The Definitive Guide to Booking a SkyMiles Award

Discussion in 'Delta Air Lines | SkyMiles' started by The Points Guy, Feb 4, 2011.  |  Print Topic


Are SkyMiles are the most difficult miles to use for awards?

  1. Yes

  2. No

  1. The Points Guy
    • Original Member

    The Points Guy Silver Member

    I'll volunteer to start the expert thread on SkyMIles awards because I book several a day. I'll start out with the basics and add more as I have time (others please chime in!).

    Alliance: Delta is a founding member of the Skyteam Alliance. Partner members include Air France, , Alitalia, Aeroflot, Aeromexico, Air Europa, China Southern, Czech, Kenya, KLM, Korean, TAROM, Vietnam and future members are China Airlines, Aerolineas Argentinas, Saudi Arabian and Garuda Indonesia.

    Other partners: Alaska Airlines, Avianca, China Airlines, China Eastern, Gol, Hawaiian, Jet, Kingfisher, Malaysia, V Australia

    The Delta Skymiles program is unique in that it has three tiers of awards: low, medium and high. You can mix and match awards, but the system prices them a la carte. For flights originating in the US, the award chart can be found here. You'll notice only coach and business class awards can be booked using Skymiles. Premium economy and first class awards on Skyteam partners is not allowed. All partner awards are at the low tier, however if you add a domestic Delta leg that is in medium to a low level partner award, the award price prices as the roundtrip low + roundtrip medium- which can insanely increase the price of your award.

    One way awards:
    The award chart is misleading in that it shows flights as one-ways, but one way awards do not cost half the price of a roundtrip- they cost the full amount. However, if you want to buy a one way award in business class from the US to Europe, instead of paying 100,000 miles for a low tier award, you can add on a fake return on a low coach day and get the award for 80,000 miles instead (1/2 of a 100,000 business and 1/2 of a 60,000 coach).

    How to book awards:
    The award calendar and booking engine is broken. Flat out- they have been dressing it up lately, but at a core level, the system does not function properly. When the calendar shows "low" dates, you may pull up the award and it'll actually price out at a medium level. Some days that show medium, may actually price to low when you click through. can book some Skyteam partner awards (like Air France, KLM and Air Europa), but they won't always show up on the calendar. I'll explain the best ways to find partner award availability in a separate section.

    It is a maddening system that can be somewhat tamed if you know the tricks.
    Trick 1 is to use the one way search to sniff out the segments that are truly low.
    Trick 2 is to not let the engine "think" for you. Don't search SAN-LHR and hope for it to find the perfect routing at the low level. Use trick #1 and search leg by leg for the low segments. For example, SAN-LAX, and then LAX- ATL, then ATL-LHR. It is a time consuming approach, but is the only real way to find low level segments.
    Trick 3 Once you find all of the segments you want, piece them them together using the multi-city search. This method is pretty good, just make sure to write down the flight numbers of the flights that have low availability.
    Trick 4 Try calling Delta and asking an agent for help. Some agents (especially Platinum and Diamond lines) can be helpful and they have better search tools. Although some people have reported being kicked off the phone for spending too much time with an agent, so YMMV. When you get a smart agent, use them for all they are worth!

    Booking Skyteam and partner awards:
    There are several tools that will help you identify actual Skyteam award inventory. Sign up for a Flying Blue frequent flyer account for free and then you'll have access to their award tool which is pretty good for Air France, KLM, Alitalia, Kenya, Air Europa and TAROM.
    Their award calendar is actually pretty smart, so when you see green dates, that means there are "low" level Skyteam bookable awards.
    Wandering Aramean Tools: This free service lets you search Aeroflot, Air China, China Southern, Vietnam, China Southern, Czech, TAROM, Vietnam This paid service will let you search for Aeroflot, Aerolineas Argentinas (future Skyteam member), Air Europa, Air France, Alaska, China Airlines, China Eastern, China Southern, Czec, Delta (only upgrade space), GOL, Hawaiian, Malaysia and TAROM.
    KVS Tool: This paid service will let you search for Delta awards by tier, Air France, KLM, Czech, Aeroflot, Alitalia, TAROM, Aeromexico, China Southern, Vietnam, Kenya, Air Europa

    Once you find partner space, you can try booking it at using the multiple city search for Delta, KLM, Air France, Air Euopa) however, the system is volatile. Your best bet is calling Delta and hoping to get an agent who knows what they are doing. When booking Skyteam partners and the rep doesn't see the availability that you know is there simply:
    1) Ask them to long sell the award (ask them to trust you) and wait for HK confirmed (they will know what this means
    2) Hang up and call again. I usually have to hang up 3 or 4 times before getting an agent smart enough to book Skyteam partners like China Southern and Vietnam.

    Stopovers/ Open Jaw:
    Delta is actually flexible with awards and allows two stopovers or a stopover and an open jaw. For example if you were going to take a European cruise that left from Athens and returned to Istanbul and you wanted to also see Paris, you could book ATL-ATH (Destination), IST-CDG (stopover), CDG-ATL all for the price of a roundtrip ticket pending award availability of course.

    Cancelling an award ticket:
    In order to change an award, you must redeposit the miles and rebook. Delta charges $150 per ticket, unless you are a Platinum or Diamond Medallion, who have unlimited free award deposits. If you have an award booked in the future that you want to change, you may want to wait until there is a schedule change and then Delta may allow you to redeposit or rebook for free.
  2. Bigcountry
    • Original Member

    Bigcountry Silver Member

    Nicely done!
  3. hdawg
    • Original Member

    hdawg Silver Member

    The benefit of being DM, and ability to cancel an award / redeposit for free has come in convenient several times for me. The days prior to the start of an award I always re-check availability and see if low has opened up ... I'll then cancel and rebook. I'll do the same thing with family accounts, where I'll book using my miles and will cancel/rebook with theirs if nothing better opens up. Guarantees a reservation, but still has flexibility. Every trick we can get with DL is needed.
  4. Biu
    • Original Member

    Biu Silver Member

    Great OP, thank you! One question: when calling the Delta agents for help as you outlined, are there any phone booking fees (if you end up booking the award ticket), and if so, will they waive it given that the award calendar is broken?
  5. The Points Guy
    • Original Member

    The Points Guy Silver Member

    The phone booking fee is $25, which they won't waive, even though they force you to call to book most partner awards. Gold, Platinum and Diamond medallions are exempt from this fee. I'll edit my OP with this information once I'm allowed
    alohastephen and Biu like this.
  6. joesmoe
    • Original Member

    joesmoe Gold Member

    I think the part about calling back multiple times is extremely important. I'm rarely ever successful execute a complex award booking the first call to the DM desk.
  7. gleff
    • Original Member

    gleff Co-founder

    Thanks for this and a good start!

    Delta miles are the toughest to use. I mean, I'm the guy who coined the term Skypesos. But ironically enough Delta miles are actually among the most useful for booking two of the absolute most difficult awards there are -- Australia and Tahiti.

    Delta partners with V Australia, use the V Australia website for guidance on which flights will have award seats open to Delta. (You have to list a foreing address..) V Australia award availability is better than anyone else from the US to Australia.

    For Tahiti Delta partners with Air France AND Air Tahiti Nui so they have on the whole the best access from North America.

    My biggest frustrations with Delta are the lack of award holds (you can hold an award for a day on the Delta website but the website is so broken and doens't include most partners).... the lack of a published award chart for flights that don't touch North America... the agents who don't evne know who their partners are ("Vietnam Airlines isn't a partner, they left Skyteam")... the international origination surcharges...

    But if you live on the West Coast of the US and can fly Alaska Airlines to your departure gateway... and you can grab Air France to Europe... availability can be pretty good. I live in DC and Air France is putting an A380 on the IAD-CDG route starting June. Most days are "O9" (at least 9 business class award seats available).

    Delta does add fuel surcharges to many partner redemptions, though not to Air France. Delta is really stingy with awards on its own metal, especially for more than one seat in business class to Asia. Even with Korean offers more than 1 business class seat to Asia, Delta often can't access it.

    And of course the Delta program doesn't even offer the abilty to redeem for international first class cabins. Which is one of the things I value the most for my miles. It's just not the program for me. But it DOES have its usefulness, and some effort can yield results.
  8. Biu
    • Original Member

    Biu Silver Member

    Great post!

    Maybe this has been suggested in the past -- do you all think that it might be helpful if there was an ongoing list of actual Delta awards that people have managed to book (plus the date of booking, date of travel, total mileage and surcharge cost, etc.)? We can organize it by perhaps by the departing city. Discussions are often theoretical and it's hard to know just exactly how devalued these miles are. It'd also be an easy place for people who want to use their miles but without a destination in mind to consult. Would one of the experts who consistently manage to book these elusive Delta award tickets want to take the first stab at this?
    joesmoe likes this.
  9. BondAir007
    • Original Member

    BondAir007 Gold Member

    Great post! I do agree what has been said about the Delta Award program.
  10. Gargoyle
    • Original Member

    Gargoyle Milepoint Guide

    Is this correct, unlimited redeposits? I thought, at least for PM, it was limited to two a year.
  11. BondAir007
    • Original Member

    BondAir007 Gold Member

    Delta award system is the best in the world. Plus the peanuts too! [​IMG]
  12. You are joking, right? We need a sarcasm smiley.
    joesmoe and gemac like this.
  13. BondAir007
    • Original Member

    BondAir007 Gold Member

    Yes, I am joking. That's why post with a wink. I do agree we need a sarcasm smiley. The site is still in beta.
  14. Ah, I thought the wink related to the peanuts. :)
    Traveller, gemac and oklAAhoma like this.
  15. gleff
    • Original Member

    gleff Co-founder

    Troy on his TM Travel World blog posted a pretty interesting look at Delta Skymiles redemptions. Some of the info is here already, from my post or from the great post above from The Points Guy. I expanded it a bit on my blog as well.

    Here's what I had to say this morning.

    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.

    As noted above, the way to use to find award seats (on those airlines it supports) is: 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.....
    ALJ1202, Tkey, jmrich1432 and 10 others like this.
  16. Jaimito Cartero
    • Original Member

    Jaimito Cartero Silver Member

    DL can be pretty tough to ticket at low levels. As someone who has blown through 2 million NW/DL miles in the last two years, I know many of the tricks, but think this is a great thread for those who are struggling to get some value out of their miles.

    Recently, I've been using AA miles for almost all of my US-Asia trips, since they are so much easier to use from PHX. Yesterday, I tried to use DL miles to hook up to my HA fare mistake, so looking for ICN-CGK RT, and couldn't get anything out of them. No partners, at all. And I took into account the KE blackout dates as well. MH or KE should be a pretty easy, but of course according to the DL agents, no outbound biz for a 2 month period. I even tried calling back again, and specifically asking for MH, but no luck.

    *A and OW tickets seem to be more than the 40k they charge as well. 60k for each, if I'm reading the award charts correctly.

    I've booked some amazing awards with my NW/DL miles over the years. My RTW trip 5 years ago, probably being the best.
    joesmoe and Biu like this.
  17. Indiana Delta Diamond
    • Original Member

    Indiana Delta Diamond Silver Member

    I couldn't disagree more....and the more I check, the more I disagree. I have checked way more award trips that I have actually taken. I considered running down to Florida a couple of weeks ago to get warm. There were DOZENS of options available in both directions for "low" amount of miles. I went to the Super Bowl a year ago today and went there on a low award. Admittedly, I don't have much desire to do exotic international destinations but that is only part of the program and not everyone cares about that.

    Let me be clear, I am COMPLETELY satisfied with award availability on Delta. I will change that view if and when the circumstances change.
    joesmoe likes this.
  18. Biu
    • Original Member

    Biu Silver Member

    Even if it's no longer applicable after the NW/DL merge, it would be helpful to see what kind of itineraries you put together for your amazing DL awards and RTW trip!
  19. Jaimito Cartero
    • Original Member

    Jaimito Cartero Silver Member

    As the normal threads on the DL forum go, most FT'ers are looking for Biz international awards. That is where the biggest redemption value is.

    I've never booked a domestic coach award with DL. Even most of the Intl awards I book (TranPac mostly), are on partner airlines. I find DL service internationally to be okay, and that most US carriers are fairly similar. I did book some domestic FC awards last year for the ANC Do. On AS, of course.

    I've attempted to get many Intl Biz awards on DL in the last few months. And have not been able to ticket any at low levels. Compare this to flights I'd done using AA miles (no status), CO (Plat status) it's like night and day.

    I really hope that DL starts releasing more Biz awards. I have too many miles with them, and would love to clear them out. If oil prices go up much more, they'll probably start bringing back fuel surcharges. No thanks!
  20. Jaimito Cartero
    • Original Member

    Jaimito Cartero Silver Member

    Actually, did an article about it in the InsideFlyer magazine a few years ago. Gleff had an article in the same issue. Feb or Mar 08, maybe?
  21. Indiana Delta Diamond
    • Original Member

    Indiana Delta Diamond Silver Member

    Sorry, I don't agree about the "redemption value" statement. If you want to go someplace domestic and not international the international has no value. I think you greatly underestimate the importance of domestic awards to many customers. And what is this "FT'ers" you reference?
  22. Biu
    • Original Member

    Biu Silver Member

    Great read, thanks! Hunted down the link to the article for anyone who is interested. Let us know if there are updates to any of your tips from 2008.
  23. Flyer_Esq
    • Original Member

    Flyer_Esq Silver Member

    Thanks for tracking that down. Great article. Also big thanks to The Points Guy - love your tips and your blog!
  24. Mike1625
    • Original Member

    Mike1625 Silver Member

    I know that many of the experts out there will cringe at this thought, but I do want to mention, if you are a medallion and have the DL cobranded Amex, you can buy $100 Amex gift cards with your Skymiles at a redemption value of just under 1 cent per mile in the skymile marketplace. Then you can use the Amex gift card to buy a miles earning plane ticket on DL and earn more miles. I know that experts like gleff can get more value than 1 cent for their skymiles, but at some point I have to spend some and everytime I want to book an award I always seem to end up spending my AA miles while my skymiles account just keeps growing.
    DeltaExpert and Jim R. like this.
  25. Blue Skye
    • Original Member

    Blue Skye Silver Member

    thanks for all the awesome ideas/advice posted in this thread. i have been following the SkyPesos award booking issue for some time. it is very frustrating to want to go somewhere and not be able to find a ticket at low levels.

    i have been successful recently using the method described in the the first post of the one way search, multi-seg pricing to get a mix and match intl flight (Business going over, coach back) PIT to LHR for May at 80,000. i thought myself lucky to have found that and am excited to get to try out the lie flat on the overnight flight.

    this thread will be a good reference for future award bookings. unless DL decides to actually fix their poor excuse of an award booking engine. [​IMG]

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