How to Use Delta Skymiles to Book International Premium Class Awards

Yesterday I wrote a guide to redeeming US Airways Dividend Miles for awards on their Star Alliance partners.

Now Troy has written up a similar guide for Delta Skymiles.

Delta’s availability on its own flights tends to be much less generous than most other airlines. But they do have some pretty good partners, and those partners often have decent availability. But Delta makes the process more cumbersome than most airlines to find the great partner award availability, and to get it at the ‘low’ award level price.

First, because the Delta website is very limited in the partners it has on offer.

Second, because for most cases the only way to ‘hold’ an award is on the website, otherwise it’s instant ticketing only, which makes tinkering difficult.

Third, because Delta agents aren’t very adept at working on partner awards in most cases, especially the more obscure partners. As Troy points out, the various partners have different award booking codes and the process for agents to search for those awards is varies tremendously by airline.

Fourth, because even if you can find space on a Delta partner it can be tough to get to the international gateway city where the partner flies. You can almost always find business class seats on Air France from Washington DC to Paris in particular, that flight goes Airbus A380 in June and then it’s wide open. But just try getting award seats on Delta to DC, it’s a challenge. (Folks on the West Coast have it a bit easier since they can use Delta partner Alaska Airlines for their feeder flights).

Despite these challenges, with some work and some understanding of how the Delta system works, it can be made to work for you.

Some of Troy’s key points for finding award seats yourself:

  • shows you award availability for Delta, Alaska, Air France, KLM, and Hawaiian
  • 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.
  • V Australia awards can be searched by signing up for their frequent flyer account (you can’t use a US address when you do so). It’s not 100% clear to me whether Delta’s system will let you book any ‘low’ mileage award that shows up there or not, or if when I’ve been told no it’s been agent error. Still, the availability is pretty darned good especially for Los Angeles – Brisbane, even in December.
  • It’s not really possible to search Korean Airlines awards that are available to Delta online on your own. Even if you get a Korean Airlines Skypass account, their availability will differ from what Delta will let you book.

Now, just because a partner is offering the award doesn’t mean you’ll get Delta to book it. As noted, Korean will offer award seats but I’ve almost never seen Delta have access to more than one at a time. Sometimes booking the one will cause a second to open up, if indeed Korean is offering more than one, but not always.

Still, you need to piece together your awards segment-by-segment. Most of what you find will be available when you call up Delta and get a knowledgeable, patient agent.

I laid out the logic of how to use the Delta website to find (and hold) award seats on those airlines that are supported by in a previous post.

    You search just for a single segment, not from your starting city to your destination. Search one-way, because you don’t want lack of availability for your return to mask which seats are actually available. And it’s often even better to search for coach, even when you want business class.

    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.

Note though that Delta has some blackout dates for their partners. And some of those dates are just blanket across the board. So if the partner blacks out specific routes, Delta just blacks out the partner. Since the partner itself isn’t blacking out the seats, sometimes an agent will forget to check blackout dates and will ticket it anyway.

The routing rules are generally quite liberal, but not clearly spelled out or published. You can have both a stopover and an open jaw on international awards. They do enforce ‘maximum permitted mileage’ on some routes but not all and I don’t even know which ones, though Troy suggests it’s mostly intra-Asia. The problem here is 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 maximum number of segments permitted on a Delta Skymiles award is eight.

One of the most annoying things about trying to piece together awards with Delta is the inability to hold seats without ticketing them. Delta only permits holds for the most part to be initiated on their website. And then only for a day (which is, in practice, up to 2 days based on when you do the hold and that it expires at the end of the following day). And as Troy notes and which I didn’t know, itineraries departing from Asia can actually be held for 7 days. Since the rules are byzantine and the process of booking complex, holds would make things so much easier.

So fortunately there are workarounds. If you book whatever happens to show up as available online, you have a reservation that is held and then call to add segments or change segments. And sometimes the agent will let you leave it on hold after they’ve done their work. If the agent doesn’t want to let you keep holding it, have them leave the reservation alone and try the next agent. And since you have a held reservation, you can just ticket it online and even avoid the $20 telephone booking fee.

Fees: American adds fuel surcharges to British Airways awards, Delta adds them to several partners though fortunately not to Air France redemptions. They add an international origination surcharge — seriously, a fee for starting your trip outside the United States. These together can make your award redemptions expensive, starting outside the United States the fees can mean that coach redemptions are uneconomic relative to just buying the seats outright.

Another challenge in all of this is, how much do the award flights even cost? There is no award chart for itineraries that don’t fly to or from North America. Troy offers some anecdotal evidence for a few routes:

Intra Asia, 20000 Econ/40K business

From Asia to Oceania via ICN or NRT, 150K business, otherwise, 120K business

From Asia to Europe 80K econ, 120K business

Asia to Africa, 120K econ, 180K business

Europe to Africa, 100K Business

Europe to Central Asia/India, 80K business

Within Africa, 80K business

Troy points out also that there are pricing glitches, awards may be available at the ‘low’ level and a routing may be valid and the Delta system just will not price it at the low level, even though by all rights it should. And there’s nothing you can do about it. The example he gives is New York to Los Angeles via Phoenix, it will always price as two awards even if you otherwise comply with all rules and the space is there.

Finally, since the way that I like to use my miles is international first class awards whenever possible, and Delta does not even offer as a feature of the program the ability to redeem for first class, the program just isn’t a priority for me. They used to allow first class redemptions on Singapore, but that’s been gone for about 8 months, the Singapore partnership is over. I’ve heard some reports of redeeming for first class on China Airlines through Taipei, but I haven’t tried it myself, I don’t know whether this is an urban legend or it’s real.

Still, Delta miles can be worth all of this effort! Because they actually offer the best redemption opportunities to Australia and to Tahiti which are otherwise the two toughest awards to get. And of course Delta miles can be so easy to earn.

You just have to work the system, and follow Troy on his TM Travel World blog because he probably has more experience booking awards with Delta Skymiles than anyone else. Me, I’ve redeemed about 80 million miles in the last 12 months for folks but mostly on Star Alliance and Oneworld carriers, whenever possible.

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. […] some Delta partner carriers, but not on Delta-operated flights. I'm referring to award fees. DL adds an international origination surcharge for awards that are entirely outside the USA (note that …. This would make DL a bad choice for international shorthaul […]


  1. I used Delta Skymiles for intra Asia last month on Vietnam Airlines. It was 40K for coach, if we had wanted business it was 80K. Mind you, this was for BKK-REP! Had the tickets to purchase not been so ridiculously expensive, even in coach, we never would have used our Skymiles.

  2. Has anyone tried redeeming on Aeroflot? They fly JFK-SVO and LAX-SVO from the US. Two questions here mainly: 1) If Delta / AF / KLM availability to Russia is high only, how does one find the price (in miles) on Aeroflot? And 2) If the final destination in Russia is not SVO but further, how does that affect the price? Is this a separate award altogether for an additional price, or can it be appended to the transatlantic leg and priced as one US-to-Europe (or US-to-Asia, for Asian destinations in Russia) award trip?

  3. D- intra Asia in coach is only 20,000 at the low level, which is what your award should have priced at. Did you have a multi-stop routing that could have possibly priced as two awards?
    Profran- JFK-SVO on Aeroflot is 60k coach and 100k business. Your final destination in Russia is included in that price as long as you price it all one one award and your destination is west of the Urals

  4. Please write more of these guides. They’re extremely helpful! UA, CO, AA, even BA would all be great. I realize you’ve written a lot about these programs, but a guide like this bring everything together. Also, please remember that many of us ONLY book economy awards, so info on those awards is priceless.

  5. Not sure if I agree with “(Folks on the West Coast have it a bit easier since they can use Delta partner Alaska Airlines for their feeder flights”

    If you look at the first class saver award space on Alaska Air, there is usually only a handfull of days in the off season months of SEA-WAS or SEA-NYC, and virtually zero in the summer months.

  6. @ The Points Guy, VN routes via either SGN or HAN for this itinerary. We did not have a stopover, in either direction, but did have a 10 hour layover, overnight, in one direction. The short overnight in HAN was not anything I would have chosen, but given the dates we had to work with,(a two week window in January), and the rather close in booking, ~ 3 weeks before first flight, this was the best we could get. So, I figured given the alternative, an expensive ticket times two, we’d suck it up and use the 40K per award ticket.

  7. @Greg you are correct, SEA-EWR/DCA flights are tough. What I meant was folks traveling to gateways in SEA or LAX from the West Coast. But I should note that ATL/ORD/STL/IAH/DFW-SEA are really easy to get in first class on Alaska.

  8. @ D, I have mentioned, REP is a pricing glitch city, any award involves leaving REP will counted as 2 awards, thi

  9. I will echo what others have said – intra-Asia is a steal at 20,000 miles round-trip economy or 40,000 miles round-trip business – for example, I’m flying my girlfriend WUH (Wuhan, China) to ICN to DPS (Bali) in business class and then CGK (Jakarta) to ICN to WUH in economy on the return, all for 30,000 miles. Having lived in Asia for 3 years, I can say that Korean Air has the best availability (by far) when redeeming Skymiles, and China Southern charges $100 to $200 in fuel surcharges on Delta redemptions, so stay away from them. Also, there is NEVER an international origination surcharge when originating in Asia. I believe that’s primarily a European surcharge.

    In terms of putting the itinerary together, I recommend calling Delta’s Asian call centers such as Delta’s China office or Delta’s Indonesia office, as they actually have an idea how to find availability on Asian partner carriers, unlike regular Delta carriers. Best of all, they’re always willing to put things on hold for me, so I can always just redeem the itinerary online and avoid the telephone ticketing fee.

  10. Gary –
    This is incredibly helpful. Two quick things:

    1) Don’t trust the award calendar – it only searches DL metal. I was unable to find the AF IAD-CDG flights using Delta’s website, but if you check KLM’s site the month of June is wide open at 100k round trip.

    2) Is there a place online to find partner blackout dates? Trying to piece together a segment by segment shows AF flights as available that I am unable to pull up on How do I determine whether these are blacked out absent calling up a Delta agent?

  11. Delta website is such garbage. I have absolutely NEVER seen a Hawaiian flight from mainland USA to Hawaii available for skypesos. NEVER. Only intra island flights.

  12. Intra-Asia is NOT ALWAYS 20k coach, 40k business at LOW levels. I’ve been in Asia for a while and have booked award travel on China Southern, China Eastern, China Airlines and Kingfisher. All were 20k coach/40k biz but from East Asia to India, the low level is higher. I booked a flight from Hong Kong to Delhi–and coach starts on that route at 40k, with biz at 60k. Still think 60k biz on Kingfisher is a good deal.

  13. Would you please explain what does “hold a ticket” mean? Does it simply the same as book the ticket online using skymiles?

  14. when I make a reservation on FLYINGBLUE with 0 awards miles in the account but the intention is to pay with delta can one do that

  15. thanks for putting together the guide. Very helpful info. Some info on using skymiles on inter-vietnam flights with vietnam airlines based on a call to Delta just now… The rep told me that they need to send the request through with our skymiles number to see if there is availability and if there is, it would be booked. Essentially, there is no ability to “inquire only”. She also said the cost is 40K for econ and 70k for business regardless if it is roundtrip or oneway. Ouch!

  16. I booked a ticket from Rochester NY to Paris via Delta. It is a codeshare flight with Air France and neither Delta or AF will allow me to upgrade the seats.

    Delta did not say I would be penalized in this way for booking through Delta. Beware!

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