How to Make Delta’s SkyPesos Work for You

After my talk on award booking at the Chicago frequent flyer seminar last month, I committed to putting together much of the advice that I shared in the form of blog posts. That takes a good long time, the reason I haven’t shared my talks here on the blog in the past is because I’ve never written them down, I tend to sketch out an outline and just talk.

In order to keep things sufficiently interesting (for me, in the writing!), I won’t be writing up the different sections in order. But I’ll piece it all together in the end.

Delta Skymiles are often referred to as “SkyPesos” because they are less valuable and more difficult to use than miles in major competitor programs. I’ve found this to be true for several reasons.

  • Their pricing engine is broken. A US-Australia award may be priced at 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, but even if those flights offer award space Delta may price it additively — 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 my experience it will always price as two awards even if you otherwise comply with all rules and the space is there.

  • 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. Most frustrating of all? 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.

  • Delta agents are poorly trained. 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).” 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. But Delta hasn’t done a particularly good job of compensating for this with training.

  • 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.

  • 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. I’ll take any other major domestic airline’s award availability over Delta’s, and certainly they’re nowhere near as good as American or even US Airways (the latter offering excellent domestic first class award space).

  • They add fuel surcharges to awards on many of their partners. For awards departing the U.S. it’s generally just V Australia which they hit you with fuel surcharges for, but most partners departing from outside the U.S. will mean fuel surcharges. American adds fuel surcharges to British Airways award flights only (as does Alaska Airlines), and no other U.S. airline imposes fuel surcharges on awards at all.

  • Delta’s program doesn’t include any option for 3-cabin international first class redemptions. I realize that isn’t meaningful to everyone, but it’s a key aspirational component of a program, the ability to redeem for the sorts of awards that let you experience things otherwise orders of magnitude beyond your reach. Even though they have partners offering a true first class product, they won’t let you spend your miles for it.

  • They add an international origination surcharge for awards beginning outside North America. This means members are out of pocket more for awards which begin abroad than if they were spending United, American, US Airways, etc. miles.

  • They only just this year even published an award chart for awards that neither begin nor end in North America. Many of those awards are astronomically expensive compared to competitors.

Sure, some other programs may suffer from one or more of these defects. United’s website isn’t very good for booking award seats, it only offers a handful of partner airlines currently, though they’ll be adopting the Continental platform which includes most all of the Star Alliance. But no other major North American program suffers from the rest of the defects above, certainly not to the extent in any case that Delta’s does.

But all is not lost, and I’ve actually found the Delta program to be very useful. You just need to understand its limitations, some workarounds, and the strategic opportunities that are included in the program.

So here is my guide to making the Delta Skymiles program work for you.

  • Who can you book awards on? Delta’s Skyteam partners include Air France, Alitalia, Aeroflot, Aeromexico, Air Europa, China Airlines, China Eastern, China Southern, Czech, Kenya, KLM, Korean, TAROM, and Vietnam Airlines. Several airlines will join in the future, like Saudi Arabian and Garuda Indonesia, but you can not book awards with those yet. In addition to Skyteam partners, you can use other airline partners not in Skyteam as well, including Air Tahiti Nui, Alaska Airlines, Avianca, Gol, Hawaiian Airlines, Jet AIrways, Kingfisher, Malaysia, and V Australia. I would expect the Kingfisher and Malaysia partnerships to go away when those two airlines join Oneworld.

  • You can book their partners’ codeshare flights, even when those are operated by another airline. The classic example is Air Mauritius flights with an Air France code on them. (Incidentally, I’ve had codeshare flights of Delta partners post to my Skymiles account when flying a paid ticket as well, e.g. Cyprus Airways flights with an Alitalia code).

  • Getting awards held. Delta only holds awards on the website, not by phone, and even when the website works it only offers a handful of partners. If you want to hold an award using other partners, create an itinerary of some kind so that you have a confirmation number, then call. At least half the time Delta agents will add to the reservation for you and leave it on hold, though I’ve had it take 2-3 calls to find one who will do so. The key here is that it’s a reservation that started on the website. Supposedly holds are only for a day but in practice it’s often 2 days (when booking in the morning) since the hold will expire at the end of the next day. Itineraries departing from Asia can actually be held for 7 days.

  • Avoiding the telephone booking fee. Most partners cannot be booked on the website, so you wind up calling to add their flights to the reservation. But if you started by creating a reservation online, and you have a confirmation number, you’ll have no problem watching that reservation update on the Delta website as the agent works with it. That means as soon as it’s complete, you can finish off the transaction and issue tickets online, avoiding the telephone booking charge. Just make sure you issue tickets while you are still on the phone with the agent, in case the agent is unwilling to just put the reservation back on hold for you — you wouldn’t want them cancelling out all the work they just did for you.

  • Principles for searching for award space.
    • When working with the Delta website to find availability, always specify that you are searching for a one-way award. You don’t want the website’s belief that there isn’t any ‘low’ award space on the return to cause it to tell you that the whole award isn’t available at the low level. Find each segment one at a time, it will tell you the price is the same as a low level award for a roundtrip but that’s fine — you’re just sussing out which flights have award space at the low level anyway, you’ll construct and book your award in an entirely separate search later.

      Say that you’re looking for transatlantic business class. Search just the international flight, one-way. Do this until you find a 100,000 mile one-way routing (Delta charges the same price for one-way as for roundtrip). Even if you’re searching coach, it’ll show you the 100,000 mile (double miles) coach seats and the 100,000 mile (‘low’ price) business seats. Now you’ve found seats that are available, note the flight times and flight number, you’re part-way to your award.

      Search each segment that way, for your outbound and for your return, until you’ve found the flights you want.

      Sometimes you can book this all, then, on the Delta website using their multi-segment search. Select the exact flights that were available when you looked up each flight. And enter each and every segment separately into the website.

    • Always search segment-by-segment. That means you need to know how to get where you are going, what the potential flights and routes there are. If you specify your starting city and your ending city, the computer on the other end will likely not search all possible permutations for you. And the fact that it finds no award space at the low level on a short domestic flight may cause it to tell you that no awards are available, which is misleading at best.

  • Tools to use to search for award space.
    • Alitalia, Tarom, Kenya Airways, Aeromexico, Air Europa, China Southern, and Vietname Airlines (in addition to Delta, Air France, and KLM) can be searched on the Flying Blue website. Sign up for an account and you can search award space even without miles in your account. The ‘award calendar’ is actually pretty decent, when it shows award seats available they are available to Delta at the low level.

    • This is a paid website and will assist with Aeroflot, Air Europa, Air France, Alaska, China Eastern, China Southern, Czech, GOL, Hawaiian, Malaysia (coach only), and TAROM.

    • V Australia awards can be searched by signing up for their frequent flyer program (you can’t use a US address when you do so). I find that once you identify awards at the low level through the V Australia program, and if you’re willing to call up enough Delta agents, eventually you’ll find one who can book it for you, albeit with fuel surcharges. Availability is pretty darned good, not as good as it once was, but still probably better than anyone else for North America-Australia non-stop and especially for the Los Angeles – Brisbane route.

    • Unfortunately there’s no way to search Korean Airlines awards online. The old Northwest website used to offer this feature, but that’s gone of course. You can’t even just sign up for a Korean Airlines account, because Korean requires you to have enough miles in your account to book an award before you can search for an award. Further, the space Korean offers its own members may not be the same as what Delta can book. Korean has a bunch of blackout dates, and Delta often thinks that Korean’s route-specific blackout dates apply systemwide (Although since the partner itself isn’t blacking out the seats, sometimes an agent will forget to check blackout dates and will ticket it anyway). You can call up Korean and ask about award space, I’ve had plenty of times where Korean said that two business class seats were available while Delta agents could see only one, but after grabbing the first seat a second would appear almost right away.

  • There are unpublished and unpredictable routing rules. You can have both a stopover and an open jaw on international awards. The maximum number of segments permitted on an award is eight. They do enforce ‘maximum permitted mileage’ on some routes but not all and I don’t even know which ones, though I’ve frequently seen this intra-Asia. This means you don’t know up front whether something is allowed or it isn’t. So if an agent says no, is it because it’s really not allowed? Or because the agent was ill-informed? The approach here, though, is of course hang up, call back and if you can’t get the third or fourth agent to do it you probably aren’t going to be able to do it.

  • Some partners and some routes have excellent availability.
    • Air France. In general their award availability is good, this is especially true for departures from the East Coast of the US, especially from cities which are not Delta hubs (the demand for those seats is very high). The challenge then is getting to the international gateway city. Though Air France is reducing their Airbus A380 frequency on Washington Dulles-Paris to four times weekly, there are two flights on the route and availability remains excellent, I’ve seen many times where there are as many as 9 business class award seats on a given flight. Availability beyond Paris to many destinations is quite good as well, though you cannot route a single award from the US via Paris to Asia.

    • Alaska Airlines. For members on the West Coast of the US this partner is the secret weapon. It gets you to Hawaii. And you can use it to fly to international gateway cities, this is especially useful since they have major operations in Seattle, Los Angeles, and Portland. So you can fly to Los Angeles on Alaska to grab a Korean Airlines flight, or fly to Portland and grab space on Delta’s Portland – Tokyo flight (one of the easier ones on which to get business class award space).

    • V Australia. That Los Angeles – Brisbane flight is excellent for securing business class seats to Australia, though at a cost of about $500 in taxes and fees.

    • Miami flights. I’ve had generally good luck finding space with Miami departures on Air France, Delta (London), KLM, Alitalia and Air Europa. New York flights too, especially Air France and Alitalia. Houston-Amsterdam on KLM used to be a gimme, but sadly they’ve pulled the Privatair all business class flight off the schedule so it’s no longer as good.

  • Delta miles are, ironically enough, the very best for the two toughest frequent flyer awards there are. Those are business class awards to French Polynesia and Australia. French Polynesia, because Delta happens to partner with both airlines that fly from the mainland US direct to Tahiti (Air Tahiti Nui and Air France). Australia because of their V Australia partnership (don’t count on getting business class low level award space on Delta’s own Australia flight – hah!).

So there you have it. Delta miles are easy to earn, can be a challenge on the redemption side but they work well when you use the Air France Flying Blue website to find the award space, plan your award segment-by-segment, call back until you find a good agent, and spend your miles for business class awards on Air France, Air Europa, and V Australia especially. Viewed that way, it can be a perfectly lucrative program to spend time with.

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. China Airlines and China Eastern joined Skyteam earlier this year, although one still needs to call Delta to book an award seat.

  2. Great write-up. It’s funny, since I live in the DC area I’ve never noticed how terrible Skymiles are–that IAD-CDG route is a goldmine.

    I do want to point one thing out to your readers though. When you say Asia via Europe is impossible, you should specify pacific Asia: India is available through CDG and a comparative bargain at 120k for business class. I have my eye on IAD-CDG-BOM, DEL-AMS-IAD

  3. Hey this got me looking into some awards on Delta, I see there is a TON of availability on AF going from IAH or ATL to CDG in the summer, however on the AF site when you go to book these it shows a 450 eur per person surcharge. Would you see this fee still if you are booking these flights through delta? If so, is there a better partner for these flights?

  4. @Kevin F the fuel surcharges on the Air France website are charged to Flying Blue members. Delta does not add fuel surcharges to Air France reservations, so IAH/ATL-CDG and return will not incur a fuel surcharge for you.

  5. Wow, thanks that totally changes the value in Delta’s program for me. Too bad there are about 3 days all yeah with availability out of SHV where I live, oh well IAH isn’t too far to drive.

  6. Great post. I hate the lack of availability on DL, but there are ways around that.

    For those of us who live close to Mexico (SAN and TIJ) the only major alliance with a Mexican partner is Skyteam…Aeromexico. It is much easier to use AM out of TIJ to go to Europe and AM also has direct flights to Asia from TIJ, which is quite shocking to many DL phone agents.

  7. When is the best time to book Delta seats to Asia(PVG, NRT, HKG, NGO, PEK) for December 2012 using skypemiles?

    I’m flying out of PHL to one of the connections listed above to connect to SGN on China Eastern/Shanghai Airlines or Vietnam Airlines.

    331 days out?

    When I took a quick glance at award availability for next summer… it seems like there is ALMOST NONE low tier coach award availability for next summer??

    Have they all been reserved or Delta hasn’t release any and won’t until xxxx days before the summer when they have a better idea on seat availability?

    Well, during the “low season” such as February, March, April , October, and November I see some availability, so option 2 would be travelling during end of November around Thanksgiving.

    Thank you

  8. Gary, it looks like Experflyer allows one to search for Korean. I did this a couple weeks ago. (Unless availability is inaccurate?)

  9. @FBKSan it shows business UPGRADE, not award. And it shows first class awards, which Delta Skymiles does not offer to its members. No coach or business class award availability for Korean on Expertflyer.

  10. @Rick remember that Delta is only showing you Delta flights on their website. And very few decent routings at that. Search segment-by-segment. It’s too early to search December 2012 yet, but when it opens is a good time to look. Remember China Airlines, China Southern, Korean, Malaysia…

  11. Is there a good way to search for intra india flights available through Delta (Jet, Kingfisher while it is available) skymiles? Thanks

  12. Nice summary, Gary, but you’ve got things all mixed up with regard to fuel surcharges/international origin surcharge. In particular, the IOS is only assessed uniformly on awards originating in Europe. Middle East originations are subjected to the IOS if your trip includes a segment on AF/KL (and maybe AZ). A trip beginning in Asia is not subject to the IOS. It takes all of 30 seconds to do a mock booking on DL.dumb to confirm this to be the case.

    Also, DL does collect YQ for other partners on awards originating in the US. There’ve been many reports of it being collected on MH (which is at least an improvement over the old NW system of having MH collect it at check-in), and it wouldn’t surprise me if some of the Chinese carriers fall into this.

    A great thing to know: DL doesn’t collect YQ for KE at all—even on European origins! I’m flying Europe-ICN-MEL//SYD-KUL-Europe on a 150K DL award and only had to pay the YQ for the return bit since the outbound is on KE. Would’ve done KE the whole way, except the infamous blackout dates got in the way of me being able to use KE for the return portion.

  13. Re: avoiding the phone fee. I’ve had recent experience with this issue. Found an award availability on the website and held it. In a boneheaded move, the return was for the wrong day. The award engine still showed availability at the “low” level for the day I needed to travel, but the booking engine just couldn’t put the thing together. I called the service center and explained the problem to a friendly(!) agent. She explained that she could do it, but I’d have to pay the booking fee. Then suggested I talk to the DL IT people, transferred me to someone in that department, and the person I talked to there was able to change my held itinerary to the correct flights without a fee.

  14. @Gary Thanks for clarifying. I was only searching for F awards at the time and not paying close attention. Bummer.

  15. Gary, China Eastern & Southern have huge SQ surcharges, around $400 from USA to China I believe. Korean air have decent blackout periods too…

  16. My main beef with DL is the predictable lack of low-tier domestic coach awards. Particularly in the last several years, when I have really needed such awards, I’ve been batting 0% in acquiring them–even looking at one ways, segments, etc. For me, ‘SkyPesos’ has been a frustrating understatement.

  17. I know this isn’t the right thread for this and don’t care if you post this but just wanted to pass this on to you. I’m currently working on booking one of the Etihad aa award flights, you mentioned these in your chicago talk too. It got me wondering though, if enough people book those ey flights, and stop in auh on the way, maybe then you could have an abu dhabi Do??? thought you might enjoy that one, feel free to use it as you wish.

  18. I hope the folks at American Express read this review. I have completely stopped using their card because it’s very difficult to use my Delta miles at a reasonable point level.

  19. Gary: I was looking at a DL fare class chart and it said that only B, M and Y fares are upgradeable for international flights. Is this true? I searched for these fares online for a 9/2012 honeymoon MSP->LHR and didn’t come up with any. Do you have any tips for getting the upgradeable fares? I have 140,000 skypesos (so only enough to get one free business class flight).

  20. @Josh Delta is the most restrictive, yes, you have to buy M fares or above in order to upgrade. Call Delta to price it, it’s gonna make you choke though 🙁

  21. Thats too bad, since I’m in MSP and Delta is king here. Was it better with Northwest? What would be a better miles program? United?

  22. @Josh United’s is a much better program in my view. And yes it was better with Northwest, Delta and Northwest shared the same partners and thus the same availability but Northwest’s IT infrastructure and routing rules were more generous and conducive to bookings. Though Northwest wasn’t as generous as United.

  23. Ok thanks! I’ll consider switching to the Sapphire preferred from the Delta Amex, although I might keep Amex around for the $99 companion ticket which I use every year.

  24. How come when I search NRT-CDG on Air France it is significantly lower than the same flight on Delta website? Delta agent told me that Air France is marking it up for Delta. Any chance of getting the lower award ticket through Delta to save the high fees of AF.

  25. @Joe never believe what Delta agents tell you. But I’m not sure what you mean by significantly lower — the taxes/fees?

  26. @Joe Delta doesn’t offer one-way awards at half the roundtrip price. You pay for roundtrip whether you fly roundtrip or not.

  27. Thanks. It seems AF is a better deal even if you pay some extra fees just to save 40,000 miles.

  28. OK, this is my first attempt so I do not know what is or is not correct. I started by getting a hold on a national reservation, DEN JFK DEN. I then called and asked to add the Air France flights: JFK MAD MXP and back and the total was 180,000 miles plus $560 in taxes. Is this a correct amount in tax?

    Also I was looking to fly on the A380 to Paris but there was zero availability.

  29. @Steve Thornton – first the mileage cost sounds high, like it’s “medium” what price did you get just for the Denver domestic segments? If you booked one-way medium that would explain it or if you booked Delta JFK-Madrid at medium. As for the taxes sounds high as well, like they’re hitting you with an international origination surcharge.

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