Using Delta Miles Successfully: Awesome Business Class Availability on Saudi Arabian Airlines

I laid out my arguments about why Delta miles are one of the least valuable currencies out there at Frequent Traveler University back in April when I debated The Points Guy.

It’s no secret that I think Delta miles are worth less than miles with United, American, US Airways, or Alaska Airlines. Sometimes I think they’re worth less than Air Baltic BalticMiles and Ukraine International Airlines Panorama Club miles. I’m the guy who coined the term “Skypesos” after all.

But I’m also committed to helping folks use Delta miles for business class international awards. I have a guide on how to make Delta’s miles work for you. And a couple of weeks back I outlined fantastic business class award availability on China Southern’s Airbus A380 from Los Angeles to Guangzhou.

Today’s lesson: new Skyteam member Saudi Arabian Airlines (now known as ‘Saudia’)

Saudia joined Skyteam less than 3 months ago.

From the U.S. they fly:

  • Washington Dulles – Jeddah, 3 times weekly
  • Washington Dulles – Riyadh, 3 times weekly
  • New York JFK – Jeddah, 4 times weekly
  • New York JFK – Ryadh, once weekly

And business class award space is amazing.

Their award inventory is published through Sabre, you can search for Saudia award inventory at D inventory is business class award space, L inventory is coach award space. You can also search for space at Expert Flyer (pay service, 5 day free trial available).

I picked a random day in mid-December and searched Expertflyer for Washington Dulles – Jeddah.

Saudia flights frequently show ‘at least’ 7 business class seats available as awards, and it’s often many more than that. (Regional flights will often show only a couple of seats.)

I haven’t tested Delta’s routing rules to see whether it’s possible to transit Saudi Arabia enroute to Africa (I would guess that it is), their destinations in Africa are limited: Addis Ababa, Cairo, Casablanca, Alexandria, Algeria. Of these, from the U.S. it really only makes sense for flights to Addis Ababa. Cairo is a couple thousand extra miles of flying, about 12 or 13 percent over published ‘maximum permitted routing’.

Where this is really useful, though, is for flying to the Middle East and Central Asia. There’s great coverage of India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and the Gulf States.

I made a booking using Delta miles on Saudia today, and the process was typical Delta. Which is to say that it’s important to know the exact flights that have availability before you call (Saudia flights cannot be booked on the Delta website). And you have to have patience with Delta agents who are consistently the worst in North America for booking award travel.

It’s rare that I have occasion to use Saudia. Visa rules are strict for the Saudi Kingdom, there’s not a ton of tourism other than religious tourism. And folks are often skeptical of flying the airline.

I’m sure it’s even more rare that Delta agents get requests to book on them. And few know how. Or even that Saudia is a partner.

Call #1

    I told the agent what I was interested in booking. She put me on hold for about five minutes, confirmed that Saudia was a Delta partner, and proceeded to set up a reservation. She was shocked all the way throughout the call that award space was available. She kept requesting it, it kept coming back available, and each time she showed disbelief.

    Once the whole reservation was set up, she quoted mileage cost (120,000 miles for business class to Central Asia) and taxes ($150 plus $25 telephone booking fee), then she went to document the record. She put the call on hold, came back, apologized and said “it looks like they don’t want to give us the seats in business class after all, sometimes when we request them they say no, but it looks like coach is available on the same flights and for only 80,000 miles!”


Call #2

    I greet the agent, tell him that I’d like to make an award reservation on Saudia.


    You know, Saudia Arabian Airlines.

    “And you want to use your Delta miles for that?”

    Yes, they are a new member of Skyteam, they are a Delta partner.

    Well, I’ll have to put you on hold to check into that.

    How about I just give you the flights I want and we see what happens?

    I read off the specific flights one by one — date, starting city, arrival city, flight number — and tell him “we’re looking for 1 seat in ‘D’ which is business class award inventory.”

    He goes flight by fight, requests the space, each comes back confirmed in turn quickly. “That will be 120,000 miles.” He takes passenger info, quotes taxes, I transfer points into the account from American Express Membership Rewards. Tickets issued.

Some Things to Consider:

  • I haven’t flown them. From the US they operate 777s, they’ve been upgrading their inflight product but they don’t seem to be up to world standard in terms of seats or service. Still, it’s business class. With Delta Skymiles. And tons of seats on the same flights. Looking to get a whole family to India in a forward cabin? This would seem to do the trick.

  • It’s possible to transit without a Visa.

    TWOV (Transit Without Visa):
    Visa required, except for Holders of onward tickets for a max.
    transit [[TIRULES/R32]] time of 18 hours when inbound flight is
    operated by Saudi Arabian Airlines; or
    Visa required, except for Holders of onward tickets for a max.
    transit [[TIRULES/R32]] time of 8 hours when inbound flight is
    not operated by Saudi Arabian Airlines.
    – Only one transit stop-over in Saudi Arabia is permitted.
    – Except when flying on Saudi Arabian Airlines, where a
    second transit point is permitted.

    It’s also possible to apply for a transit visa. But this being Saudi Arabia, women cannot apply for one unless accompanied by a male relative.

  • They are a dry airline. Not surprising. So is Kuwait Airways. And EgyptAir. Just know that going in, you won’t be having a glass of wine with your meal, any champagne, a gin and tonic. The Arabic coffee hopefully is good!

It’s certainly an opportunity to rack up a new airline under your belt if have have some Skymiles laying around…

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, 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. Interesting. Thanks. I’ve read that you’re supposed to be able to leave the airport in Saudi Arabia without needing a visa if you have a transit under 18 hours, but in reality they may not let you leave.

  2. Zz, “kosher” probably not being a word you would ever want to use while flying on Saudia….

  3. Any idea what the hard product is like? Tried looking for trip reports and did a google image search but couldn’t find anything useful

  4. @zbenfer – sure, they are both members of skyteam. And Saudia doesn’t include fuel surcharges in their paid fares…

  5. @HoKo not outstanding. They’ve been putting in new seats that are better than the recliner-style they had but it’s not world standard.

  6. @Autolycus – I always wanted Condoleeza Rice to land there, get off the plane and tell the driver, “oh that’s ok, I’ll just be the one to drive…”

  7. @Gary – I came back to post that I can answer my own question with accuracy. :-)

    Being based in the Middle East/Gulf, I can fly Saudia return to Europe for 60,000 Korean Miles in Business Class.

    They permit a stopover or an open-jaw.

    As an upgrade award, you can’t upgrade from Business to First, it seems.

    To be frank, I would choose KLM for that itineracy as their Rijssttafel is excellent in premium cabins!

  8. @Gabi totally fair, and I was teasing, since BalticMiles did EXCEPTIONALLY well at the Freddie Awards this spring. Your members clearly love you!

  9. @ffi – Awesome modified “availability” not “seats and service”… but it’s easy business class to Central Asia with Delta miles for a whole family that you can actually get.

  10. Tks for a very informative article. Delta sky miles have the lowest value in the business. With the knowledge gained from this article I can now seek out a pair of good value seats to Asia.

  11. Let me add some information about transit in saudia.
    1 IATA shows you can go out of airport if transfer less than 18 hours, this is untrue, at least to all airport officials, I tried to enter both Riyadh and JED with IATA print out, all immigrations were shocked and called airline station manager, none of them ever heard about this rule

    2 there are nearly 0 facility in Both airport, in JED, one cafe, that’s all. lounge is big, but no choices of food

    3 in Riyadh, 3 cafes, one is starbucks, another one is costa cafe, one local cafe. that’s all.

    Hope your connection time is short

  12. Gary, If I call DL to book a KE award ticket (hope the person knows KE) , would I also need the specific flights I want as well? Or give them a window of dates to look?

  13. I have done a lot of DL miles to Australia, India and central Asia via CDG and FCO, so I am not sure I need the “dry” option, but I guess every little bit counts for the DL miles.

  14. Interesting how things have changed at DL. Back in May/June of last year, there was a big national bruhaha about Jews flying on Saudia and DL’s “complicity”. So much so that DL put out a press release denying any involvement with Saudia. Curiously, that release is no longer available in the news archives at However, thanks to the Internet Archive, you can still find it here:

    One interesting line from that release: “Delta does not intend to codeshare or share reciprocal benefits, such as frequent flier benefits, with Saudi Arabian Airlines, which we have confirmed with SkyTeam, an Amsterdam-based 14-member global airline alliance.”

    Wonder if DL HQ has any updated statement reflecting the change of stance?

  15. I just flew Saudia from JFK-RUH and retuned through Dulles. This is my 4th trip to Saudi Arabia, but the first directly from the US. Previously I have flown air France to Paris then either Saudia or AF to Riyadh. The business class on the 777 was quite good. Almost full flat seats. Better than business elite in delta airfrance from slc to cdg. Food good, no alcohol, entertainment so so. My only intention was to sleep on the long haul flight which I did quite comfortably. The staff were nice, friendly, and attentive.

  16. Thanks so much for this article! I was going crazy trying to redeem SkyMiles for a business class award from US to Asia and was able to follow the steps you mentioned to book an award on Saudia with connections on either end with Delta.

  17. @Troy: I could leave the airport last August, while being on a 13 hour transit from SIN to FRA in Riyadh. Although it took two hours, but it worked out in the end

  18. My company flies me round trip once a month from Washington to Jeddah. I usually fly Delta/Air France. My company buys my coach ticket and I use miles to upgrade to business. Can I use Delta Skymiles to upgrade to business on Saudia AND what class of ticket do I need to get to be eligible for an upgrade?

  19. You can’t bring your own alcohol and drink it. By law the FAA prohibits you from self-service. While FAA doesn’t control the return flight into the US, I highly doubt that the equal of the FAA in Saudia Arabia allows it either.

  20. i tried using your method with 3 different delta agents but they all came back with the same answer, no award availability on my selected date, even though expertflyer shows 6 seats available in ‘d’ class on my route….do i just give up & try another airline or is there anything else you suggest i do????

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