Why We Must Shout About Delta’s Miles Problems From the Rooftops!

In response to a post I wrote about devaluing elite benefits in the BalticMiles program of Latvian-based airline Air Baltic, Gene wrote,

Maybe you can spend your time bashing them instead of Delta now.

My criticisms of Delta are, I think, fair.

Delta is a well-run airline, and has a frequent flyer program that offers much less value than those of American, United, and US Airways (and offers a worse redemption program in my opinion than Avianca Lifemiles, Singapore Airlines Krisflyer, Air Canada Aeroplan, and many many more around the world but that’s not important right now).

I coined the term ‘Skypesos’ for their currency because Delta miles don’t go as far as many other major currencies. 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 poorly trained for award booking, their award booking website offers limited partners and is generally quite broken. International first class awards aren’t allowed.

Historically their miles have been quite easy to earn, although promotions have been almost non-exist over the past twenty one months or so. They have a good elite program for domestic upgrades, a very poor program for international upgrades.

Are there ways to make use of Delta miles effectively? Absolutely. Here are my top 8 best uses. Here’s how to reduce the cost of their one-way awards. Here’s how to successfully navigate a call with one of their agents to book an award.

That it’s possible to get value from the program doesn’t mean the program is as good as its competitors, and it doesn’t mean the non-expert will do as well with Delta miles than they will with United miles where they can pretty much go to the website and make an international business class booking to Europe or Asia much of the year.

And though many of my readers already understand this, the population at large does not. And that’s why Delta can get away with it.

I sat at lunch recently within ear shot of another table paying its bill. I didn’t hear any of the table’s conversation except my ears perked up when one woman comments that the person grabbing the bill was using a Delta American Express card.

    Woman #1: “You’re earning Delta miles for this!”

    Woman #2: “Yes.”

    Woman #1: “Have you used your miles for trips?”

    Woman #2: “Not yet.”

Just wait until she goes to redeem. She’ll either be frustrated, or think that the mileage price Delta quotes her is normal. In the former case she’ll be turned off to miles altogether, in the latter she still won’t know she could be doing better.

That lack of good information (really, everyone ought to be reading this blog just like you are!) means Delta can provide less value and do just fine by it. They count on the ignorance of their customers.

I’ve said before that nobody living outside of Atlanta, the Upper Midwest, and parts of Utah and their surroundings ought to be flying Delta. I do understand why folks in those areas do, and why folks whose travels are heavy to those areas do.

It’s folks like these DC area residents, who are accumulating Delta miles because they don’t know any better, that I say we have to shout about the value of Skypesos from the roof tops!

And why, contra reader Gene, I won’t stop ‘bashing Delta’.

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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 InsideFlyer.com, 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. And good for you for the bashing, Gary! And to do it in a balanced way, that acknowledges the airline’s strengths.

    To the extent that Delta gets away with such a lousy frequent flyer program, it increases pressure on the other airlines to participate in a race to the bottom.

  2. Without exaggeration, I have told at least 10 people over the last year who I saw using the Delta AMEX card that it is probably the worse use of an affinity credit card, I also gave them BoardingArea.com to go educate themselves. Last year I spent 47900.00 on Delta, this year less than 7500.00 (and that hurt to spend that much). I am now EX Plat on American and 1K on United. Enough is enough, and to be honest, it is pretty cool to have top status on the three major carriers

  3. delta’s deserves to be bashed given all the lies they tell. so keep up the good work.

    though i will say, i have yet to see you make a delta skymiles related post where you don’t mention how you were the one to call them skypesos 😉

  4. I’m curious whether Delta’s frequent flyer program was always like this or did it become this way due to its merger with Northwest?

  5. Of course, the Delta bashing will continue. It will be justified one way or another. The Delta bashing has never been in short supply on this blog.

    Also certain to continue is the indefensible silence on the significant shortcomings of the American Airlines program. Such as the fact that apparently there is virtally ZERO availability on AA to Europe for all of 2013, per Lucky’s recent post. Even if using AA miles you can find space on BA, you would be worse off ~$1000 in taxes/fees per head for a typical redemption to Europe compared to Delta or United. Where’s the shouting from the rooftops about this???

    If you want to claim a moral high ground, you ought to take out your own biases favoring American and against Delta first.

  6. Typo – Should have read “virtually ZERO availability on AA to Europe for all of 2014, per Lucky’s recent post”, not “2013”.

  7. You say: “[a]nd though many of my readers already understand this, the population at large does not. And that’s why Delta can get away with it.” To what extent (and the answer I clearly not subject to empirical expression) do the 90% least informed mileage currency earners effectively subsidize the 1% best informed? I’m thinking, perhaps, we should be more appreciative of them!

  8. I fly Delta whenever their price is the lowest and their schedule is best for my needs. But I always credit the miles to my Alaska Airlines account.

  9. @AS I have written extensively on fuel surcharges, and on American imposing those on BA flights. I have also focused on the pluses and minuses of the different programs, including that American miles are not superior for Europe. They’re great to South America, and still good for first class to Asia despite recent relative cutbacks in Cathay availability. They are far far better miles than Delta’s.

    Lack of availability of business class awards to Europe on American metal has long been an issue, but outside of the LHR routes with the 777-300ER I don’t want to fly American metal. Frankly I’ll cough up the fuel surcharge and fly BA, which doesn’t have the availability it once did but still has good availability from many US gateways.

    That are are shortcomings in other programs does not mean that Delta miles aren’t worth less than the miles in those programs.

    United miles are generally more valuable than American miles, as they are the best for business class to both Europe and Asia. I value American miles for first class awards. Delta miles are pretty good predominantly for their Virgin Australia partnership and that’s about it.

  10. @Joey – Delta’s program wasn’t always like this exactly, award space on their own metal used to be better back in ~ 2005. And they used to even allow first class award redemptions on Air France, and until a few years ago on Singapore.

    It wasn’t the Northwest merger that did in Delta, in general Northwest’s program was more transparent than Delta’s in terms of award availability and bookings even though they drew from (mostly) the same partners.

  11. @AS I think you should check your facts before you post – there is indeed plenty of availability to EU, esp if you are happy flying Air Berlin and avoiding the insane UK pax taxes – which, btw, you’d have to pay even on UA and DL.

    I would agree with you if you said the many DL flights/routes beat other US airlines when it comes to services and/or cabin configuration etc, but when it comes to the FQTV program, DL doesn’t even come close to its competitors. If ALT wasn’t, by a large margin, the busiest airport in the world, I wonder if DL could afford such behavior.

  12. From an advanced redeemer’s perspective:
    I tried to book 1 transltantic business award for August 2014 from SLC. I had more than enough DL, AA, US and UA miles for such trip in each program. I wanted to burn AA, US or UA (in that order). Was unable to find anything (other than BA maybe, with their crazy fuel surcharges). DL had availabilty on the SLC-CDG-SLC non-stop every day except some Fridays. 125k miles.

    From the beginner’s perspective: I agree with Gary.

  13. I jumped ship to United last year (1K for the last 2 years) but still managed to maintain my Platinum status on Delta via couple TPAC business class tickets booked by a client. I have to say that even though United offers better value for their miles/points, I enjoy flying Delta MUCH more than United.

    Yes, it’s great to earn miles for credit card spend and redeem for First Class awards on LH/NH/CX/BA/etc., but at the end of the day, I’d much rather be flying Delta than United, especially domestically and in premium cabins to Asia.

  14. I agree with most of what Gary said, but if you’re an upper elite who spends a lot on credit cards and seeks award travel primarily within the 48 states, Delta can’t be beat. That may be a small niche, but for those fitting it, Delta is “best in class” (as they tout).

  15. I’ll add one more good use for Skypesos. I often have to fly last minute from DTW. Prices for these last minute trips can be REALLY expensive. But often there are seats available for LOW awards (25k). I know you don’t focus on domestic, but I’d rather pay 25k Skypesos than $600-$800 in cash.

  16. So, I’m a “contra reader”, now? Ha! Frankly, I don’t think that you dish out enough criticism of AA and UA, who have their own issues and weaknesses. I’m glad that you keep the pressure on Delta to give us the most for our dollar, but you should also apply the same pressure to AA and UA (and airBaltic!).

    I am in a unique situation that is currently allowing me to extract more value from DL than most other people. I frequently make use of free SDCs (no free SDCs on AA). I frequently use SWUs on K+ domestic fares to guarantee that I am always sitting up front (can’t do that on UA). I frequently make free, last-minute award changes (most people don’t realize that after your first flight on a DL award, the 24 hour rule does not apply). I frequently use free domestic stopovers on DL awards at my second home in ATL (not an option on UA and of limited use on AA). My Delta flights almost always arrive on time (not so much on AA and UA).

    You’ll notice that I make no mention of international flights, which is where most criticism of Delta falls. Yes, the SWUs are useless for international travel and yes, getting “saver” international business awards is next to impossible. But, as I mentioned in the comments to your previous post, I don’t care because I don’t want to fly in business class anyway! I want to fly first class on SQ, CX, LH, BA, EY, QR, QF, LX, TG, NH, OZ, EK, etc., and that is what my credit card miles are for. I don’t need Delta or SkyTeam for international travel. To me, Delta is only a domestic airline, and the best one in the United States.

  17. Oh, and I forgot to mention that I frequently receive free upgrades on domestic saver awards, which are pretty easy to find as a Diamond (not an option on AA and good luck with that on UA).

  18. @Gene – why are you bragging about using SWUs on domestic fares on DL?!?! Those of us w/AA and UA SWUs use them on int’l trips. Plus, on UA you can also use confirmed regional upgrades for your domestic flights.

    If you REALLY want to use int’l SWUs on UA or AA domestic flights, one is free to do so, on any paid fare class.

  19. I’m glad you added in a line about a few select areas… DTW is my home airport and my company used Delta as one of 3 preferred airlines. My choices are often limited to Delta, therefor I carry the Delta AMX and accumulate most miles with them. I agree that they aren’t as valuable in general, but they are all I have to work with. I do make sure to get the best value possible out of them. Last year I flew Detroit to Seoul non stop (Delta) with a 5 day stopover, then Seoul to Sydney (Korean Air) for 11 days, then Sydney to LAX (Virgin Australia) then to Detroit (Delta) for 100,000 miles. It was well worth it to me to piece that together… I will never burn Delta miles on domestic awards – I’d rather save them up to piece together somewhat decent international itins… The search engine is such a joke it makes me cringe, but at least I understand how to search one ways and piece together low levels to make them work.

  20. UA-NYC — I am EXP and 1K, too, so I have those same SWUs to which you refer. I’m really not interested in flying international business class, so those aren’t really of any great use to me except for domestic travel.

  21. “esp if you are happy flying Air Berlin”

    Well, I might be, if I could know for sure which hard product I’m getting. The old seats are “recliners”, and the new ones “flat”, but which flights have which?

    The AB website has a list of flights that have the new seats, but the last date it mentions is early Sept 13. That was a month ago, and tells me nothing about next August. Needless to say, none of the flights I find available to book for 2014 are on that list.

    I tried fake booking tickets to see the seat availability chart, but I can’t tell any difference on there between the supposedly updated flights and the old ones. They all look the same online. And I don’t know what to make of Bus class flights a year out showing two thirds of the seats “occupied” even for revenue tickets. I’m guessing because AB doesn’t know which flights will have been upgraded or not that far out. So booking a flight now for 14 is a crapshoot if you care at all about hard product. And if you don’t care, you might as well book economy and save the miles.

    I find it sad that AA invented the FF program, and now has basically killed it with zero premium cabin availability to Europe. A Citi AA card was my first ever cc, I’m Lifetime Gold with AA, and have been an AA fanboy for decades. But in the last year my spend on Citi AA cards has been zero.

    I did book FC TATL to LHR on the 300-ER on July 1st, not because we wanted to go in early July, but because that was the one and only date that AA has offered for the Summer of 2014. Now I’m so glad I diversified my cc apps so I have UA and LH miles to get us back home, since it’s quite clear AA is not going to offer us anything at all.

    So while you are telling the uninformed how bad the Delta program is, I suggest you also tell the previously well informed that AA is no longer any better.

  22. I have long been saying AA is the new DL, or even worse than what DL is now. Not only no premium cabin awards to Europe, but even the basic Transcon Saaver award in coach, is very lacking. MIA-LAX has 6 or 7 flights a day yet if you ever find one that is the nonstop, it would inevitably the earliest departure. I have not seen a direct transcon Saaver award for months and months.
    Recently I was looking for a very basic YVR-MIA/FLL one way. To my surprise, AS miles offered more, better, AA flights than AA itself – AS even offered up an overnight at XXX and then fly to PBI the next day. AA did not even show the XXX-PBI availability at all!
    The only saving grace of the AA miles WAS the relatively easy to get CX J/F availability – sadly that is no longer the case now.
    The mileage world has been upside down since 2 years ago – the once Starnet blocking UA miles now become the easiest to redeem for good awards, the once very easy to use AA miles now become the hardest to take “AAdvantage”. DL actually is better than AA miles in the international premium award arena, believe or not.

  23. It is always a source of amazement to me — and apparently most folks in the frequent flyer community — how few people “in the real world” understand how terrible the Delta redemption opportunities are. Of concern to me now is that American seems to be following their lead: it’s usually not easy to find standard redemption seats on American now. Only United seems to have plausible award availability. And if folks aren’t smart enough to see why that matters, I have a bad feeling that United will follow its competitors in shrinking standard award availability to near zero.

  24. I feel sorry for myself that I am “forced” to fly Delta. Having MSP as my hub I have no other choice if I want to reduce the number of connections on my trips. Also, most companies based in MN have Delta as theirs preferred airline so on business trips I have no choice. II have a lifetime Gold status with AA and I really miss those good old times when I only flew AA. I now have almost 1 millions miles on Delta and never find a “non rip off” redemption options for those miles. Delta is the worst!!!!!

  25. I am based in Australia, and I like to redeem miles for business class return SYD-JFK return.

    Qantas Classic (i.e. low) awards are 256,000 plus about $700 in taxes. These are rare to find, and their only other option are “Any Seat” awards which effectively value each mile at 0.8 cents each, SYD-JFK return in business class is usually between 1,500,000 and 2,000,000.

    Delta’s highest rate is 370,000 plus about $150 in taxes.

    American are much lower, but rely on Qantas releasing seats at their Classic rates, which is almost impossible even 330 days out. As for United, their miles are hardest to earn in Australia and friends don’t let enemies actually fly on United.

  26. The 30,000 to 40,000 mile a year LUT flyer has been able to much more easily maintain mid-tier status on Delta than the other legacies thanks to rollover and generous credit card offers the last few years, during which time United and American have had many problems. Its been a pleasant place to hide, but ceases to be next year. Also, as dysfunctional as SkyTeam has become, Delta offers good coverage in coach from the US to what are generally considered the four most desirable European cities to visit for first time visitors – London, Paris, Amsterdam, Rome. Personally, I’m planning on switching to Alaska Airlines next year for elite status and miles accrual, and accumulating KrisFlyer miles through Amex.

  27. I’m not in one of the areas you mentioned DL flyers should be (SFO-based) but I absolutely love Delta’s elite program. To me, comfort while flying (read: unlimited upgrades) is #1, more important than the mileage program (to a certain extent).

    With the nature of my work, my travel is entirely unpredictable and always last-minute on expensive coach fares (YBM usually, almost always domestic). I can never count on having top tier elite status and I’m usually fluctuating between GM and PM since I don’t travel much more than that.

    That said, last year when I was GM on DL, I still was in the 80+% upgrade range out of SFO and am 90+% this year as PM. DL prioritizes on fare class and as the last-minute high-fare flyer, I’m almost always near the top of the list (this year as PM I’m almost always in the top 3). I absolutely love this treatment. I also understand why discount flyers wouldn’t like it since they’d be at the bottom of their bucket within the upgrade queue.

    As for other options out of SFO, AA would be useless as I’d never qualify for EXP and then I’d always have to pick and choose (and usually lose) the upgrades as a Gold/Plat. Good luck getting upgraded on UA out of SFO without being 1K (also unattainable for me).

    Like I said, being upgraded is my #1 priority and DL is incredibly rewarding for that given my travel patterns. And for what it’s worth, I’ve always been able to use my SkyPesos for decent enough redemptions. It does suck that I can never book an international F ticket and SkyTeam is pretty much just DL and AF/KLM.

    And customer service is awesome and has often bent rules to help me out (refunding nonref tickets, huge vouchers/bonus miles for issues, etc)

  28. Maybe availability in AA metal sucks to the EU. But I just booked on Air Berlin for the whole family and it was wide open for Xmas 2013 and Summer 2014.

    BTW, I just booked to Asia with SkyMiles (120K R/T Business Elite), lots of availability Q4 2013.

    Book early, be flexible, you’ll do OK.

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