Don’t Be Fooled: Why Delta’s 5000 Mile Awards Are a Poor Use of Miles

Delta just devalued their miles again without notice but promoted at the same time that they’re offering more domestic coach flights for fewer miles. For a couple of months they’ve even been offering domestic awards as low as 5000 miles.

Now, British Airways offers phenomenal value with their distance-based awards. A flight up to 650 miles costs just 4500 points. I’ve redeemed DC-New York and DC-Chicago when those flights were pricing at over $300 one-way, getting ~ 7 cents in value per point. Since BA is distance-based, short expensive flights make for great redemptions.

With Delta availability of low miles awards is based on the price of the flights. Through the end of the year they’re offering 10,000 mile one-ways and then as one-offs there are 5000 and 7500 mile awards, generally with 21 day advance purchase and when those flights are too cheap to redeem miles.. even such few miles (or at least, when one would value other miles more than the cost of those tickets though perhaps not Delta miles).

So when Delta runs a sale on both paid and award tickets it underscores:

  • Just how ‘revenue-based’ they’ve made their mileage program
  • And how that means you can expect to get little value from your miles.

Region-based and distance-based award charts present the possibility of getting outsized value, you use miles when tickets are expensive. Miles save you when you need that last minute flight that would cost a lot in cash, such as for a family emergency like a funeral. But when a program is revenue-based, the more a ticket costs the more miles it costs. Since roughly speaking it’s linear that way, there’s no more great values to be had.

Delta’s latest sale is for bookings made by August 6 and travel through December 16.

They have ‘basic economy’ on sale, which is “Nonchangeable. Seat assigned after check-in. Limited
Medallion® benefits.” They use these fares on routes like Atlanta – Tampa where they compete with low cost carriers like Spirit, and where Spirit charges about half the sale price even based on a couple of searches I made.

They also have their ‘regular’ fares on sale. And along with it, awards.

Since the paid tickets are advertised at a price “based on a required round-trip purchase” even though Delta now allows one-way awards, the sale price is also “based on a required round-trip purchase”.

There’s a long list of sample destinations, I’ve taken the first few to show you the value of the miles at the sale price. Even 5000 mile and 7500 mile awards (really, 10,000 and 15,000 mile roundtrips) aren’t great uses of miles.

I’m basing the cents per mile calculation on the higher regular fare, which boosts the imputed value, since award travel doesn’t exclude seat assignments and can be cancelled for a fee. Nonetheless, none of these routes even hit 2 cents per mile in redemption value, indeed many are much less than that.

Meanwhile you can now do a lot worse than 1 cent per mile redemptions with Delta SkyMiles.

So the program has changed. It’s harder to use. It’s more opaque.

The way to get the most value out of Delta miles, at least for now, is to redeem for international business class on their airline partners (and possibly buy a ticket to get to and from the international departure point).

Some people – who accumulate SkyMiles cheaply enough – will want to use them for tickets that would have otherwise been super cheap to buy, like with this sale fare. With the end of usefulness of the Delta Suntrust debit card I no longer accumulate more Delta miles than I’d have use for.

It’s Delta’s program, they can do with it as they will. I just wish they’d explain to SkyMiles members where they’re going, honestly.

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. Love reading the blog. But I think that although this might not be the best value for your points, they still not terrible in all situations.

    These values are similar if not better than what you’d get on SW. I think Delta points can be pretty useless but everyone in a while you can find some value.

    For example. I took 2 of the sample flights and put them into SW for July 28…SW doesn’t even offer PDX-SEA and the other was LAX-PHX. That was over 12,000 miles for a 1 way.

    I think we need to think of Delta like SW in terms of its value. Using avios for short haul would be ideal.

    Plus with so many amex options. Earning 5k skypesos shouldn’t be too hard to do.

  2. I agree Delta’s miles are almost worthless, but this argument is faulty at best. My friend just booked MSP-ORD in Oct for 10k rt, which would have been $226 in cost. I would say that’s as good use of Skymiles as possible given their horrible devaulation.

  3. It’s not a good value. If this is the best you can do with your points it demonstrates how little the points are worth. But as I say even as little as they may be worth it is STILL low even by SkyMiles standards.

  4. @Gary: I have over 1MM miles with Delta and have no other option other to fly them since I am a hub hostage. I was wondering if you could give some guidance on where to use these miles based on their non existent award chart. My point is that I get tons of miles with them since most of my flights are paid international business class or very expensive short haul flights so those generate tons of miles based on the high value of the tickets. On the other hand, I cannot find any decent redemption to use those miles and cannot justify to use the amount of miles they usually ask for a award flight.

  5. If you have so many issue with Delta, man up and stop selling AMEX issued Delta cards.

  6. Shouldn’t that chart either be in $PM or else shift the decimal to the right two places? 1.x CPM isn’t terrible, though not great. .01cpm is downright awful.

  7. @ABC I only share their availability when there is a special bonus. Even then I make clear it is not a good idea to put spending on those cards beyond earning the bonus. But when there’s a 50k bonus, even at a penny a mile that’s $500 for signing up. I can be nuanced enough to understand that a big bonus has value even if the miles themselves are worth less than before (and even before were worth less than competitors’). Put another way, if you happened to be earning Delta miles at very low cost — as I was with the Suntrust Debit card — it made sense to continue to accrue them. Earn at half a cent apiece or less, when there’s no tradeoff with other miles you could be earning and points worth a penny are worthwhile.

    But nuance and thoughtful argument are, I suppose, antithetical to snark so perhaps less useful.

  8. So how long until awards for international business class on their airline partners also become revenue-based, or massively expensive, miles-wise? If it’s the lone redemption opportunity for outsized value, surely it too will be gone within, what, 12-18 months?

  9. this is a “poor” use of miles, but you state it’s bad to sit on miles and never use them.

    not everyone feels obligated to get the most “value” out of their miles, nor can we just up and decide to travel to europe whenever we want.

    of course you get the most for your money (if you were to actually spend that) on int’l business travel. but, many of us also don’t earn $100s of dollars or miles each time we pimp a credit card to a stranger, either.

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