Debating The Points Guy on the Value of Delta Skymiles at Frequent Traveler University

Frequent Traveler University had some really outstanding moments, The Points Guy posted a video of his talk about Delta Skymiles. He was debating me on their merits, I wish someone had filmed my counterpoint.

I certainly see value in the program. But I advanced the argument that the program is on the whole less lucrative than United’s, American’s, Delta’s, or Alaska’s, while conceding that it works better for me than Southwest’s or Frontier’s.

My basic arguments were as follows:

  1. Their pricing engine is broken. A US-Australia award may be 150,000 miles roundtrip in business class, and it may be that the award is supposed to include flights inside the US to the international gateway city when those segments are available at the ‘low’ level, but Delta often prices it additively anyway. You’ll often see 45,000 miles roundtrip for domestic first class plus 150,000 miles roundtrip for international business class. This can lead to some really absurdly priced awards. Another example is New York to Los Angeles via Phoenix, in generally prices as two awards. And US to French Polynesia will often cause domestic segments to be an additional cost, even though they’re supposed to be included.

  2. The award booking website is broken. It won’t show flights even though those flights are available. It offers only a very limited subset of partner award flights online. It often displays incorrect — even logically impossible — prices. And it frequently spits out errors at the very end of the booking process.

  3. Delta Skymiles will only put award space on hold through their website, which means most partner awards cannot be held and when the website malfunctions even Air France awards cannot be held. My workaround is to create an award — any award — online, then call up Delta to try to make changes. Agents will often (though not always) agree to leave a held award on hold.

  4. Delta agents are poorly trained. The website is broken so you have to call, but that can be about as frustrating of a phone call as you’ll experience. I am frequently told things like “Vietnam Airlines is not part of Skyteam” … “You can only book awards on airline partners for routes that Delta does not fly.” … “There’s no award space available (when there clearly is, even on the awful Delta website).” Or “Air France is the only member of Skyteam.” Part of the problem is that Delta’s partners use a variety of booking classes and their systems aren’t especially automated, meaning that the booking process is more complicated than for Star Alliance airline programs.

  5. Routing rules are restrictive. They don’t allow you to fly to Asia via Europe. They don’t offer one-way awards at half the price of roundtrip. They don’t allow any changes to awards inside 3 days of departure.

  6. Three-tiered pricing can be much more expensive. Last seat availability one-way in coach is 60,000 miles. Last seat availability on American in first class is 50,000 miles. If you want a one-way award with Delta, it’s best to find a dummy throwaway return in the future at the ‘low’ level in order to bring down the price of the segment you want. Program members shouldn’t have to hack the program that way.

  7. Delta availability is poor compared to other airlines. While Delta does tend to offer a few award seats when schedules open, and much better availability close to departure, I often find that I can get international business class award space on their partners — the biggest challenge is getting a domestic flight (even in coach) to the international gateway city.

  8. They add fuel surcharges to awards on many of their partners. V Australia, and Malaysian for instance. Expect to pay $650 in taxes and fees for a business class award on V Australia.

  9. They impose an international origination fee on Europe departures. If your trip starts in Europe, expect to fork over cash.

  10. Delta’s program doesn’t include any option for 3-cabin international first class redemptions. That’s my key aspirational goal, and it isn’t even a feature of their program.

  11. They’re not good at transparency. They only last year even published an award chart for awards that neither begin nor end in North America.

  12. If I had to bet on the future of Skymiles, I’d argue they’re more likely to get less valuable than more valuable. There have been leaks of documents relating to a change in program to be revenue-based. If that happens that makes pricier international premium cabin awards even more expensive than they are today.

After Brian and I each gave our opening statements, we decided to skip the cross-examination period and rebuttals, and decided instead to work with the audience on how to get the most out of their miles.

  • Delta miles are great for French Polynesia (they partner with both airlines that fly there from the US) and Australia (since V Australia availability is decent despite the fuel surcharges). Those are the two toughest awards to get.
  • The Air France Flying Blue website is pretty good for searching award space on many Delta partners. Find the seats on the Air France site, then call Delta to book.
  • When the telephone agents aren’t helpful, hang up and call back hoping the next person you speak to is better.
  • Look to Delta partner Alaska Airlines for domestic connections, especially if you’re on the West Coast of the U.S.
  • Awards to Africa, with an allowable stopover in Europe, are a good value and pretty available. Air France availability is great, especially from Washington Dulles and to a lesser extent New York. One seat on Delta is often available on Delta from Portland to Asia. China Southern has good business class availability. If you can avoid blackout dates, Korean also has good availability.

There was plenty more, and I look forward to my next opportunity to share with folks in-person at the next Frequent Traveler University in Los Angeles in December.

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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Comments

  1. HA also has a flight from Hawaii and you can book with Delta miles.

    It was a great debate. I think Gabriel L filmed your counter point argument. Who knows, you may show up in video

  2. What happened to AF space ex IAD, JFK, YUL, and YYZ in O Class? I know summer is coming, but there was consistently O9s ex-IAD and YUL in June/July/August/Sept until about two weeks ago, when everything suddenly zeroed out. I don’t recall this happening in the past. Do you?

  3. I think it depends on what level flyer you are and what you value from the program. I agree for 99% of folks DL is less lucrative. If you are a BIS flyer especially those willing to do 125k to make Diamond you are definately playing the game wrong when you could earn 1k or EXP.

    For me however Delta has been the best “overall” program from a value proposition b/c:

    I’m a small biz owner that can achieve Reserve card spend levels (which earns 1.5 miles/$)

    Reserve card MQM boost mean to achieve Plat only takes approx 50k BIS/ yr easy to make just by visiting family on the opposite coast

    I only travel for leisure and can choose my flights to max u/g % (last yr missed 1 out of 44)

    Based in SFO I can take advantage of AS route network for accrual+redemption to get to KE, MU, CZ, MH, AM, AF, KL gateways

    As A PM ~50k/yr flyer I can redeposit and change awards for free to get around availability issues.

    I can same-day confirm for free to max domestic upgrade chances.

    I don’t ever consider trying to book awards on DL metal – this is a complete write off

    As someone who travels Int’l for leisure 2x/yr max a lie-flat J seat is fine especially if its on VA or KE.

    So for 50k BIS I’m earning around 230k/yr RDM which means 2 J Awards per year. To me this is a fantastic Value proposition.

    If there’s a better deal out there for someone in my position I’m all ears – interested to know your opinion.

  4. Don’t forget Air Tahiti Nui is joining OneWorld, which will probably mean the end of redemptions to the French Polynesia in the near future for DL flyers on Air Tahiti Nui… Air France only flies 3/4x a week or something.

  5. I’ve been amazed for years that DL hasn’t lost business due to it’s awful frequent flyer program. I mean, the folks who read this blog are ff experts — and we still have trouble using our Skypesos. We have to get VERY creative to get good value out of them. What about Joe Traveller, who just wants to redeem for a 25,000 mile domestic coach award. Good luck with that on DL — the stars would have to be properly aligned. And God forbid he has the aspirational desire for a trip to London. Try getting there with a domestic connection.

    I would think “typical” travellers would notice this. Does it not really matter that their program is massively inferior to UA and AA in trying to redeem “normal” awards?

  6. @iahphx: Most FTers, MPers, etc. who fly Delta are not mileage collectors but people who really fly Delta a lot. We prefer their inflight service to other American carriers, IROPs handling, and for those who fly mostly domestically (I.e., not me) the upgrade rate has historically been excellent. With more cheap Y-up fares, the landscape is shifting, but for some, redeeming the miles comes in several spots down on the list of priorities.

  7. @Golfingboy: The TN to oneworld rumor has been denied by TN, so it’s not likely that things are going to change soon. MH has actually announced its intention to join oneworld, and they are still mileage partners with several SkyTeam programs.

  8. Another point to add to the list is that Delta charges $150 per ticket to make any changes to an award ticket (unless you are a DM or PM). I believe American and United allow unlimited changes to dates, flights as long as the origin and destination remain the same.

  9. Is there a way to use Ultimate Reward points (I have lots) to buy award flights on Delta (I have very few Skymiles)? I thought I’d try Korean Air (since I can use UR points to get Korean Air Skypass points), but the Korean Air website lists only a dozen or so US airports; not the small one I need (ROA). Thank you.

  10. @David Goodwin – find low level Delta availability (use for instance the AirFrance.us website) and then call up Korean to book the space

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