Which is Worse for Award Redemption, Delta or Delta.com?

Hunter says Delta.com has gone off the rails. And he calls the Delta.com helpdesk “We’re a Bunch of Monkeys Chained to Phones.”

Gee, Hunter is just realizing this. And he actually flies Delta. I do my best to avoid it, though in my case it’s because on Delta ful fare trumps status in the upgrade queue and the idiots treat cheap government fares as full fare. I live in DC, where everyone but me is flying on a government fare. But that’s beside the point.

My beef with Delta.com is its award search. Delta occasionally publishes premium cabin international inventory for award booking without paying extortionate double or triple mileage pricing. But its website would never know it. Flights that actually have ‘low’ price awards will still price at the medium or high mileage levels on Delta.com. Don’t believe me, or don’t want to call Delta to verify this? Just check out award inventory on the Northwest website.

Fortunately for Skymiles members, NWA.com is still available online for a short period of time. And you can book some awards there, and at least search for awards there to guide you in calling Skymiles with specific flights you want to redeem for.

I recently coached someone through a redemption with Delta miles. He wanted to fly business class to Singapore. Every single day for months Delta.com priced the itinerary at 370,000 miles per passenger. Now, he wasn’t even trying to get a regular ‘ol 120,000 mile award. he was prepared to pay 240,000 — which the “mileage calendar” said should have been available on most days. But the Dela website would never book it. Northwest, on the other hand, had no problem finding the seats at that price.

There’s also an ongoing thread at Flyertalk on award inventory disappearing when elite members log in. The theory, though I don’t buy it, is elites have more miles in their accounts so they get charged more miles for awards. Personally I think that the Delta IT system is just hopelessly broken. It’s sad, Northwest had a great platforum, but it’s being shelved. And Delta even once had a better (read: actually functional) system than they do now. Conspiracy theories abound that this is intentional on the part of Delta, but I can’t imagine that’s the case.

Still, having searched and searched for premium cabin award availability across the Pacific I can say that they very rarely offer more than one business class seat on any given transpacific flight. Their partner Korean seems to follow the same approach. So for me — valuing transpacific flying as I do — they are just not an option. Most days, most flights, will cost double miles for business class. And their regular pricing will get me first class on a set of proper Asian carriers via several programs I participate in. The Skymiles program is just not attractive to me, and that’s when their IT system actually works.

Which isn’t to say I won’t ever accumulate Skymiles. Last summer they were giving out 10,000 miles for each one-day car rental from Avis or Budget. And they gave me 20,000 miles for getting a hair loss consultation with Bosley. And I’ll even transfer a single point in from Starwood to generate a partner credit towards a mileage bonus.

But — as perhaps the person in the world today booking more award tickets than anybody else — I can say that Delta miles are the least useful of any major North American program, and that their website is next to useless in pricing out international premium cabin awards.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. “Least useful of any major North American program”? Are you sure about that, or are you discussing Delta’s international awards exclusively? Their domestic reward inventory is broad and easy to book. Most miles are redeemed for domestic travel.

  2. You are SO right! A couple of weeks ago I attempted to book a business class award ticket to AMS for one person from the west coast. Delta.com told me it would cost 240,000 miles. NWA.com, for the EXACT SAME date and flights was only 100,000. Needless to say I booked on nwa.com.

    All of Delta IT management should be fired, and so should the majority of the remaining staff. Clearly they can’t make an IT system even remotely function. And DL management clearly doesn’t intend on fixing it since this problem has gone on for years. Someone should really sue their pants on over the deception.

  3. I just wrote a very short post on my own blog about the minor quandry I’m in. I’m at 21,470 MQMs for this year on Delta. A quick trip to the west coast and back will make me Silver Medallion for 2010. I found a pretty cheap fare which I have another 12 hours to cancel for a full refund. For any other airline, this wouldn’t even be a question. I’d just do it. But for Delta, I’m debating. I mean…I do have to fly them from time to time…. but still… is it worth the effort of a mileage run? Like you, I’ve found SkyMiles to be just terrible when it comes to award redemption.

  4. Just read your post, and wondering if you know something I don’t. You mention that you live in D.C. and fly with lots of government employees, and you refer to their bookings as “cheap government fares”. Now I don’t mean to be telling tales out of school, but my wife is a government employee (not in D.C.), and also an avid traveler outside of her work. She has to book all of her government travel through travel.gov (which she hates) and always complains that she doesn’t understand why the government insists on paying more than necessary for all her bookings. We always fly delta, because of our local airport, and now because of our mileage status with them.

  5. Agree that Delta is extremely stingy with redemptions. Looking for some LAX-AMS/CDG flights for next summer and was “lucky” to find a mixed low/med award in Y for 90k on only a few dates using NW metal. On AF/KLM the same search showed plenty of non-stop availability for 50k in Y and 100k in C. Of course the FB online booking didn’t actually let me complete the booking but luckily they don’t charge extra for booking over the telephone. Just hoping that DL has kept NW intra-Asian redemption levels (can’t verify since DL doesn’t publish their non ex-US redemption charts…)

  6. People, you have to know the rules if you want to play the game. In golf, the greatest game in the world, it is up to you to both play well and call yourself if you mess up!

    Same with Delta and FF seats. Yes I agree NWA is better. But, if you call an agent, and are ready to spend 1-2 hours on the phone, and and are ready to fly out of say one airport and maybe back into another close to where you live, you will get the cheap seats. Also, you may have to think outside the box. You may have to as I did one time to Sweden fly from DTW, ATL, MIA, CDG, ARN. Yes, crazy to fly to the equator to get to Scandinavia but it worked and for the lowest mile cost.

    Again, if you want to fly cheap, you have to put up with a bit!

  7. nwa.com saved me. Couldn’t find any trips via KLM to the US from Europe via Delta at a “reasonable” price. Then the added fee if a trip originates outside the US. So got the ticket from NWA for $90, and identical ticket through Delta cost $360…..
    Thanks NWA, you made it worth collecting Delta points for hair loss and car renta!

  8. @Ken, my current favorites:

    * Air Canada Aeroplan – their US to most of South Asia first class awards are 120k miles, they allow 2 stopvoers (or 1 stopover+open jaw) in addition to destination, and they permit routing via the Atlantic OR the Pacific OR both. And no blocking of partner awards. Only downside is no award holds.

    * US Airways – reasonable award chart, no partner blocking, transit Atlantic or Pacific for Asia, and they offer 3 day holds even without points in an account.

    bmi Diamond Club has one-way awards, a cash and points chart, and generous earning on premium class fares. They hit you with fuel surcharges on redemptions, their future is a bit uncertain, and their international call center agents stink. But it can be a very valuable program.

    Now, there are also other good programs. I still like American but international FIRST class awards aren’t as easy and not being able to redeem for British Airways between the US and Europe hurts. A lot. But I’ve got an upcoming award booking to Manila, Hong Kong,and London in Cathay first with the final return segment (to Toronto) in BA first.

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