Frustrations and Successes Using Delta Skymiles to Book Hard to Get Awards

Points, Miles, and Martinis posts about using Delta Skymiles to get to Tahiti in business class on Air France. I’ve written in the past the irony that while Delta miles are in my experience the toughest to use they are actually the best-positioned for premium cabin travel to the two toughest award destinations, French Polynesia and Australia, the former because they partner with both Air Tahiti Nui and Air France and the latter because they partner with V Australia.

In fact both scenarios require a departure from the West Coast and the hard part isn’t the business class seat as much as getting a domestic flight to the West Coast included in the award. If you live in an Alaska Airlines city you’re fortunate because Delta miles can be used on Alaska, which has much better award availability than Delta does (except from New York, DC, and Boston).

One issue that’s highlighted really resonates, though.

Last week at the Randy Petersen Travel Executive Summit, a frequent flyer asked Jeff Robertson, the head of the Skymiles program, about why they offer “100,000 mile coach awards between Los Angeles and New York.” Robertson simply replied that they don’t, that 100,000 miles is not one of their award levels.

Except they do. Their award engine prices awards additively. If a segment is available at the medium level (40,000) and another at the high level (60,000), it won’t price the entire itinerary at the high level but instead will add the medium and high segments and get to 100,000.

Most people assume it’s a bug, some assume that the bug persists because Skymiles views it as a feature. Either way, the Skymiles award pricing engine comes up with some surprising prices — where flights with better availability can cause the total price of an award to go up.

And the example of the French Polynesia flights is instructive, the author found 150,000 mile roundtrip flights from Los Angeles to Tahiti and since the flights to Los Angeles weren’t available at the low level the award priced at 230,000 miles. He managed to put together a connecting flight at the low level and price it at 150,000 miles and then as a Delta Diamond change the award to a non-stop Atlanta – Los Angeles flight later at no charge.

It’s worth noting that Delta does tend to offer better award availability as travel approaches, this isn’t a criticism of the Skymiles program but rather of Delta’s inventory management, they’re much more conservative than their counterparts and don’t make many seats available until they’re sure they won’t sell them rather than simply being pretty confident they won’t sell them. If you’re looking at the last minute, or willing to change flights later, you can often improve your lot in life. Delta PLatinums used to be able make changes to awards for free, they took that benefit away and reserved it for Diamond members (125,000 qualifying miles per year), and then restored it to Platinums (75,000 qualifying miles per year). But for anyone below Platinum there’s a charge to change the award when better availability opens up.

The most frustrating thing to me is that given the combination of difficult to find awards on Delta and its partners, broken pricing engines, and that many of Delta’s partners don’t make it possible to search for award inventory online and put together your own awards, that Delta will not hold awards which aren’t booked on the website. Only very few of Delta’s partners can even be booked on the website. Sure, sometimes you can construct an itinerary that isn’t what you want online, call and get it changes and other partner flights added, and then have the agent leave it on hold (but only sometimes!), this is hardly a reasonable workaround.

I strongly believe that I could work within the Skymiles system if only they would allow me to find a flight on a call and place it on hold. Especially since so many agents at Delta are frustrating to work with. Delta’s partners don’t even have uniform booking codes for award inventory, many of their agents don’t know those booking classes or how to search for them or even who their partners are (“Vietnam Airlines is not a member of Skyteam, sir, only Delta and Air France are.”) And agents have been known in the past to refuse to make more than three or four searches per call and require you to hang up and call back, but then you cannot even hold whatever you have found.

All fo these things make working with Skymiles a real challenge. And to me they’re worth less because of my deisre to fly international first class and the fact that the Skymiles program doesn’t even offer the feature to redeem for that.

But they are the go-to program for the most difficult of all awards to Australia and French Polynesia. I just wish they would allow even 24 hour holds on awards booked over the phone. Is that really too much to ask?

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 Milepoint.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. I believe that Delta Platinums can make changes for free (including redeposit). They took that privilege away and subsequently gavi it back.

  2. I would agree with your entire post Gary. I am a DL Diamond and was able to book 2 awards CMH-LAX-PPT return for 150K miles. Got the CMH-LAX nonstops in domestic F and LAX-PPT-LAX in AF J and TN J respectively.

    Trying to use miles for supposedly easier trips (to Europe) has proven near impossible

  3. Excellent post and it doesn’t hurt repeating that the award calendar broken and useless for probably 95% of users. However, there are great reference about how to book using dl miles on milepoint & ft. By studying those and from frequently reading blogs like yours I’ve booked some amazing awards including an upcoming J trip to Australia with a stop over in Malaysia on a mixture of KE (incl) A380 and MH.

  4. Gary, are there any published reports from the FT University sessions? Haven’t been able to find much.

    Thank you,
    David H.

  5. I recently wanted to fly first class on a revenue ticket to Atlanta.Though Delta had the best schedule/frequency I decided not to.Nothing to do with the fact that it’s not my primary program
    I thought long and hard decided to book at another carrier simply because I consider Delta to be the stingiest and most dysfunctional FF program in the history of Legacy carriers.
    Off topic I like Mr. Robertson personally he’s a really good guy.
    I don’t know what challenges that lie ahead however he and Delta have an enormous undertaking with CS training and updating their highly antiquated rip off booking engine.
    With Star Alliance soon to be an amazing force and American One World my preferred go to alliance/program it’s going to take a miracle to consider using Delta even to by a bag of peanuts from.
    For this global traveler Delta typically offers an outrageous award redemption pricing along with a difficult booking process online or through agents
    Not to mention an inferior product typically with ageing aircraft
    It won’t be long before they institute Skynet blocking What’s left to destroy they haven’t previously in years past? SkyPesos are even far weaker than the US dollar.
    They should kiss and bow to every customer they have as they are heroes to put up with it all.

  6. “Getting into position” for a DL partner flight can indeed be excrutiating. As a DL plat (status which I gave up in Feb) I secured some “low” award seats to Hawaii on Alaska Air for my family, and simply needed to fly from the East Coast to the West Coast on DL. Despite being extremely flexible and having dozens of possible connections, it was like pulling teeth to find seats. Ultimately, as a Plat, I was able to do it (only one option ever became available), but non-plat members would be hosed by the change fees.

    Skymiles is just a terrible program to use miles. Only the most sophisticated frequent flyers would have half a shot at redeeming a regular award for a worthwhile trip on DL, unless you got extremely lucky.

  7. I THINK DELTA IS JUST NOT FLEXIBLE!! AND DOES NOT VALUE IT CLIENTS , THEY CONTINUE TO BUILD ILL WILL ,THE MORE U HAVE TO DO WITH THEM THE MORE YOU REALIZE THEY ARE FAR FROM CUSTOMER ORIENTED

    I NEED TO TRAVEL INTERNATIONAL SOME TIMES WITH TWO OR THREE MONTH STAYS IN MY OUTBOUND CITY B4 I RETURN — SO IF I START LOOKING FOR A FLIGHT FOR JAN IN LETS SAY JUNE JULY AUG SEPT OCT ETC CAN ONLY FIND THE HIGHEST FARE –“IF” FIND A LOW FARE ONE WAY AND WANT TO BOOK A R/T THE RETURN WILL ALWAYS BE AT THE HIGHEST RATE — LAST TICKET COST APPROX. $350.00 FOR FUEL CHARGE ETC –IF I WANT TO MAKE A CHANGE BECAUSE I FIND MY RETURN LATER AT A LOWER MILEAGE IT WILL COST 150.00 EACH CHANGE — WHEN I USE BA OR AA I CAN BOOK MY R/T IN ADVANCE AT A LO LEVEL IF I PLAN AHEAD — SPEAKING TO DELTA AGENTS IS A WASTE OF TIME THE ARE “RIGGED” –THEY NEED TO OFFER TRUE ONE WAY AWARDS

  8. Delta continues to rip-off their customers, both the frequent and infrequent ones. As a Diamond, I go to Asia once a month on business. I fly Delta using Diamond upgrades and give my Business Class fares to Continental and United as a reward for having great availability throughout their program especially in Asia.

    Delta just doesn’t get it. UAL gave 90 days notice for award changes in Asia, Delta 0 days for changes much more punitive than United’s.

    Jeff Robertson was quoted last week at the seminar as saying “he does what’s best for Delta”, well Jeff, I will now do what’s best for me…give Delta coach fares and United Business fares…and we call these loyalty programs…nice

  9. My biggest problem with Skymiles is the difficulty in using them for Sky Team awards. With a Star Alliance carrier (lets use US Airways as an example), there is a clearly published partner award chart: X number of miles to go from this region to that region, in coach, business, or first. You know what you’re getting into from a mileage redemption standpoint on an alliance-wide basis, from the get-go. Compare this to Delta, where you spend your time shooting in the dark on the phone, not knowing how many miles it’s going to cost you. This is by far the biggest drawback to Skymiles in my book.

  10. The points listed in the article and comments are exactly why I don’t use SkyTeam and moved to *A – not because *A is THAT much better, but it is much easier to use miles on most any of their carriers. I would prefer to be with DL but if I can’t use what they give away so freely (miles) then it doesn’t matter if I have 10 million in the account. At no point is 300k-400k miles for a J class award ever acceptable.

  11. Gary,

    At the travel executive summit a frequent flyer asked why it was 200,000 to go to LA from NY which is why Jeff was confused as the highest possible award is 100,000.

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