I give Delta Skymiles a hard time, and deservedly so. I’m known as the guy who coined the term ‘Skypesos’ for their currency, on the whole their miles are worth less than miles in the United, American, and US Airways frequent flyer programs. 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 clueless, their award booking website offers limited partners and is generally quite broken. International first class awards aren’t allowed.
But because I give such a hard time to Skypesos, I also feel like I have a special responsibility to help figure out how to make the most of them.
And I’m the first to say that the miles you should collect and use very much depend on the destinations you want to redeem for. Delta is actually the best for booking Australia business class awards, one of the toughest frequent flyer awards out there, because of their partnership with Virgin Australia (which has the best availability non-stop between the U.S. and Australia, especially on their Los Angeles – Brisbane flight). And they partner with both airlines — Air Tahiti Nui and Air France — that fly non-stop from the mainland U.S. to French Polynesia, one of the other truly toughest awards out there.
Another great sweet spot with Skymiles is business class to India. You won’t find award seats on Delta in business class at the 120,000 mile level with any frequency. But Delta has several partners — ones you wouldn’t think of — that can get you there pretty easily.
You might have to buy a domestic flight to get to the US city you’ll be leaving the country from, but once you get there it’s pretty easy.
The award space in business class on Skyteam members Saudia (from Washington DC or New York, through Riyadh and Jeddah) and Aeroflot (a much better airline than you think, and with great availability out of New York and DC through Moscow) is better than on almost any airline.
If I want to get a whole family and not just a couple of passengers to India in business class, there’s nothing better than Saudia where I frequently see 7 business class seats available on the same flight. You can transit either Moscow or Saudia Arabia without a visa as long as you aren’t leaving the airport.
Plus Skymiles can be very easy to earn, such that even folks who don’t live in a Delta hub wind up with decent stashes of Skymiles. (And my concerns have nothing to do with the airline itself – -while I detest them for international upgrades, they have the most restrictive international upgrade policy of the major US airlines — they do have a decent domestic product with pretty pimped out planes, the most inflight wifi of any airline… while American will be about 97% complete on their domestic mainline fleet by the end of the year, Delta even offers wifi in regional aircraft.)
With that in mind, here are my top 8 uses for Delta Skymiles. (This is Delta after all, so it’s really tough to come up with 10.)
- Virgin Australia: Best Availability for Business Class to Australia
I’ve already described the gist of this one. Delta flies Los Angeles – Sydney but you won’t often find business class award space at the low level here. But you will find it with Virgin Australia. Quite often, and even during high season. I’ve come up with as many as four business class award seats on the same Los Angeles – Brisbane flights during Christmas and New Years which isn’t just high season it’s the peak of peak high season.
Delta lets you book Virgin Australia flights online. Since adding that functionality, they’ve also stopped collecting fuel surcharges on those awards.
Bear in mind that Delta’s award calendar is broken so don’t just assume that if you cannot see flights available using the month-long calendar view that flights aren’t available, the best strategy is to search one day at a time. You may also want to search using a Virgin Australia frequent flyer account, on their website, and then pick the flight you want and grab it online through Delta (you need to find space at the lowest award pricing on that site as Delta only has access to saver inventory).
I like booking Virgin Australia award flights online, rather than with Delta agents, because Delta’s telephone agents have been known to book the wrong inventory class on these awards since they’re not always very familiar with them, with folks thinking they’re getting business class but actually having phone agents put them in coach.
Sometimes you can have a hard time piecing together these awards along with domestic flights on Delta that are available at the low level because in my experience Delta’s pricing engine is very broken, but sometimes that does work. Even still, it can be worth buying the domestic segments to get to Los Angeles to start an award trip just to use Delta miles for business class to Australia.
- Korean Air: the most flight options to Asia
Delta has been a partner of Korean Air for years, Korean is a Skyteam member, but they only just added online booking of Korean awards back in October.
This was an especially big deal because you could not otherwise search Korean’s business class award space online yourself. You need miles in your Korean Skypass account in order to use their website to search for awards. They don’t publish award space consistently through publicly available websites.
As a result Delta Skymiles members used to be dependent on agents to tell them what was an was not available. Which often means hunting an pecking for space — asking about different dates, asking about different cities. Very few agents are patient enough to help you put together an award like that, in fact some Delta agents have even told me they’re only permitted to search three routes in a call and that if I wanted more I’d have to call back!
So online searching is huge. Of course the Delta award calendar cannot be relied upon, you need to search each day independently. And it’s a best practice to search for one-way awards (even though you won’t book that away, it reduces the computer’s confusion). And search each transpacific route, don’t just search from your starting city to your destination.
But Korean has pretty good availability, and perhaps most usefully they fly to more US destinations than any other Asian carrier. They fly to Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Honolulu, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, New York JFK, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington Dulles In addition, they fly to Toronto and to Vancouver in Canada, and from Los Angeles to Sao Paolo as well. So tons of possibilities.
The toughest challenge is that over 40% of the year is blacked out, because Delta forbids booking any Korean flight when the airline has blackout dates for any route. So if there’s an intra-Asia blackout date, Delta will impose it on North America-Seoul. The following upcoming dates are blacked out:
- Through January 6
- February 7 – February 12
- May 17 – June 30
- July 19 – August 25
- September 14 – September 23
- October 3
- October 5 -October 6
- December 7 – December 31
Delta also allows booking award travel to Australia via Seoul, and allows a stopover in one direction. So you can do Asia and Australia on the award. Another good way to do Australia, that toughest frequent flyer award, using Delta miles.
- Through January 6
- Saudia: Outstanding for flying to the Middle East and Central Asia.
Over the summer I Saudia’s amazing award availability. They fly to places, it seems, for reasons other than business viability. As a result there are plenty of empty seats on many of their flights, such as to New York and DC. And those seats get opened up as awards. Which nobody seems to try to claim, probably because transiting Saudi Arabia on relatively new Skyteam member Saudia is just too obscure. Lots of Delta agents seemingly haven’t even heard of the airline.
Saudia often has 7 or more business class award seats open on a single flight, and availability like that seems to be the norm for most of their long haul flights. Their short hops beyond Riyadh and Jeddah can have fewer seats open, but availability is still good. And they have great coverage of India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and the Gulf States.
There’s no visa required for a connection in Saudi Arabia, but it can be difficult to actually get a visa to visit there. Another reason that folks aren’t redeeming awards on Saudia, Saudi Arabia simply isn’t a common destination or one that’s easy to visit. But for connecting to points beyond it’s great because availability is so good.
I find the biggest challenge can be lining up available long haul flights with flights to points beyond, not because of availability but because they fly to several destinations with non-daily service. And you do need to put together connections because you can’t enter the country for a stopover without a visa.
- Aeroflot: Good availability to Russia — and to Dubai, Delhi, and Istanbul
In October I outlined just how good award space is on Aeroflot’s flights departing the U.S., especially their New York flights. Space from Los Angeles and from Washington Dulles can be good at times, and completely dry at other times. And Aeroflot is a better carrier than many expect, on par with Air France and KLM.
And it’s even a way to get to the Maldives, their Moscow – Male flights usually have coach availability and are only three times weekly but for a place so tough to get to this can be useful.
- China Southern: A good product to Asia with great availability
China Southern has long offered decent award availability to Asia, they fly from Los Angeles to their hub in Guangzhou and Delta adds modest fuel surcharges to awards on the carrier.
Award availability became really outstanding when they put an Airbus A380 on the route, and the aircraft has a pretty good business class product as well.
Just as with Korean awards and Seoul as a connecting point, Delta allows booking award travel to Australia via Guangzhou, and allows a stopover in one direction. So you can do Asia and Australia on the award. Another good way to do Australia, that toughest frequent flyer award, using Delta miles. We’re definitely getting a theme going here.
Getting to Los Angeles using Delta miles can be a challenge, but once you reach that gateway (by award or separate ticket) I find that more often than not it’s possible to put together a premium cabin award using Delta miles on China Southern.
- Alaska Airlines: Domestic awards ARE available using Skymiles!
Skymiles turns the usual expectation of a frequent flyer program on its head. Usually you can find domestic flights but it’s much harder to get those premium cabin international awards, or at least so goes the conventional wisdom.
And it’s true that finding premium cabin international awards on Delta flights can be a challenge although at times there are specific flights that are easier than others (eg London flights).
But since they do have a variety of partners whom you can get seats on, finding the international segments winds up the easy part — if you know where to look for the seats, and have the patience to either battle the Delta.com website or clueless telephone agents.
The challenge then becomes finding flights to get from your home city to the international gateway airport. If you live in, say, Milwaukee and found flights out of New York or DC or Atlanta to Europe or Asia, you still have to get from Milwaukee to that international departure city. And finding flights on Delta at the ‘low’ or saver level can be the toughest part of constructing the award.
Fortunately, especially folks living on the West Coast have the option of using Delta’s partner Alaska Airlines for that!
Alaska’s award space is pretty good, they have their biggest operations in Seattle, Los Angeles, Anchorage and Portland. You can get from many West Coast cities to those gateways and then use other Delta partners to fly internationally. (You can also get from those cities to gateways.)
Availability can be toughest on the longest flights like Boston, New York, and Washington National. Midwest and Texas flights tend to be easier, in that you can sometimes find premium cabin space whereas the East Coast cities rarely have premium cabin awards.
But having Alaska as an option means that sometimes you don’t have to buy domestic flights to sync up with award tickets.
- Air France: Getting to Europe isn’t as easy as it used to be
The easiest thing to do with Skymiles used to be redeem for Air France business class. Unfortunately In mid-September Air France transatlantic business class award space mostly evaporated. And what did exist wasn’t bookable with Delta Skymiles, even though those Delta is a Skyteam partner of Air France.
A month later it became possible again to book Air France premium cabin awards using Delta miles. And they were even bookable at Delta.com.
But while Air France business class award space does now exist for Delta Skymiles members it is not at all the same as what’s offered to Air France’s own Flying Blue members. In fact it’s barely even a subset. Now it’s frequently the case that Air France will offer its own members 9 or more business class award space on a given flight. And not a single one of those seats will be bookable by Delta. But it’s still a reasonable option with better availability than on Delta aircraft…
- Aeromexico: Getting to South America.. and Europe.
Lucky did a nice job laying out Aeromexico as a good option for using Delta Skymiles to South America.
What most folks don’t realize is that Aeromexico offers daily service to Paris and Madrid (connecting up with partners Air France and Air Europa) and they’ve just started three times weekly service to London Heathrow. (This last service seemed an odd choice given there’s relatively little origin-destination traffic on the route and there are few connecting opportunities through their Skyteam partners, but perhaps they’ll be bolstered by Delta’s new stake in Virgin Atlantic.)
Update: I wrote this post a bit early, to give myself a break during the holidays — deliver content and advice to you while partying like it’s 1999 myself.
In the meantime, The Points Guy wrote his own post on the best uses of Skymiles. He and I agree on several particulars, and a disagree on a few.
His top list, with my comments:
- V Australia Awards with Low Taxes. I cover this one above and do agree.
- Business class to Africa/Mauritius. The pricing is reasonable, and as I covered previously, KLM serves some hard to reach destinations like Kilimanjaro. But award availability can be a challenge.
- Intra-South America on Aerolinas Argentinas. Useful but in my view somewhat limited in applicability. Aerolinas awards can be tough to search for, space can be reasonably good, but their business class product doesn’t look like one I’d aspire to fly.
- Korean Air Awards to Australia and South America. We agree, as noted above.
- China Southern to Asia. As discussed above.
- Intra-Hawaii awards. This wouldn’t make my list, inventory can be tight, and the price of outright buying the tickets tends to be low.
- Air France to Tahiti. I note Delta as good for awards to French Polynesia relative to other carriers since they partner with both Air France and Air Tahiti Nui (the former with non-daily service). But that doesn’t make Air France awards in particular a great value, the seats can be quite tough to get especially during peak season. It’s expensive in miles to get to French Polynesia. It’s hard to do. And it’s an expensive place once you’re there. I don’t like this on any best of lists, but it’s a personal bias against Tahiti and the islands beyond I suppose.
- Alaska Airlines. I agree, though in addition to Mexico and Hawaii flights I see them best as connections to other international partners.
- Business class round the world for 280,000 miles. Of course you have to find the award inventory. And American’s distance-based awards are a much better value.
- Aeromexico and Gol. I note Aeromexico above and Gol was a perfectly decent airline when I flew with them back in May.
I do think Saudia is a real hidden gem missing from Brian’s list.