Has Delta broken its promise to price awards dynamically? Is that a good thing?

About a year ago, Delta sent out a memo titled “SkyMiles Program Developments Worth Noting”.  The title alone struck fear in my heart.  In the past, SkyMiles developments have rarely been good.  At that time, I wrote a critical (but lighthearted) post about the memo: What Delta said. What Delta meant. What Delta wanted to say.

The memo turned out to be fairly benign, but one line stood out as potentially very troubling:

For travel on or after June 1, 2016, the number of miles needed will change based on destination, demand and other dynamics.

This was strange since Delta had already removed award charts from their website and was already seemingly charging whatever number of miles they wanted to charge for any given flight.  Many people read this to mean that Delta would complete their shift towards revenue based award prices.  That is, the price of an award would be tied to the price of a ticket.  I thought so too.  I wrote:

I think we’ll actually see a combination of award prices going up and going down. In other words, Delta will move even further towards pricing awards according to paid ticket prices.

Well, June 1 has now come and gone so we should know the truth by now.  Did Delta switch over to revenue based award pricing?  Last week, Travel Codex asked the same question: Has Anyone Seen Delta’s New Dynamic Award Pricing?  I didn’t see much evidence one way or another in the comments to that post, so I decided to look for myself…

Delta Award Pricing Observed

Yesterday I checked award prices for round trip travel from Detroit to many potential destinations.  I used Delta’s 5 week calendar to look for mid-summer awards, and assumed an 8 day trip.  I checked flights to many different airports including in Canada, Mexico, South America, Europe, Africa, Australia, China, and Japan.  In many cases I looked at award prices for both coach and business class.  I filtered out partner flights so as not to confuse the results.  My goal was to see if award prices appeared to be more variable than in the past.  Do prices vary significantly from previously published award charts?

Delta Award Pricing Observation Results

Here are my summarized observations:

  • In most cases, the best award prices matched those found on previously published award charts.
  • The only flights in which the best priced flights within North America did not match the old award charts was with economy awards.
  • Many economy awards within North America were priced lower than they would have priced under old award charts.
  • Lower award prices sometimes corresponded to lower ticket prices, but not always.
  • Summer Saver level award availability for 1 person for flights originating in Detroit were widely available on Delta marketed flights to many destinations. On the other hand, I found poor availability to: Johannesburg, South Africa; Sao Paulo, Brazil; Honolulu, Hawaii (no surprise there); Sydney, Australia; and Tokyo, Japan.

It’s certainly possible that Delta simply hasn’t implemented their variable pricing yet.  As things stand right now, though, I’d argue that:

  1. Variable pricing apparently only affects economy flights within North America
  2. Variable pricing, to the extent that it was implemented at all, is a good thing.  Some award prices are lower than they would have been before.
  3. Saver level award availability on Delta metal appears to be significantly better than it used to be.  Admittedly, I don’t have similar data from the past to compare to, though, so this is just an impression.

For those interested, here are some snapshots of the award search results that led me to the above conclusions:

Most award prices were found to be the same as in the old award charts

For example, saver level awards for flights within the US and Canada used to cost 25,000 miles round trip.  In many cases they still do…

Detroit to Boston:

Delta DTW BOS

Detroit to NYC area airports:

Delta DTW NYC

And flights to Europe in business class used to cost 125K round trip.  They still do:

Detroit to London Business Class:

(Note: despite filtering the results to “Delta Only”, these results include Virgin Atlantic flights)

Delta DTW LHR Biz

Detroit to Rome, Business Class:

Delta DTW FCO Biz

Many economy awards within North America were priced lower than 25K round trip:

Detroit to Miami 15K:

Delta DTW MIA

Detroit to Toronto 19K:

Delta DTW YYZ

Detroit to Vancouver 22K:

Delta DTW YVR

Detroit to Los Angeles 22K:

Delta DTW LAX

Detroit to Seattle 23K:

Delta DTW SEA

Detroit to Portland, OR 23K:

Delta DTW PDX

Lower Award prices sometimes correspond to lower ticket prices, but not always

Detroit to Montreal, award price and cash price shown side by side.  In many cases the lowest award prices do correspond with the lowest cash price, but not always.

Delta DTW YUL side by side

Detroit to Miami, award price and cash price side by side:

Delta DTW MIA side by side

Detroit to Portland, award price and cash price side by side:

Detroit to Portland Combined View

Note, above, that lower award prices to Portland do not correspond to lower cash prices.

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. So, Greg, lets admit it; you really are the best blogger out there that regularly flies Delta as your got to airline. I will admit I am shocked that, IMO, the changes have been a net good thing to this point as you point out. I will even go so far to say, you can no longer call it a Skypesos. (I read Gary’s blog too, and don’t see him saying that as much anymore….) Do you agree the value of a skymile, for redemption, seems to have gone up? You are about the only blogger who does not have a Delta ax to grind.

    • Thanks. In my view, Delta miles have become more reliably valuable. It used to be possible, for an expert, to string together amazing awards by finding saver level segments and piecing them together into a single saver level award that could include both a stop-over and an open-jaw. And, award chart prices were a bit lower at that time too. But, saver level awards were very hard to find. And, to make things harder, one-way awards priced the same (back then) as round trip awards.

      Today, it’s harder to piece together an outrageously valuable award, but it’s also MUCH easier to get a good value award (1.5 cents per mile or better, lets say). Saver level awards seem to be much more plentiful. One-way awards help make it possible to cherry pick better redemptions. The 5 tier award chart helps in that even when saver level isn’t available, level 2 awards often are, and they’re not priced too bad. They’ve even improved the value of pay with miles options. You still get 1 cent per mile value with most flights, but now you earn MQMs as well.

      • I used to do that same thing, but it was very, very hard as you pointed out to find saver flights. And I used to play the 3 trip game; but never quite as valuable for me since I don’t live at a hub. At this point, I’d gladly take the one ways; since I can then mix alliances on trips.

        With the drop in coach fairs, I was recently able to get 22K flights from Sacramento to Fargo that were $460 each; one of my best redemption ever for domestic coach. (used to get 1.6 in the old days at best and work much harder for it) Plus, the ease of use for international biz has been great for Europe and even some fare sales…….I just wish more bloggers were as fair as you have been with them, instead of only ripping on them even if they usually deserve it. (Hiding the award charts is STILL the all time low….)

  2. I think you’re missing the dynamic part. You have to go beyond the 5 week chart and try to book a specific flight. That posted 25000 is good for 1 or 2 flights at very undesirable times, in a sest which you will not get to select. Add in leaving after 6 a.m. and before midnight and selecting your non-middle seat, and it quickly goes way up. And, for what it’s worth, this is true with $$ and has been going on for several months. –signed a Delta hub captive who flies a fair amount

    • The pattern your seeing can be easily explained with Delta’s 5 tier award chart. That’s a form of dynamic pricing, but no different from what was in place a year ago. With truly dynamic pricing, I wouldn’t expect the lowest price to match the old award charts.

  3. I have watched the first class awards go up and down with the $ cost of the ticket. I dont see the same last minute saver availability like I do with other airlines. The closer to the date of travel the higher the price. This may be because they are filling all the planes anyways hard to tell

    • I’ve noticed the same strange pattern for a long time. Unlike most other airlines, Delta seems to make last minute awards more expensive, not less expensive. That does seem to be an indication of them tying the award price to the ticket price to some extent, except that I noticed this pattern a long time ago. I don’t think its new

  4. my 2 cents is that their model is most probably a mix of cost and demand (not just revenue but w.r.t. awards.

    I.e. in their history, week 24 of the past 5 years saw higher demand by award tickets, but not so much via $$. Or a trip to vegas during the Electronics show / whatever convention saw lots of business travelers willing / only able to pay $$, so you see a divergence in the points .v. dollars.

  5. I’d be curious if there’s a difference if your trip doesn’t start at a Delta hub. Sometimes for me it seems that getting to the hub can make the trip more costly though I haven’t done the research.

  6. It doesn’t make sense all the mileage programs that they don’t make awards close in cheap (and a late booking fee is really crazy).far out saver awards are mere projections of empty seats. Two weeks before a flight revenue management almost knows for certainty what empty seats they have. 99 percent empty seat sold for cheap miles five days before flight is much better than a 60 percent empty seat sold four months before flight for higher miles. I saw Southwest once day before trying to dump seats FLL to NOLA on the morning nonstop. Why not sell for half price points?

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