This is part of a series of posts on a Delta deep dive. The first one covered earning Delta miles and this one will cover redeeming them.
The actual mechanics of booking the flight and understanding an award chart can be found here.
There are very few experiences that are more frustrating than booking a Delta award ticket. Perhaps waiting on hold for customer service while listening to a cheery voice tell you how much the company values your business; maybe trying to get that piece of popcorn kernel out from underneath your gums. No, on second thought, the award ticket wins. But it’s still nice to get those free flights…
Redemption Levels: How Much the Ticket Costs
Before we get into the actual booking process, let’s look at the levels at which you can redeem. Previously, Delta had three levels of awards, based on when you were flying:
Peak trips generally cost at least twice as many miles as what a saver ticket cost and about 50% more than a standard ticket. Going to Des Moines in the winter? That saver ticket might be there. Taking the kids to Disney World over Christmas break? Enjoy your peak payments.
The new plan is to have five levels. Why five levels instead of the two or three like every other airline has? I’m not sure, but I guess if hotel programs can have as many as nine redemption levels, I can’t hold it against Delta to have five.
What’s Good at Delta
- Like most of the majors, Delta can take you just about anywhere you want to go. And if you can’t get there on Delta, you can almost certainly get there on a partner. And you have a lot of partners to choose from:
- Delta has some underrated partners, including Korean Airlines and Virgin. The Virgin “upper class” is as good as many airlines’ first class and comes with “Clubhouse” access, which is the Virgin airport lounge. You can even get a free massage there!
- Booking Delta flights is easy (We’ll expand on that later) through Delta’s website and their award chart indicates that several awards have actually dropped in price, which is almost unheard of in airline land.
- Administratively, it is generally customer-friendly. It has no blackout dates (another issue that we will expand on later) and miles don’t expire, which is good, because it may be a few centuries before you get a flight that you want, particularly if you are using Delta’s own website. Last time I checked, elite members do get better availability, but that may change.
- Finally, say what you will about the value of Delta miles (which generally rank pretty low on anything but flights), but Delta offers more ways to use its miles than any of its competitors. You can use miles to fly, for two different types of upgrades, shopping or paying for tickets. You can also combine miles with cash to pay for your ticket, as long as that cash is coming from a Delta SkyMiles credit card.
What’s Not so Hot at Delta
Everything else. Sorry. Delta’s program trails those of American, United and US Airways in just about every other way, starting with the website.
When it comes to redeeming miles, Delta’s website is a little shop of horrors. It will tell you awards are available when they aren’t. It will tell you awards aren’t available when they are. It will not show partner awards or, of course, show partner awards that are not available. I’m pretty sure the booking site was invented on a dare.
- Want a first class ticket on a partner? Sorry, they don’t do that. You can usually get business class and sit in the front on two-class planes, but for those partners with a first and business class, expect to be sitting in business.
- Remember what they said about “no blackout dates?” That doesn’t actually mean you’ll have a ticket available, it just means that there are no dates that are ineligible for an award. The Sunday after Thanksgiving isn’t blacked out, but there may only be two award tickets available.
And when you’re not booking a ticket, the value of your Delta miles goes way, way down. Let’s look at what you can do:
- Shop: Not the shop where you earn miles, the one where you spend miles. This one. I will admit, the auctions are kind of cool and very unique, such as this one to meet Carmelo Anthony. But the marketplace is an absolute rip-off, with the value of miles less than a penny each. Avoid it.
Using Miles for Upgrades
Upgrade: Hey, Delta’s so cool that you have two ways to use your miles to upgrade, “Mileage Upgrade Awards” and “Upgrade with Miles.” Yes, they are two separate things.
Let’s start with Mileage Upgrade Awards. This award allows you to use miles to upgrade from Economy to A Better Seat. Hey, look, it’s as cheap as 5,000 miles!
No. Look at that asterisk. Even for the more expensive upgrade, you can only upgrade from the three most expensive of the 13 different basic economy fare classes. In other words, you’re going to be paying multiples of the cheapest economy ticket just to get a ticket that you can upgrade. And you still aren’t guaranteed an upgrade.
Upgrade with Miles allows you to upgrade your ticket at the time of booking using miles. You will have the option to pay the difference between the ticket you purchase and the cheapest first class fare with miles, valuing miles at a penny apiece. In other words, if a coach ticket is $300 and a first class ticket is $900, you can upgrade while booking for 60,000 miles ($600 @ a penny per mile). While you are still getting a lousy return, you will at least get into the first class fare code, meaning that you will be entitled to any bonuses that you would have received if you had paid cash for the ticket.
Pay With Miles for Tickets
Finally, let’s look at paying for tickets outright with miles and paying with a combination of cash and miles. First, you can buy your entire ticket with miles. Not a mileage award, as you would find in an award chart, but rather, trading in miles at a penny apiece to buy your ticket (e.g., a $400 ticket would cost 40,000 miles). Since the miles are used as cash in this case, you will earn miles on this flight and get any bonuses from booking in a higher fare class. The downside is that a penny per mile is horrible. How do we know that? Well, let’s look at the option to use cash and miles to purchase a ticket. Here’s an example right from Delta’s site:
In other words, if you don’t have 35,000 miles and want to use just 25,000, they’ll sell you the remaining 10,000 miles at 1.54c per mile. Or a premium of 54% to what they’ll pay you for the miles if you use them to pay with miles for tickets in the example above.
Every program has its ups and downs, and it’s not reasonable to expect Delta to give you as much value when you use your miles for something other than their product. But it’s important to know what you are and aren’t getting for your miles. Redeem with caution.