What do Delta Skymiles redeem for?

I give Delta Skymiles a hard time, and deservedly so. I’m known as the guy who coined the term ‘Skypesos’ for their currency, on the whole their miles are worth less than miles in the United, American, and US Airways frequent flyer programs. They’re harder to use. They don’t permit one-way awards for half the cost of roundtrip (neither does US Airways). Their agents are clueless, their award booking website offers limited partners and is generally quite broken. International first class awards aren’t allowed.

But because I give such a hard time to Skypesos, I also feel like I have a special responsibility to help figure out how to make the most of them.

And I’m the first to say that the miles you should collect and use very much depend on the destinations you want to redeem for. Delta is actually the best for booking Australia business class awards, one of the toughest frequent flyer awards out there, because of their partnership with Virgin Australia (which has the best availability non-stop between the U.S. and Australia, especially on their Los Angeles – Brisbane flight). And they partner with both airlines — Air Tahiti Nui and Air France — that fly non-stop from the mainland U.S. to French Polynesia, one of the other truly toughest awards out there.

Another great sweet spot with Skymiles is business class to India. You won’t find award seats on Delta in business class at the 120,000 mile level with any frequency. But Delta has several partners — ones you wouldn’t think of — that can get you there pretty easily.

You might have to buy a domestic flight to get to the US city you’ll be leaving the country from, but once you get there it’s pretty easy.

The award space in business class on Skyteam members Saudia (from Washington DC or New York, through Riyadh and Jeddah) and Aeroflot (a much better airline than you think, and with great availability out of New York and DC through Moscow) is better than on almost any airline.

If I want to get a whole family and not just a couple of passengers to India in business class, there’s nothing better than Saudia where I frequently see 7 business class seats available on the same flight. You can transit either Moscow or Saudia Arabia without a visa as long as you aren’t leaving the airport.

Plus Skymiles can be very easy to earn, such that even folks who don’t live in a Delta hub wind up with decent stashes of Skymiles. (And my concerns have nothing to do with the airline itself – -while I detest them for international upgrades, they have the most restrictive international upgrade policy of the major US airlines — they do have a decent domestic product with pretty pimped out planes, the most inflight wifi of any airline… while American will be about 97% complete on their domestic mainline fleet by the end of the year, Delta even offers wifi in regional aircraft.)

With that in mind, here are my top 8 uses for Delta Skymiles. (This is Delta after all, so it’s really tough to come up with 10.)

  1. Virgin Australia: Best Availability for Business Class to Australia

    I’ve already described the gist of this one. Delta flies Los Angeles – Sydney but you won’t often find business class award space at the low level here. But you will find it with Virgin Australia. Quite often, and even during high season. I’ve come up with as many as four business class award seats on the same Los Angeles – Brisbane flights during Christmas and New Years which isn’t just high season it’s the peak of peak high season.

    Delta lets you book Virgin Australia flights online. Since adding that functionality, they’ve also stopped collecting fuel surcharges on those awards.

    Bear in mind that Delta’s award calendar is broken so don’t just assume that if you cannot see flights available using the month-long calendar view that flights aren’t available, the best strategy is to search one day at a time. You may also want to search using a Virgin Australia frequent flyer account, on their website, and then pick the flight you want and grab it online through Delta (you need to find space at the lowest award pricing on that site as Delta only has access to saver inventory).

    I like booking Virgin Australia award flights online, rather than with Delta agents, because Delta’s telephone agents have been known to book the wrong inventory class on these awards since they’re not always very familiar with them, with folks thinking they’re getting business class but actually having phone agents put them in coach.

    Sometimes you can have a hard time piecing together these awards along with domestic flights on Delta that are available at the low level because in my experience Delta’s pricing engine is very broken, but sometimes that does work. Even still, it can be worth buying the domestic segments to get to Los Angeles to start an award trip just to use Delta miles for business class to Australia.

  2. Korean Air: the most flight options to Asia

    Delta has been a partner of Korean Air for years, Korean is a Skyteam member, but they only just added online booking of Korean awards back in October.

    This was an especially big deal because you could not otherwise search Korean’s business class award space online yourself. You need miles in your Korean Skypass account in order to use their website to search for awards. They don’t publish award space consistently through publicly available websites.

    As a result Delta Skymiles members used to be dependent on agents to tell them what was an was not available. Which often means hunting an pecking for space — asking about different dates, asking about different cities. Very few agents are patient enough to help you put together an award like that, in fact some Delta agents have even told me they’re only permitted to search three routes in a call and that if I wanted more I’d have to call back!

    So online searching is huge. Of course the Delta award calendar cannot be relied upon, you need to search each day independently. And it’s a best practice to search for one-way awards (even though you won’t book that away, it reduces the computer’s confusion). And search each transpacific route, don’t just search from your starting city to your destination.

    But Korean has pretty good availability, and perhaps most usefully they fly to more US destinations than any other Asian carrier. They fly to Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Honolulu, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, New York JFK, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington Dulles In addition, they fly to Toronto and to Vancouver in Canada, and from Los Angeles to Sao Paolo as well. So tons of possibilities.

    The toughest challenge is that over 40% of the year is blacked out, because Delta forbids booking any Korean flight when the airline has blackout dates for any route. So if there’s an intra-Asia blackout date, Delta will impose it on North America-Seoul. The following upcoming dates are blacked out:

    • Through January 6
    • February 7 – February 12
    • May 17 – June 30
    • July 19 – August 25
    • September 14 – September 23
    • October 3
    • October 5 -October 6
    • December 7 – December 31

    Delta also allows booking award travel to Australia via Seoul, and allows a stopover in one direction. So you can do Asia and Australia on the award. Another good way to do Australia, that toughest frequent flyer award, using Delta miles.

  3. Saudia: Outstanding for flying to the Middle East and Central Asia.

    Over the summer I Saudia’s amazing award availability. They fly to places, it seems, for reasons other than business viability. As a result there are plenty of empty seats on many of their flights, such as to New York and DC. And those seats get opened up as awards. Which nobody seems to try to claim, probably because transiting Saudi Arabia on relatively new Skyteam member Saudia is just too obscure. Lots of Delta agents seemingly haven’t even heard of the airline.

    Saudia often has 7 or more business class award seats open on a single flight, and availability like that seems to be the norm for most of their long haul flights. Their short hops beyond Riyadh and Jeddah can have fewer seats open, but availability is still good. And they have great coverage of India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and the Gulf States.

    There’s no visa required for a connection in Saudi Arabia, but it can be difficult to actually get a visa to visit there. Another reason that folks aren’t redeeming awards on Saudia, Saudi Arabia simply isn’t a common destination or one that’s easy to visit. But for connecting to points beyond it’s great because availability is so good.

    I find the biggest challenge can be lining up available long haul flights with flights to points beyond, not because of availability but because they fly to several destinations with non-daily service. And you do need to put together connections because you can’t enter the country for a stopover without a visa.

  4. Aeroflot: Good availability to Russia — and to Dubai, Delhi, and Istanbul

    In October I outlined just how good award space is on Aeroflot’s flights departing the U.S., especially their New York flights. Space from Los Angeles and from Washington Dulles can be good at times, and completely dry at other times. And Aeroflot is a better carrier than many expect, on par with Air France and KLM.

    And it’s even a way to get to the Maldives, their Moscow – Male flights usually have coach availability and are only three times weekly but for a place so tough to get to this can be useful.

  5. China Southern: A good product to Asia with great availability

    China Southern has long offered decent award availability to Asia, they fly from Los Angeles to their hub in Guangzhou and Delta adds modest fuel surcharges to awards on the carrier.

    Award availability became really outstanding when they put an Airbus A380 on the route, and the aircraft has a pretty good business class product as well.

    Just as with Korean awards and Seoul as a connecting point, Delta allows booking award travel to Australia via Guangzhou, and allows a stopover in one direction. So you can do Asia and Australia on the award. Another good way to do Australia, that toughest frequent flyer award, using Delta miles. We’re definitely getting a theme going here.

    Getting to Los Angeles using Delta miles can be a challenge, but once you reach that gateway (by award or separate ticket) I find that more often than not it’s possible to put together a premium cabin award using Delta miles on China Southern.

  6. Alaska Airlines: Domestic awards ARE available using Skymiles!

    Skymiles turns the usual expectation of a frequent flyer program on its head. Usually you can find domestic flights but it’s much harder to get those premium cabin international awards, or at least so goes the conventional wisdom.

    And it’s true that finding premium cabin international awards on Delta flights can be a challenge although at times there are specific flights that are easier than others (eg London flights).

    But since they do have a variety of partners whom you can get seats on, finding the international segments winds up the easy part — if you know where to look for the seats, and have the patience to either battle the Delta.com website or clueless telephone agents.

    The challenge then becomes finding flights to get from your home city to the international gateway airport. If you live in, say, Milwaukee and found flights out of New York or DC or Atlanta to Europe or Asia, you still have to get from Milwaukee to that international departure city. And finding flights on Delta at the ‘low’ or saver level can be the toughest part of constructing the award.

    Fortunately, especially folks living on the West Coast have the option of using Delta’s partner Alaska Airlines for that!

    Alaska’s award space is pretty good, they have their biggest operations in Seattle, Los Angeles, Anchorage and Portland. You can get from many West Coast cities to those gateways and then use other Delta partners to fly internationally. (You can also get from those cities to gateways.)

    Availability can be toughest on the longest flights like Boston, New York, and Washington National. Midwest and Texas flights tend to be easier, in that you can sometimes find premium cabin space whereas the East Coast cities rarely have premium cabin awards.

    But having Alaska as an option means that sometimes you don’t have to buy domestic flights to sync up with award tickets.

  7. Air France: Getting to Europe isn’t as easy as it used to be

    The easiest thing to do with Skymiles used to be redeem for Air France business class. Unfortunately In mid-September Air France transatlantic business class award space mostly evaporated. And what did exist wasn’t bookable with Delta Skymiles, even though those Delta is a Skyteam partner of Air France.

    A month later it became possible again to book Air France premium cabin awards using Delta miles. And they were even bookable at Delta.com.

    But while Air France business class award space does now exist for Delta Skymiles members it is not at all the same as what’s offered to Air France’s own Flying Blue members. In fact it’s barely even a subset. Now it’s frequently the case that Air France will offer its own members 9 or more business class award space on a given flight. And not a single one of those seats will be bookable by Delta. But it’s still a reasonable option with better availability than on Delta aircraft…

  8. Aeromexico: Getting to South America.. and Europe.

    Lucky did a nice job laying out Aeromexico as a good option for using Delta Skymiles to South America.

    What most folks don’t realize is that Aeromexico offers daily service to Paris and Madrid (connecting up with partners Air France and Air Europa) and they’ve just started three times weekly service to London Heathrow. (This last service seemed an odd choice given there’s relatively little origin-destination traffic on the route and there are few connecting opportunities through their Skyteam partners, but perhaps they’ll be bolstered by Delta’s new stake in Virgin Atlantic.)

Update: I wrote this post a bit early, to give myself a break during the holidays — deliver content and advice to you while partying like it’s 1999 myself.

In the meantime, The Points Guy wrote his own post on the best uses of Skymiles. He and I agree on several particulars, and a disagree on a few.

His top list, with my comments:

  1. V Australia Awards with Low Taxes. I cover this one above and do agree.
  2. Business class to Africa/Mauritius. The pricing is reasonable, and as I covered previously, KLM serves some hard to reach destinations like Kilimanjaro. But award availability can be a challenge.
  3. Intra-South America on Aerolinas Argentinas. Useful but in my view somewhat limited in applicability. Aerolinas awards can be tough to search for, space can be reasonably good, but their business class product doesn’t look like one I’d aspire to fly.
  4. Korean Air Awards to Australia and South America. We agree, as noted above.
  5. China Southern to Asia. As discussed above.
  6. Intra-Hawaii awards. This wouldn’t make my list, inventory can be tight, and the price of outright buying the tickets tends to be low.
  7. Air France to Tahiti. I note Delta as good for awards to French Polynesia relative to other carriers since they partner with both Air France and Air Tahiti Nui (the former with non-daily service). But that doesn’t make Air France awards in particular a great value, the seats can be quite tough to get especially during peak season. It’s expensive in miles to get to French Polynesia. It’s hard to do. And it’s an expensive place once you’re there. I don’t like this on any best of lists, but it’s a personal bias against Tahiti and the islands beyond I suppose.
  8. Alaska Airlines. I agree, though in addition to Mexico and Hawaii flights I see them best as connections to other international partners.
  9. Business class round the world for 280,000 miles. Of course you have to find the award inventory. And American’s distance-based awards are a much better value.
  10. Aeromexico and Gol. I note Aeromexico above and Gol was a perfectly decent airline when I flew with them back in May.

I do think Saudia is a real hidden gem missing from Brian’s list.

delta skymiles redeem

  1. Mark said,

    Great value added post. Love it when you stick to travel (and not airline M&A). ;)

  2. CaroleZoom said,

    I tried to get a virgin Australia account but it asked for Australian address only. What’s the work-around?

  3. Rocky said,

    Check out my latest pots. I recently flew the A380 on miles from LAX-CAN and continued on to mnl. It’s actually a better product and service than the rest of CZ and better than a lot of flights I’ve had and I’ve even rank it higher than the A380 experience on Korean Air that I had from ICN-JFK earlier this year.


  4. DaninSTL said,

    Thanks for the post. I had heard in the recent past that a visa was required even when staying in the airport in Moscow. Can you confirm that?

  5. Tipsy said,

    There’s no booze on Saudia! How can you travel in style without a glass of Dom/Krug and no wine list. What will your first photo be? A picture of a glass of orange juice? Sure, it’s all about the “seat”. But that’s like going to a 5 star hotel in Japan and get a standard low tech toilet without a fan to dry my behind. Saudia is at best a very dry aspirational award for kids.

  6. GUWonder said,

    Do you happen to recall the year and date when “SkyPesos” was first used for DL’s miles?

  7. Pointsloverrrrr said,

    Interesting fine with the Aeromexico regarding travel to Paris/London. What city do they fly to Paris? (I’m guessing it’s just Mexico City, but couldn’t tell after a quick search). Also, how is their biz product?

  8. Marc W said,

    Thanks Gary! Great informative post! Can we get a post in how it is easy to earn lots of Delta miles? I find them to be the toughest to earn. They’re credit card bonuses are the lowest and takes many more cards to earn an abundance of miles like you would with UA or AA. What am I missing here?

  9. David said,

    Gary, not that you need any more cheerleading, but these types of posts really set you apart from the pack. So much useful information here.

  10. John said,

    Thanks for the information Gary.
    I have been avoiding Delta because of the poor reputation of Skypesos. If I wanted to start accumulating miles, what kind of credit card offers should I seek? The current offers seem low. Do they offer higher sign up bonuses often?

  11. Seb said,

    “on the whole their miles are worth less than miles in the United, American, and US Airways frequent flyer programs.”

    Add the word “combined” to the end of that sentence and you’re almost there!

  12. M said,

    It should be added that Aeroflot charges significant fuel sucharges (even for intra-Europe flights). I am not sure what Saudia’s fuel surcharge policy is.

  13. Gary said,

    @GUWonder I believe it was December 2009

  14. Mikey said,

    I had very good luck with using delta miles

    I booked san/bkk/san for myself and my daughter using miles from 2 delta accounts ( business class 120k miles each)

    first reservations were different days and flights.

    Called delta and they very helpful agent took the time to change our schedules to same days and flights.

    so far delta is A+ in my book.

  15. John said,

    Gary- Thanks for making this type of informative post rather than all the recent credit card posts. This post is truly useful.

    Marc W- I have hundreds of thousands of Sky Pesos. Sky Pesos are easy to get. I bought them for roughly 1.1 cents a miles during last yrs 100% bonus transfer miles promo. I will use them for int’l bus class somewhere.

  16. bill said,

    Can you explain the Virgin Australia/Delta class booking issue a little further? Which class does Delta incorrectly book Virgin Australia passengers into for business? Which class should they be booked into?

  17. NAIF said,

    I called Delta a few months back and they told me that you cannot redeem Skymiles on Saudia… has something changed?

  18. Gary said,

    @NAIF Delta agents do not know who their partners are. Call back. You can definitely redeem Skymiles on Saudia, they are a Skyteam member after all..

  19. Tom // Sit in first said,

    What is your basis for saying there is little O&D demand on MEX-LHR?

  20. koroleon said,

    Does Delta charge extra fees for flights originating in South America/Middle East/etc like it does for Europe? I would love to see a similar post for non-US residents, I can’t think of a single good use for EU residents.

  21. MileValue said,

    I think a lot of the redemptions listed are not good values because of the surcharges. For instance LAX-Tahiti on Air Tahiti Nui is $500 + 150k miles in biz. Aeroflot and China Southern ding you with small ones too. I agree that V Australia is the best redemption. After that I’d probably look at economy r/t to Asia and Europe. Full list of Delta award surcharges –> http://milevalue.com/surcharge-info-on-all-delta-skymiles-partners/

  22. Kimmie said,

    Also very good availability out of the US to Lima, Peru (LIM) for a scant 37,5K (or less) r/t in coach. Considering the ATL/LIM fare is averaging $800^, MIA/LIM is $560^, and JFK/LIM is $700^, the Delta SkyPesos can be a good”ish” deal.

  23. Delta bits from around the blogs, news & extra points to end the year - Delta Points said,

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  24. Gary said,

    @MileValue – The China Southern and Aeroflot redemptions are good value in spite of the fuel surcharges and Air Tahiti Nui — as I say Tahiti is never a bargain — but Delta is the best program is you want to use miles to French Polynesia since they partner with both airlines that fly from the mainland US to get thre.

  25. travelbloggerbuzz said,

    This was one of the best blog posts recently in the blogosphere I am following!

  26. Simon said,

    That’s a big compliment coming from TBB! ;)

  27. Greg said,

    Great post Gary, I have bookmarked it for later.

    Another reason they should be called skypesos is there is no way to cross reference availability, as they have blocked access to services like expertflyer. So even if expertflyer says there is availability on airline X, you are up to the mercy of the booking agent.

    I had saved up 400,000 miles in hopes of booking the family to Europe LAX-CDG on Air France which used to have GREAT availability. It still has OK availability on expertflyer – but not on Delta – – URGH

    In theory Delta Skymiles agents could make a killing offering a service of booking Skymiles awards for others as they are really the only people who could see true availability and might have an insight as to which or why partner routes are not available for Skymiles redemptions.

    I believe this lack of availability transparency in airline programs truly devalues their points. Airlines advertise that points can be redeemed on partners yet they decide to pull partner redemption or randomly decide partner availability.

  28. Alvin said,

    Gary, if I use 2 partner airlines (including Delta itself) of Skymiles to construct a reward ticket, will I need to pay more Skymiles compared to using 1 airline? thanks.

  29. UAPhil said,

    Gary, what is the best way to get to New Zealand??

  30. Gary said,

    @Alvin – you shouldn’t, no

  31. Rapid Travel Chai said,

    I appreciate your perspective from someone who constantly books awards. TPG including Aerolineas and Gol tells me he has never tried to book those. Gol in particular has exasperated me, even for high frequency short-hops like Rio-Sao Paulo, despite many flights and multiple airports. I wasted many hours on Fernando de Noronha, even for Gol flyers it is rare to find a single seat some months, before a Diamond desk supervisor found that Gol blocks all flights there from its award partners. Good in theory, not in practice.

  32. Mitch said,

    @Greg: Whatever Air France inventory shows on ExpertFlyer should be available to Delta. There are some bugs in sorting, but if you check segment-by-segment and filter to just non-stops or tell it to sort by fewest miles (instead of “Best Match”, which just means “whatever makes the most sense for Delta”), it will show up. If you’ve got an actual example of inventory available on ExpertFlyer but not to Delta, I’d be eager to see it.

    @UAPhil If we’re talking SkyMiles, fly Virgin Australia to SYD/BNE/MEL and then connect onward to NZ. DJ-operated flights with VA codes can be booked using SkyMiles. I’m doing LAX-BNE-WLG on May, flying business the whole way. If you can get to Australia on *A, then NZ can help you get over the Tasman with pretty good inventory, too. Or just buy a revenue ticket…they can be pretty cheap.

  33. Ajay said,


    Where do you go to check Saudi/Aeroflot awards, so I can see what dates are availble, before calling Customer Non-service?

  34. Gary said,

    @Ajay – see my links in the post above, they go to posts where I discuss finding these award seats in some detail

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  36. AK said,

    Sorry, but I have to disagree with using Skymiles for India. Saudia? That’s not really aspirational. Aeroflot? I have yet to see a trip report in business … can we send Lucky? China Southern has horrible connections to India and I don’t want to spend 15 hours in Guangzhou.

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  38. Gary said,

    @AK there’s little about Skymiles that’s aspirational, there are no options for first class redemption, business class is about getting there and these do the trick. And — alcohol aside, it’s a dry airline — Saudia actually does the trick and I’d say both Aeroflot and Saudia are not worse really than Air France.

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  41. Michele said,

    I just came across your View from the Wing blog and I love it! It’s a little confusing to a beginner like me with all the jargon, but I have amassed nearly 75,000 points with Delta without taking a single flight or signing up for a credit card. I went with the Skymiles checkcard nearly 2 years ago, and nearly everything I’ve bought gave me something plus hotel bonuses. I’m looking for the best way to redeem them. My daughter will graduate May 2014 and I’m hoping to take her on her first international flight. Which direction would give me the best deal? Australia or Europe through Mexico?

  42. Mitch said,

    @Brad: US-Asia via Europe is tricky but possible with DL, regardless of what the bloggers say. (See “The Prior Research” section of this post http://hackmytrip.com/2013/01/delta-award-open-jaw/, where Amol booked HAN-CDG-IAD-ATL on VN, AF, and DL using SkyMiles.)

    If you want something that should price reliably, India and its general vicinity are a good bet. DL prefer to route that over the Atlantic.

  43. Gary said,

    How far do you want to go?

  44. Brad said,

    @Mitch: Wow, all the way to Hanoi! Impressive. I can’t get the CDG-HAN leg to show in Delta (VN must not be in the system), but Air France shows excellent availability.

    @Gary: I’m trying to get to KTM… but it looks like getting there in 4 legs from MSN via Europe is going to be tough.

  45. Brad said,

    Does a transfer from LGA to JFK count as a leg?

  46. Mitch said,

    @Brad: It shouldn’t. I think DL’s systems will code it as X/NYC, meaning a connection in New York City, rather than invoking specific airport codes.

    As to CDG-HAN, be aware that delta.com pretty much never prices US-Asia via Europe correctly. The only reports I’ve seen of someone getting it to price at 120K r/t are from people who had a phone agent do it.

  47. Brad said,

    @Mitch: Thanks for the tip! Ah the rabbit hole that is Delta…

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  49. Werried said,

    Any idea what may have happened to SU award space (both Y and J) on the JFK-SVO route in the last few days?

    I’ve been tracking it for the last few weeks as I await MR points to post (to transfer to Delta). I haven’t checked in a couple of days but today I noticed that I couldn’t find ANY seats available, J or Y, to or from JFK.

    What happened? Can I expect this to return? Oddly, AirFrance award search shows flight availability with ~$150 in fees each way (which I believe is the SU flight), but then when you click through, it doesn’t show as an option.

    Something seems odd, and I hope it “fixes” itself shortly.

  50. Hugo said,

    I’m trying to use my skypesos for inter island flights within Hawaii but I’m getting not results at all at Delta website…am I supposed to call them up or what? Thanks!

  51. Brad said,

    @Hugo: You’ll need to find availability on Hawaiian Airlines, which doesn’t show on Delta’s website. Either call or search availability on Hawaiian Airlines website.

  52. Adam said,

    I wish you posted the number of miles for each of your choices (Economy and Business and/or First)

  53. Dan said,

    When buying a revenue ticket in order to get to a departure city that has award availability, is it possible to buy the revenue ticket from Delta in a way that links the two tickets? My concern is whether, if the first flight is late, and I miss the award flight, they would re-book me on the next for free? Thanks.

  54. Gary said,

    @Dan – this is a problem. Oneworld policy is to treat separate tickets on oneworld as though they were through tickets. But to answer your question about Delta, no I do not believe so. So give yourself plenty of time for error.

  55. Will said,

    Belatedly came across this interesting post. One quick comment: I can’t believe you are endorsing the world’s most arrogant, non-responsive, segregated airline — Saudi Airlines. Obviously, you’re not a woman, so the horrendous hassles un-escorted females are not mentioned. How much did SaudiAir pay you for this post?

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  57. Adeal Frater said,

    I wished I had known before I got the Delta american express card that the sky miles with Delta would be so hard to use. I would not have gotten suckered into getting the card. I get better deals with other airlines than with Delta. They make it sound like a great deal and it is not that great.


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