What I really think about Delta’s frequent flyer program


Last week, feeling hurt that United was getting all of the negative attention for their devaluation, Delta jumped in and devalued their SkyMiles program once again (see “Delta FURTHER Devalues SkyMiles“).  That set off an entertaining series of posts as follows:

I couldn’t help but give my own mostly joking answer in the comments.

Gary re-published my 5 joke responses, but not my final “on a serious note”.  Here is what I worte, in full:

Sure, I’ll defend them:

1. For those who enjoy puzzles, Delta.com can provide days of enjoyment while you try to piece together a saver level award.
2. With other programs, its tough to part with your miles since they’re so valuable. No such issue with SkyMiles.
3. Pay with Miles. At 1 cent per mile value, only Delta can make a credible claim that this is a good deal.
4. One way and round trip awards for the same price. Most people see this as a negative, but instead you could think of it as a free return trip with each one-way award!
5. The fact that they make award chart changes effective immediately without prior notice is great. By pissing off their loyal customers, I hope enough of them will abandon Delta so that I can get upgrades and saver level awards more easily!

On a serious note, I do love that they allow stop-overs and open jaws on domestic awards. I use that a lot and actually do get good value from my miles.

Let’s look at each of my points from that comment to see what I really think…

1. Days of “enjoyment” piecing together awards

Delta has an unbelievably bad award search tool.  Here’s a typical experience I’ve had when searching for awards:

  • Look for a Detroit to Paris award.  Delta.com shows saver level availability if I connect in Amsterdam, but no non-stop flights at that level.
  • OK, Amsterdam sounds nice, so maybe we’ll stop there.  Let’s just look for non-stop Detroit to Amsterdam.  Oh, there’s one at the saver level, but it requires a stop in Paris!
  • Try Detroit to Paris again, and once again it requires a stop in Amsterdam.  Ahhhh!!!!
  • After deciding on my exact itinerary, I write down each leg of the trip that has shown saver level availability and input all of them one by one into the multi-city search tool.  I get it to price correctly (after many hours of struggle).  I click “book it” and I get an error message saying that something is wrong.  Thanks Delta.com!

2. Easier to part with miles

It’s true that I value most other airline mile currencies more highly than Delta’s, but there’s more going on than just that.  There are a few reasons that I’d rather part with Delta miles than others:

  1. I value other mile programs more because they tend to have better award availability at lower award prices.  Finding saver level awards on Delta can be near impossible.  Finding saver level awards with United miles tends to be relatively easy.  Also, most other programs allow for international first class awards.  Delta does not (they allow Business Class, but not First Class on international flights).
  2. Fear of more devaluation.  Delta might switch to revenue based redemptions at any time.  When that happens, getting more than 1 cent per mile value for awards will probably be impossible (unless they copy Southwest’s approach to giving more value to points when used to redeem for cheaper seats).
  3. Free changes.  Thanks to my having Platinum elite status with Delta, I can book awards and change or cancel them for free up to 72 hours before departure.  As a result, I prefer to book Delta awards because they are refundable.
  4. Easier to get miles.  Well, this isn’t entirely true…  Thanks to Chase’s Ultimate Rewards program, I tend to rack up those points more easily than any other (and those points are transferrable to United, Southwest, British Airways, etc.).  But, in order to maintain Delta elite status, I put a lot of spend on Delta credit cards and predictably earn huge numbers of miles (see “Mileage running, from home“).  And, for people with the SunTrust debit card, there are many ways to easily earn hundreds of thousands of miles for little or no cost.

So, yes, given my circumstances, I’d rather part with Delta miles than most other miles.

3. Pay with Miles

Delta Amex cardholders can use their miles to pay for a flight regardless of award availability at a rate of 1 cent per mile as long (as you redeem miles for at least $250 towards a ticket).  Airline miles don’t excite me if all I can get is 1 cent per mile value.  If that’s all I’m going to get, I might as well stick with cash back credit cards instead (and I’m increasingly thinking that is the way to go).  However, as Delta devalues their program more and more, it’s nice that they’ve set a floor on how little a mile can be worth.  At least my miles are worth that much!  Maybe I’m just an optimist, but I think its unlikely they’ll lower the value for the Pay with Miles option to less than a penny per mile.

4. One way awards

It’s incredibly frustrating that Delta doesn’t allow one way awards for half the price of round trip.  And, it’s almost criminal that they publish their award chart as if they do.  Here’s a small section of their award chart:


Notice that they list economy class domestic awards as costing 12,500 miles.  But, there is no way to book an award for that much!  If you book a one-way award at the Saver level, it will cost the same as round trip: 25,000 miles.  US Airways has the same policy of requiring round trip awards, but they publish their award prices as you would expect.  They’re quite clear that the best you can do is 25,000 miles for a domestic award:


5. No notice regarding changes

Most airlines give some notice before major award price changes take effect.  For example, with United’s recent massive devaluation, they announced the changes recently but told us that they wouldn’t go into effect until February.  Until then, we can book awards at the old rates, even for dates of travel after February.  That’s a customer friendly way of delivering a customer unfriendly devaluation.  Delta, though, has announced changes effective immediately.  If you want to fly Delta next summer on an award ticket, you’ll pay the new prices.  Period.  There was no chance to hurry and book awards before the new prices took effect.  Sorry Delta, but that sucks.

6. Stop-overs and open-jaws on domestic awards

This may be the only advantage that Delta’s frequent flyer program has over its competition, but to me it’s a big one.  For the price of one award ticket, Delta will let you book a more flexible itinerary than with a paid ticket.  You can use these flexible routing rules to book multiple destinations within one trip, or even to book one and half separate trips for the price of one (Delta still thinks of them as one trip, but to you they’ll be separate).  It’s outside the scope of this post to go into details about these options.  Instead, please see these posts:


Wrap up

There’s little doubt in my mind that Delta has one of the worst frequent flyer programs in the country.  That doesn’t mean it’s a bad airline though!  While its far from amazing, I mostly like flying Delta, and I love their safety videos (really!).  Since I live near a Delta hub, Delta often is the only good option for getting me to where I want to go.  So, to me, having Delta status and Delta Skymiles is valuable.  That combination makes it possible for me to fly non-stop on my preferred airline more often than not, and I usually get reasonably good value from those miles.

If I didn’t live near a Delta hub, I probably wouldn’t even consider collecting Delta SkyMiles.  But I do, so I will.  Until the next devaluation…

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