.  One very important aspect of airline loyalty programs is the set of elite benefits given to their most valuable customers.  Does Delta’s elite program suck?  In my opinion, no.  In fact, there are a few features of Delta’s elite program that are, to me, better than the competition:

  • Rollover MQMs: Delta awards elite status based on earning a certain number of MQMs (Medallion Qualifying Miles) each year. You can think of these as miles flown.  At 25,000 MQMs you get Silver status; 50,000 Gold; 75,000 Platinum; and 125,000 Diamond.  Any MQMs earned above the status level reached are automatically rolled over to the next year.  For example, if you earn 65,000 MQMs in a calendar year, you will be granted Gold status for the rest of that year and all of the next year and 15,000 MQMs will roll over to the next year.
  • Unlimited complimentary domestic upgrades, even on awards: AA provides unlimited upgrades only to their top tier elites and does not upgrade award tickets. United does offer upgrades on award tickets, but only if you are a United credit card holder.  Delta requires Gold status or higher to get upgrades on award tickets.
  • Regional upgrade certificates: Platinum elites can choose to get 4 regional upgrade certificates each year that they qualify for Platinum status.  These can be used to upgrade from economy to first class at the time of booking, if available, or waitlist for an upgrade and essentially “jump the line” in the upgrade queue.
  • Global upgrade certificates: Diamond elites can choose to get 4 global upgrade certificates each year that they qualify for Diamond status.  These can be used to upgrade to business class on a purchased international economy ticket.  Upgrades are processed immediately when upgrade space is available.  Otherwise, the request is waitlisted and should be automatically processed if/when upgrade space becomes available.  American Airlines arguably offers a much better deal to their top tier elites: 8 systemwide upgrades that can be applied to yourself or to others.  That said, I personally find Delta’s global upgrade certificates to be more valuable simply because Delta has a stronger worldwide route network than AA.

On the other hand, there are areas where Delta’s program is below-par:

  • No award changes within 72 hours of departure: While Delta does waive award change and redeposit fees for Platinum and Diamond elites, they don’t officially allow changes to awards within 72 hours of departure.  Unofficially, phone agents do have the ability to waive this restriction.
  • Same day confirmed changes: Delta waives same day changes for Gold and higher elites, but they don’t waive a crazy restriction: With economy fares,  you can only be rebooked in the same fare class as your original flight.  This is a BIG problem since discount fare classes are rarely available within 24 hours of a flight.

The two issues listed above aren’t really specific to Delta’s elite program per se, but they do limit the value one can get from the waived fees that come with elite status.

Overall, Delta’s elite program has positives and negatives, but as a whole I think its pretty good.

Delta branded credit cards: suck for some, but not all

There are three different Delta branded Amex cards in the US: Gold, Platinum, and Delta Reserve.  The pros and cons of each card are complicated.  Whether or not each card is good or bad for you depends on many factors: Is priority boarding important to you? Do you often fly Delta and check bags?  Do you have elite status? Do you want to use your card to help secure status in the future?  Would you otherwise pay for lounge access?

Full details can be found in these write-ups:

To cut to the chase, if you primarily use Delta credit cards to earn miles for free trips then you can almost certainly do better with any number of other credit cards, including no-fee 2% cash back cards such as the Citi Double Cash card or the Fidelity Investment Rewards American Express.  However, if you keep the cards for the perks (and you get good value from those perks), or to help secure elite status (and you value elite status), then the cards certainly do not suck.

One other thing to note: Delta credit card holders can choose to pay for any flight with miles at a value of 1 cent per mile.  Usually, award tickets offer better value than that, but at least this feature puts a bottom floor on the value of SkyMiles.  One cent per mile is far from great, but this feature does make it ridiculous for people to argue that SkyMiles are worthless.  They may very well be worth less than other airline mile currencies, but they’re not worthless.

Delta SkyMiles earnings from flying sucks for most

Delta used to award SkyMiles based on the number of miles flown, regardless of the price of a ticket.  Now, they award between 5 and 11 SkyMiles per dollar, depending upon your elite level.  Those who frequently fly short, but expensive flights, will earn many more miles than before.  Most people, though, are likely to earn significantly fewer miles than before.  So, compared to how things used to be, and compared to airlines that have not yet moved to revenue based miles earnings, for many people Delta sucks.

Delta SkyMiles award redemptions mostly suck, and may suck worse in the future (but not for everyone)

As I mentioned early in this post, with a lot of effort it used to be possible to get outsized value from Delta SkyMiles.  There were an endless collection of tricks that insiders could use to secure saver level awards, book 3 trips for the price of 2, etc.  With the new SkyMiles program, most of those tricks are history.  Today it is still possible to get good value from Delta SkyMiles (e.g. around 2 cents per mile) or great value from Delta partners, but usually just with extremely simple itineraries.  As itineraries involve more segments on more aircraft types, the chance of getting a good priced award drops substantially.

As Delta moves to a revenue based redemption model (tying award prices to ticket prices), many fear that all options for high value redemptions will go away.  For the sake of argument, let’s assume that the worst will happen and Delta will include partner awards in their new model.  In that case, Delta will probably peg all awards to a value of between 1 and 1.5 cents per mile (that’s just my best guess).  For those who like to eek out the most value from their miles (i.e. most of my readers), this will definitely suck.

There are many, though, who will benefit greatly from the new redemption model.  Yes, really.  Many people have always done what Delta now wants everyone to do: they’ve let the award engine (or a phone rep) tell them how much an award costs (in miles) and have happily paid those miles to get their “free” trip.  What this means is that many people have blindly received far worse than 1 cent per mile value from their SkyMiles.  While its not certain, it is likely that the new program (post June 1, 2016) will result in all award bookings returning 1 cent per mile value, or better.  In other words, people who don’t know better will likely be better off than they were before.

Conclusion

To grossly oversimplify things, the truth about Delta is:

  1. Delta is a very good airline
  2. Delta’s credit cards are good for some, but a waste for others
  3. Delta’s SkyMiles program is significantly less rewarding than some other programs for those who seek to earn free trips, but for those who primarily value elite status perks its not bad at all.

Of course, opinions expressed here are my own.  And, based on prior experience in writing about Delta, there are bound to be extreme reactions to this post.  Some will angrily describe me as a Delta apologist.  Others will say that I’m wrong about SkyMiles: in their experience, they get great value.  Go for it – write your opinions below.   I expect that the comments on this post will be an entertaining read.

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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  1. Have a Delta Gold AMEX coming up for AF. Got it for the miles to get a family member to a college graduation. Used it for AMEX sync offers. Sounds like canceling makes sense rather than pay AF, although it pays for itself with sync. Any way to product change? Suggestions on how best to move forward?

    • I’d recommend simply calling Amex to ask if there are product change options for you. The downside of a product change is that you won’t (ever) earn a signup bonus for the card you are switching to. If you don’t mind giving up the signup bonus, a great no-fee Amex card is the EveryDay card.

  2. I’ve been waiting to add my own updated testimonial, as I’ve been especially doubtful of your previous assessments of Delta. In particular, my beef has been lack of award availability at lowest rates, from smaller airports. (in my case CHO) For years, I’d sat on 30K or so points, waiting for the opportunity to use the “sky pesos.” The changes earlier this year seemed not to increase availability — and I let the resentment fly.

    And then…… this. Recently needed to make a trip out west — short notice, and the Southwest fares (from RIC) were steep, and the $75+ close-in fees on American and United nasty. To my amazement, I found cheap point fares (12.5 k) from and to multiple airports…. on Delta…. four days from the flight. (and this was even when there were just a few seats ) While I was at it, I also noticed quite a few markets where they had the 5k fares….

    After all the years of presuming Delta miles would get me nowhere, I am… pleasantly shocked.

      • Now that I’m back, I can also happily add that I was pleasantly amazed by the comfort on the Delta flights (in economy), especially compared to Southwest’s cattle cars. (the 737-700) First segment was on a CRJ — and I couldn’t get over the leg room…. It was even better from ATL to LAS, on a roomy 767 I think. And the food options were fantastic and quite good too. (both the free snacks and the pay-per meals)

        Alas, the return trip was on SWA…. and what a depressing let down. The SWA waiting areas at both LAS and ATL jammed beyond comfort. (everybody standing/tripping over each other) Every seat on the plane crammed, no food options other than the peanuts and chip nips. (and then the stupid “quip” on the peanut bag — “because we like you” — No, becuz yer so cheap) And the leg room — awful — after having been spoiled by Delta.

        Yup, I just sang the praises of Delta — twice — in one month. Have another 16 months with SWA and the companion pass…. will milk it to be sure…. while missing Delta.

        Did I just write that?

    • RIC (and for that matter, CHO) is tough when it comes to awards from time to time. However, I find that using Avios & SkyMiles are useful in avoiding those close in fees. I think I’ll take my small city airport, RIC, any day of the week though. You can’t beat the time saved at check-in & security!

  3. Another blogger willing to prostitute himself for commissions. Trying to put some article together to outweigh the truth about the degree of the egregious way they have treated their frequent fliers through the loyalty program does not pass the litmus test of B.S. Your version of truth is highly skewed by your greed.

  4. I’ve flown Delta a lot this past year and I agree with you that it’s a very well-run airline. Its frequent flyer program, however, is another story. For travelers who travel on their company’s dime, I can see them continuing to fly Delta since DL has the best on-time arrival record out of the big 3 domestic carriers. My friends who are DL Diamond medallions rarely keep track of how many skymiles they have and simply use them to get their family to Orlando for free.
    I agree with you that the rollover MQM factor is huge. I only started flying DL last year and that concept was quite generous, especially when compared to UA’s and AA’s programs.

  5. Good for you that you can find value from an airline you’re very invested in. Otherwise you would Change your behaviour. I can’t put a monetary value on their loyalty product and will simply be guided by what will hurt my wallet or point balance the most. Sky pesos on Delta is NOT for those of us looking for aspirational travel.

  6. I think you have a very good summary of the pros and cons of Delta. Just another thing to keep in mind is if a person spends either $30,000 or $60,000 on their Delta Reserve card, they are basically getting 1.5 miles/dollar with the SkyMiles bonus at those levels. I personally like that for everyday spending since it also gives MQMs in addition to the 1.5 miles/dollar. I think if someone wants to find value in the Skymiles program, its possible.

  7. Spot on, Greg. As a old NW hub captive, you can’t avoid them in my world, and I have gotten great value out of Sky Pesos in the past. I do acknowledge, those days may be over, but I will still biz fly them as they are so sound operationally.

    This is what Gary too often forgets to emphasize when he rips them: part of the reason Delta is doing this is because they can. They are clearly very smart and they would not be doing this if it did not help the bottom line, where Gary seems to think he knows more than Delta…..

  8. I agree Delta is a good airline in terms of operations. What bothers me is that they are trying to throw some marketing into skymiles, pretending they are enhancing the program, when reality they are devaluing the program. Sure, there will be someone doing better but the for the other 99% is a massive devaluation.

  9. I worked for Delta until 1991. Back then, they were the best domestic airline in the world. Now, I will never fly them again. I have done FF points on AA and UA and have no complaints, we just got back from Europe burning miles and flying Austrian and UA back in C. Good both ways. I don’t even have an account with Delta, I have no business with them.

  10. Lately, I’ve been able to find saver reward availability on some domestic routes, in coach, when these were unavailable or outrageously priced on other airlines.

    I’m not sure what the cents/mile equated to, but I wanted to use miles for these tickets rather than pay for them, so I was pleased. To me, it represented value.

    I travel domestically and internationally in coach. I’m fine with that and if the recent change in the program opens up more saver availability in coach, it works for me. For those who care about “premium” or “aspirational” travel, which seems to be the focus of many blogs, perhaps not so much.

    Regardless, in my opinion/experience, Delta is the best domestic carrier, operationally speaking. No contest.

  11. Nice post, thanks. My 2 cents to add… Sky miles are incredibly useful to get to Australia and many other partner awards. Try and get to Oz elite class with multiple passengers on any other program…. Super hard. VA with skymiles … Every day!

    I wish I had way more SM than I do. Delta Dork (the one with the girls name) is nauseatingly entitled and narcissistic. I can’t believe he has so many blind followers. For example…. Daily call to arms and aggression about an airline that is actually in the title of his blog. When he gets invited to fly a 747-400 Simulator by the said airline…. Wow he’s there in a shot…next day back to bellyaching and bitching.

    These are reward programs that businesses don’t have to run! It’s not illegal to NOT have a loyalty program. Yeah… I said it.

  12. Close-in booking fees are not common with other airlines. There are two airlines in the world that charge these fees. Yes those two airlines are Delta’s two closest competitors, but the fee as a concept is far from common.

  13. After paying for round trips to EYW from BUF before even looking at the miles game, I was more than pleasantly surprised to see flights into Key West that were around 12.5K in miles where they would have cost 600 dollars to buy. Not bad for me. And since that and NYC are my main travel routes, I’ll stick with my delta amex if not just for the free bag checking alone

  14. I completely agree with the conclusions of the article. Last year I burned my last Delta SkyMiles and I got very upset at how difficult it was to use them even for an ordinary domestic flight. I’m glad I was able to do that before the subsequent devaluations for that program and, unless I could get more SkyMiles for free, I won’t bother again.

    However, I had no issues at all with paying money for a Delta flight to Iceland, this year. The price was excellent (about half of what Icelandair wanted!) and the flights were excellent. I won’t hesitate to fly Delta again.

    BTW, when I booked my Delta flight I had to do it over the phone and when I asked the Delta agent to credit the flights to my AirFrance FlyingBlue account she was very surprised I didn’t want to use my SkyMiles account! I almost burst out laughing.

  15. You are wrong. Flying Delta DOES suck. Of my 5 last flights on Delta, only one was problem free. The rest involved combinations of delays, cancellations and lost luggage.

  16. Nobody at the gate no communication and we are delayed 3+ hours. It’s like it’s a secret,unreal. Platinum delta and I would rather fly southwest at least they are on time. I get the issues but be honest and over communicate. NOTHING!!

  17. My wife and I each have a Delta Amex card. I just finished travel, and found out that since my wife’s card was used to buy the ticket, and she didn’t go with me, I wouldn’t get a free checked bag. I called and spoke with a man at customer service. Can’t switch it to mey card, nothing can be done. No dice, I’m out $50.

    I also found that Delta check in gate at CLT to be understaffed. Very slow, confusing process. Flight itself was ok, except no entertainment system. Delta says they will add 10K miles onto my SkyMiles account to compensate.

    • If you are a primary cardholder of the Delta Gold card (as opposed to an authorized user), then someone gave you wrong information. As long as your skymiles number was attached to your flight, you should have gotten your first checked bag free.

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