Watch Out: Delta Now Gives You Basic Economy When You Redeem Miles on Many Routes

In December I wrote that Delta has added basic economy restrictions to the lowest award prices for some routes. This was limited to just a few cities.

Refusing to give customers a seat assignment when they redeem their hard earned miles punishes frequent flyers — redemptions were once a reward for loyalty and so customers were treated better when using their miles. That’s why award tickets have always been more changeable, for instance, than revenue fares.

That made business sense for the airline, too — customers who have a good experience using their miles become more loyal. They start accumulating miles faster. They earn miles with more partners, too. That’s great for credit card revenue especially. And the benefits of the basic economy strategy haven’t made sense for award tickets.

  • Whereas the major airlines have used basic economy restrictions like no advance seat assignment, no upgrades, and no changes as a targeted fare increase, a way to make the lowest fares worse so that some customers will spend more to avoid them, that’s never seemed necessary with award tickets. Delta has raised award prices whenever it has wanted to without this tool, and customers can’t just take their miles and redeem them with another airline.
  • Basic economy has also become a way for airlines to maintain the separation between business travel fares and leisure fares but that’s largely built-in to frequent flyer awards already, since in general people may earn miles on business travel but will use miles for personal reasons. (Small business owners are more like leisure travelers in this model.)

Delta explained to me at the time that this was a test.

Our customers have told us they want the flexibility to use their SkyMiles on more types of Delta products, and we are always looking at new ways to expand those options, while making that process simple and intuitive for them. As a part of this effort, we are testing the ability for customers to use miles for Basic Economy tickets on select flights.

They want you to believe that they are making the cheapest awards more restrictive to help you. Apparently Delta customers have been telling the airline that they want the flexibility not to be allowed to get seat assignments in advance. And they’ve been saying that more rules and restrictions are both simpler and more intuitive. As a result this is an enhancement you should like.

Delta has now expanded basic economy to award travel much more broadly. The Thrifty Traveler quotes a Delta spokesperson as saying that basic economy now applies to the cheapest awards for “most Delta flights within the U.S. and Canada” effective March 5.

Basic economy isn’t sold on all routes, all dates, so you’re not going to find it offered for awards either. However you now need to watch out for basic economy any time you’re using your miles, and consider paying more for the right to get an advance seat assignment (which Delta may then charge you for depending on the seat you want).

At Delta miles are just a low value currency to be used at the company store, for whatever price they happen to charge on the day you’re shopping. So it makes sense that Delta would just have you use miles to buy what they sell for cash. That’s not loyalty.

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. Even more importantly, Delta does not allows Platinum andDiamond members to redeposit these awards. This is one of the primary benefits of upper tier status at DL. If these awards were less expensive, you might think was was ok but SkyPesos have been consistently devalued so these BE awards now cost MORE than Main Cabin did a few months back. thats Delta loyalty for you!

  2. i can’t believe anyone actually wants to use award miles to book Basic Economy fares. But at least your screenshots show Delta is clearly distinguishing the Basic Economy award ticket from the Regular Economy award ticket, so anyone’s who’s familiar with the differences between the two categories and who’s paying attention won’t book a Basic Economy award ticket by accident. So things could definitely be worse!

  3. Coming next – basic business class awards. No seat assignments, no selection of meals in advance, no free bags, no lounge access, and no priority check in/baggage handling. Miles get you one thing and one thing only — a spot somewhere on the plane in a certain cabin.

  4. Every route I’ve seen over the past few days has been the same cost whether Basic or not.

  5. @Gary – Why does Delta do this? Do they think that they run such an amazing airline that treating their loyal customers badly is somehow a prudent business decision? The move seems wildly counter intuitive.

  6. @christian – the question is not why this is applied now to award tickets but rather why BE exists in the first place. Since it exists it only makes sense that award tickets follow suit; why would an airline give away a better seat as an award then it sells it as a revenue seat?

  7. I think a key question is whether this makes the basic economy award lower in miles, or if makes the regular economy award higher. I have a foreboding that it will almost always be the latter, but would love to be proved wrong.

  8. And yet, right now, every blogger on Boarding Area is pushing the Delta credit card, lol….I’ve never had one and went to look at redemption rates, they don’t look so hot…you’d need three cards for a round trip to Europe from the looks of it!

  9. @penny – free travel is still free travel, even if it doesn’t match up with what you think it should

  10. If these miles are so “worthless”, then how come it took a nearly four (4) months’ (and grueling/exhausting) ordeal to get miles flown on Delta’s nearly half-owned partner, Virgin Atlantic, finally credited to our respective “SkyPesos” accounts for JNB-LHR-JFK flights in PE?

    It was brutal and they took F-O-R-E-V-E-R to review the documents submitted and finally credit our respective SkyPesos accounts with the Miles miles that were legitimately earned on that trip.

    To say it was brutal is still an understatement – it was HORRIBLE.

    So, if these miles are THAT worthless, you’d never know it from how long and how hard they made it to get miles that were flown and EARNED properly credited to our respective SkyMiles accounts!

    We were EXHAUSTED by a processing that we found to be off-putting in the extreme.

    And it likely is “intended” to purposely be so to wear down all but the heartiest and most persistent of flyers who seek to have (accidentally, on purpose?!?!) their “omitted”/“lost” partner miles credited to their SkyMiles accounts! 😉

    At least, that’s what it felt like anyway…

  11. Meanwhile, Southwest still gives us 2 free checked luggage…

    (Delta charges you $70 extra for those 2 checked luggage.)

  12. The reality is that airlines no longer see loyalty — and frequent flyers — as the primary goal of miles. They are purely an ancillary revenue source. As this very blog noted recently, AA loses money flying planes, and only makes money selling miles to Citi and Barclays.

    I expect Delta’s financials are in slightly better shape, but the reality is that most miles aren’t being redeemed by frequent flyers. Hence, there’s no loyalty to reward.

    What baffles me is that airlines don’t throw in some ancillary benefits for elites on award tickets to help the medicine go down. The redeposit restrictions rjb notes are mind-boggling. Even something simple like a free drink coupon for elites on award flights would make a positive impression for almost no cost.

  13. @lindy – you forget that you get free bags if you pick up a DL Amex card…

    Why are people so shortsighted here???

  14. @wadacash:

    “So… how long until United and American copy this?”

    We learned to our shock that UA already is on at least one European partner.

    We booked a partner award on OS and only found out after logging in on the Austrian website that it was a basic fare allowing only a “small” carry on and no opportunity to check a bag, even for a fee.

    No information or warnings whatsoever on the UA site. We’re lucky we checked within the 24-hour window.

  15. Re the UA award booking on OS that I posted above, I see that there’s a 2018 FT thread to devoted to this, and it may be a glitch on the OS site. We’ve canceled in any case and are taking the train.

    Sadly, it’s something I think UA is capable of doing and I don’t even want to contemplate a small chance of having to argue with an OS agent our *G rights to check bags.

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