Delta SkyMiles: Value from domestic flights

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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…

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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. 

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