Delta Awards to Become Non-refundable, Non-Changable 72 Hours Prior to Travel

Wandering Aramean points to a significant change in award travel rules over at Delta Skymiles that a lot of members are none too pleased about.

Recently Delta announced that tickets had to be canceled prior to departure or they would retain no value. In other words, you couldn’t just not fly and cancel an award later, getting back your miles (for free if you’re a Platinum or Diamond elite, for a fee for everyone else). They said ‘over 400,000 seats’ went empty due to this practice. Notably, they didn’t mention 400,000 seat over what period of time, but the natural assumption when hearing a number like that would be a year (perhaps the announcement didn’t include a reference to time knowing that would be the assumption, but that may just be too cynical of me).

A reasonable change, perhaps, if you’re not going to take a flight you should at least say so prior to departure in order to retain refundability. Though there are plenty of circumstances where you may not know, such as connecting from another airline on another ticket and having your flight delayed, or making it late to the airport and missing your flight.

And certainly true that Platinum and Diamond members, who could cancel or change awards for free, might well just let the plane takeoff without bothering to do so without this change. On the other hand, though, Delta does not allow award holds unless you’re making the booking at (which has huge problems, and supports very few partners). I would have no doubt that more award tickets are booked with Delta and not flown than is the case with other carriers, because most other carriers let you put an award on hold. At Delta, purchasing award the ticket is generally the only way to hold it. So it’s entirely foreseeable that people – especially those without change or redeposit fees – would book speculatively.

Since Delta won’t hold awards, people need to ticket them in order to lock down an option. So some of those seats, which really were options, don’t get consumed. Ironically, the stated reason for eliminating award holds is the large number of those that weren’t ticketed, so supposedly that change was supposed to open up award seats for everyone else (how well did that work out for you?). That seems to be the ostensible reason Delta trots out whenever they tighten their award ticket rules.

Today, Delta announced that award tickets would in fact be totally non-changeable and non-refundable within 72 hours of travel. Very odd indeed that they would make one change to the policy and then two weeks later make another, more severe, change to that same policy.

Delta more than any other airline I know holds back award inventory until close to flight. It tends to be easier on other carriers to book awards far in advance, whereas on Delta they will often make awards available closer-in. Some members will book an egregiously expensive ‘medium’ or ‘high’ award and hope to switch later if saver (‘low”) availability opens. That can no longer be done within 72 hours.

Meanwhile, United recently relaxed their rules, it’s now possible to change a flight routing after departure and even on the same day you intend to return home on an award. United got more consumer-friendly, and Delta is getting less so. All changes must be made at least 72 hours prior to each segment of an itinerary, and there are no cancellations/redeposits whatsoever within 3 days of the outbound flight.

Since Delta says that there were 1,000,000 seats booked 72 hours out but not flown (again, no mention of a time period from which this number was taken), that means 1,000,000 award tickets that would no longer be redepositable. Who says Delta Skymiles don’t expire?

Seth also points out that the change, which goes into affect August 15, applies even to tickets booked into the past. Normally ticketing rules changes aren’t applied retroactively. Delta says they’re going to be notifying affected customers, and I have no doubt they plan to because they don’t want to see a class action lawsuit. Still, I wonder why the short notice and the retroactivity. Something strange there.

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. […] Lesestoff Wer sich bisschen über die artgerechte Verwendung von Skymiles schlau machen will findet unter anderem hier ein bisschen Lesestoff: 10-tips-on-using-delta-skymiles/ Maximizing-stopovers-transfers-and-open-jaw-ticketing-on-delta-awards/ Delta-com-quirks-and-how-to-work-around-them-to-find-low-awards/ Airfrance-us-now-shows-delta-awards/ Nicht vergessen: DL Awards werden restriktiver hinsichtlich Storno und Umbuchung -> Delta-awards-to-become-non-refundable-non-changable-72-hours-prior-to-travel/ […]


  1. This is a brilliant way to drive business in ATL over to WN.

    This is definitely the last straw for me (not that I’ll be flying WN). Thank God I’m booked just short of 125,000 MQM for 2011 and that I haven’t yet wasted much $$ on DL tickets for 2012.

  2. Another way to maximize the 400k number is to count all the segments – given that an award can have easily two or more segments a day, you could divide “empty seat” number by that factor. Or quote it full for a bigger impact.

  3. I wonder if this is an accounting related change, since prior to the change it is harder to determine how to account for the liability of so many outstanding skymiles (unflown itineraries still have value).

  4. Just burned most of my DL miles (had 97K, now 17K) on a domestic award for wife & I. AA wanted 50K each, revenue tickets were $700+/pp for advance purchase and DL was 40K/pp. Since I value DL miles lower than AA miles, I burned the DL miles.

    Airlines keep making changes that are getting more consumer unfriendly. 🙁

  5. I’m just laughing at everyone who transferred their valuable AmEx membership points to Delta… I know they would pull something like this. Probably there is real devaluation in the works too.


  6. Do you really believe that many people are booking seats just to hold an award and then completely forgetting about them? I doubt that number is even close to 1% of the supposed 400K seats not flown each year.

    Then again, I have no idea why else folks would not cancel awards they aren’t flying on – I’d hate to have my points tied up like that – but apparently they are.

  7. “so supposedly that change was supposed to open up award seats for everyone else (how well did that work out for you?”

    I have had boatloads of miles in DL for years. Whenever it comes time to redeem them, the seats are either completely unavailable or I’d have to shell out exponentially more miles for them than I would on any equivalent airline. DL is the only airline program I regret having ever signed up for–and that was before all this current nonsense.

  8. 72 hours – I really hope that I’m able o plan well enough that I have more than 72 hours before my flight to decide if I’m going or not. Seems to be a case of just being lazy, and not cancelling tickets that may have been booked on a whim. Curious how many people complaining about this are really effected. I have plenty of reasons to be upset with Delta, but would not consider this a deal maker or breaker on my decisions to continue to fly with them.

  9. You know, a friend of mine put it best: “Calling them SkyPesos is really insulting to pesos”.

  10. So if they were Skypesos before this change, what are they now????

    This sound like a mess as far as changes are concerned – is it 72 hours before each flight segment, the first flight segment of the entire res., or the first flight segment of each of the outbound and return??? So if you are late and miss a flight, your entire res. is cancelled without a refund because there are no changes allowed??? Wow, am I sorry I am still sitting on tons of DL miles.

  11. @Doug it is 72 hours prior to first segment for cancel/redeposit, and 72 hours before a segment for changes.

  12. I wonder if this has something to do with their policy of of charging full round trip award price for one-ways?

  13. I wish I could say I am shocked by this change, but I cannot. This is yet another typical play from DL’s customer-unfriendly playbook.

  14. Nick,

    Doubles the mileage (ticket) spoilage opportunities. Also aims at those who would get roundtrip mileage tickets re-issued so as to effectively end up getting two (or three) one-way award tickets for a single roundtrip price.

  15. @DMM-CHI: Sure 72 hours should be enough for a *planned* change to one’s trip. Our trips are usually booked months in advance once we lock down dates.

    However what would worry me is an unexpected event – illness, death in the family, car accident, etc. Yeah I see on FT the Delta rep throws a bone to “extenuating circumstances” but leaving it to the discretion of an agent sure doesn’t give me a high comfort level.

  16. Much won’t be left to the discretion of the agent. DL management intends to have mileage/mileage tickets spoil one way or another. Very,very few of those no-showing or making a last-minute change will get a substantial allowance to change the ticket without a substantial penalty in some form or another.

    DL has composed the music and is merely playing the fiddle, knowing full well when, where and how it wants its music to end.

  17. Delta has clarified the time frame on Facebook (in a comment reply), “over the past year we’ve had about a million Award Tickets that were reissued or canceled within 72 hours of departure”.

    Still, that averages to fewer than one seat per two flights.

  18. @DMM-CHI

    Try booking a DL award. Until 48 hours before departure, you’re stuck making multiple connections with long layovers and paying higher mileage rates for many routes. Most of the changes made within 72 hours are in response to better routings and lower mileage levels coming available. This is not just on DL metal, but also with AF and KL, who’ve developed DL’s habit of releasing award seats late.

  19. I noticed 6 months ago that award biz tickets were hard to come by and that the miles required were more than
    other programs. I used up all my Delta miles and
    will not transfer anymore. The program keeps getting
    worse. Not worth it. Bye-bye Delta!

  20. Ridiculous. Could have been solved by yield/revenue management IT rather than in such a heavy-handed way. WN has been dealing with a high and volatile no-show rate and seems to get along just fine. There must be some other factor at play here.

    Ben black

  21. Loyalty travelers and even occasional travelers should desert Delta. This is just a plain stupid policy.

  22. @Swag that statement is VERY different than what Delta first implied. How many changes do they have to revenue tickets within 72 hours? Of COURSE they have changes/reissues withiin 72 hours of departure, it’s a feature of the program and most members are charged for it. The implication originally was CANCELLATIONS, that there was bad behavior by members that had to be addressed, the clarification suggests that was not the case at all. SHame, shame.

  23. I would wager that MORE than 1% of award tix bookers are booking purposely since they CAN cancel at any time. book the award, keep an eye on prices, then cancel the award. The golds and plats certainly are getting best at this game. so yes, I think delta MAY be seeing higher than 1% cancel rates, otherwise why would they do it? I don’t think the math is hard.

  24. I hate this airline and I don’t fly them
    They are the most anti consumer airline
    and as far as i can remember run the most unfriendly stingy frequent flyer program redemption in loyalty history.This is why mergers are a bad thing for the flying public………..
    Im ready to burn the last of my Sky Pesos
    Speaking of burn……thats their program crashing and burning thanks to the greed of Delta management…..very sad indeed

  25. @tivoboy Presumably you mean plats and diamonds, as they’re the ones who get free changes/redeposits. The odds of getting a cheap revenue ticket in the last 72 hours are not very good, given current DL load factors, so I don’t think that’s what’s happening. People are changing to get fewer connections or lower mileage levels that open up at the last minute. Fewer connections is win-win, but I can understand DL’s desire to get more miles off their books by not allowing repricing.

    The abuse that’s been indicated is that some elites with tons of miles are booking a confirmed J award on a flight where they’re trying to upgrade with an SWU but there’s no inventory at time of booking. Shell out at the high mileage rate to hold a seat (in name of partner, child, secretary, whatever), then that person no shows and so the standby SWU clears and the miles are redeposited. With the change that you couldn’t redeposit after flight departure time, it seems like such problems should be solved. Even if not, a little bit of detective work would identify those abusers and shut down their SkyMiles accounts.

  26. @mtkeller: Well said. Other airlines (AA comes to mind) are really good at identifying abusers who hold a J seat in hopes of helping their SWU clear. DL’s “solution” also ignores the simple fact that people who want to game the system are still free to purchase refundable revenue tickets. Plus, there is the nasty fact that DL only allows upgrades from close to full-fare Y tickets anyway…

  27. just got off the phone from the DL PM line…evidently there has been a ‘change’ to this policly. DM and PM still have the ability to cancel award reservations up to 72 ours out at no penalty. Now, within 72 hours instead of forfeiting ALL points, there is just a ‘change fee’ of $150 per ticket…..

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