Are Delta Miles Really That Hard to Use?

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Are Delta Miles Really That Hard to Use?

Million Mile SecretsAre Delta Miles Really That Hard to Use?Million Mile Secrets Team

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Update: The American Express Gold Delta SkyMiles (Personal), American Express Gold Delta SkyMiles (Business), and American Express Platinum Delta credit card offers in this post are no longer available, but check the Hot Deals for the latest offers!

A common opinion held by many miles-and-points enthusiasts is that Delta’s frequent flyer miles (often jokingly referred to as SkyPesos) can be hard to use.

Folks complain about a lack of available low-level award seats, a website that doesn’t always give accurate information, and very high pricing on some routes, especially international award tickets.

But is this always true?  I did some searches for award seats on Delta and then searched for the same dates and routes on American Airlines and United Airlines.  The results might surprise you!

Are Delta Miles Really That Hard To Use
Is It Always Hard to Find Award Seats on Delta?

$500+ in Travel

Link:   American Express Gold Delta SkyMiles (Personal)

Link:   American Express Gold Delta SkyMiles (Business)

Link:   American Express Platinum Delta SkyMiles

Currently 3 versions of the Delta card offer a 50,000 mile bonus after completing the minimum spending.

You’ll get 50,000 miles after spending $1,000 in purchases on your new card in the 1st 3 months with the American Express Gold Delta SkyMiles (Personal), American Express Gold Delta SkyMiles (Business), and American Express Platinum Delta SkyMiles cards.

Here’s my detailed review of the American Express Delta SkyMiles 50,000 mile offer.

This is worth at least $500 in travel when you use the “Pay with Miles” feature.  That’s because each Delta mile is worth 1 cent toward a paid ticket (for fares over $100).

50,000 miles could be worth potentially more if you redeem for award flights.

Even if you have trouble finding low-level award seats on Delta, it’s often a better deal to pay their “medium” award price rather than pay for a standard or full price award seat on other airlines, like United Airlines.

For example, for a 1-way, coach class ticket from the US mainland to Hawaii, Delta charges:

  • 22,500 miles (saver)
  • 32,500 miles (standard)
  • 45,000 miles (peak)

For the same ticket, United Airlines only has 2 award levels:

  • 22,500 miles (saver)
  • 45,000 miles (standard)

So if United Airlines and Delta were both sold out of saver award seats, you could still potentially save miles by flying Delta if they had standard (medium) award seats available.  It’s always best to shop around!

Let’s Compare!

I wanted to compare available award seats on Delta, American Airlines, and United Airlines for the following types of award tickets:

  • Domestic routes between large cities
  • Domestic routes between smaller cities
  • Flights to Hawaii (booked well in advance)
  • International routes (booked a few months in advance)

Let’s see what we can find!

1.   New York (Any Airport) to Los Angeles in September

I searched for round-trip award seats from New York to Los Angeles (a very busy route) in late September.  You can’t book 1-way award tickets on Delta (but this changes on January 1, 2015).

Delta

Delta shows low-level coach class saver award seats available on most dates in September, both going outbound and on the return.  It costs 25,000 miles round-trip for a low-level coach class award ticket.

Are Delta Miles Really That Hard To Use
Plenty of Coach Class Low-Level Award Seats Available

There were fewer low-level First and Business Class award seats available, but you can still find seats if you’re flexible with your dates.  Delta charges 50,000 miles for a low-level Business Class round-trip award ticket, and 65,000 miles for a First Class / BusinessElite ticket.

Delta has a large presence in New York, LaGuardia so flights were relatively easy to come by!

Are Delta Miles Really That Hard To Use
There Are Fewer Saver Award Seats Available in Business Class, but With Some Flexibility This Could Still Work
American Airlines

I searched for the same dates on American Airlines between New York and Los Angeles.  There were low-level coach class award seats available almost every day, for 25,000 miles round trip.

From New York to Los Angeles:

Are Delta Miles Really That Hard To Use
There Are Low-Level Coach Class Seats Available Every Day in September from New York to Los Angeles

From Los Angeles to New York:

Are Delta Miles Really That Hard To Use
And Almost Every Day From Los Angeles to New York

And I was able to find Business/First low-level award seats almost every day, too.  American Airlines charges 50,000 miles for a low-level round-trip Business/First Class ticket.

From New York to Los Angeles:

Are Delta Miles Really That Hard To Use
Business/First Class Low-Level Award Tickets Cost 25,000 Miles Each Way

From Los Angeles to New York:

Are Delta Miles Really That Hard To Use
There Are Business/First Class Award Seats Available Except for 1 Day
United Airlines

The same search on United Airlines shows both low-level coach class and United First / Business award seats available most dates in September (with slightly more dates available for coach class).

United Airlines charges 25,000 miles for low-level round-trip coach class award tickets, and 50,000 for Business / First class award tickets.

From New York to Los Angeles:

Are Delta Miles Really That Hard To Use
Most Dates in September Have Award Seats Available From New York to Los Angeles

From Los Angeles to New York:

Are Delta Miles Really That Hard To Use
There Are Similar Numbers of Award Seats on the Return Leg of the Trip

Conclusion:  The number of low-level coach class award seats available on this route in September is similar for all 3 airlines.  But there are fewer dates available in Business / First Class on Delta.

2.   Austin to Traverse City in October

Award tickets between smaller cities can sometimes be hard to find, because there are fewer flights on smaller airplanes.  I looked for low-level award seats between Austin and Traverse City in October, and the results were not great!

Delta

There are very few dates available with low-level, coach class award seats between Austin and Traverse City in October.  However, if you’re willing to pay for a standard award (40,000 miles round-trip) there are seats available on most days.

Are Delta Miles Really That Hard To Use
Not Many Dates Available for Low-Level Coach Class Award Seats, but There are Plenty of Standard Award Seats Available

There were even fewer low-level award seats in Business / First class throughout October.

Are Delta Miles Really That Hard To Use
Even Less of a Selection If You Want Low-Level First/Business Class Seats
American Airlines

American Airlines has more low-level coach class award seats available between Austin and Traverse City in October, but the selection is still not good.

From Austin to Traverse City:

Are Delta Miles Really That Hard To Use
There Are Still Some Dates With Low-Level Coach Class Seats Available

From Traverse City to Austin:

Are Delta Miles Really That Hard To Use
Only 1 Day in October With Low-Level Coach Class Award Seats Available

There were more low-level award seats in Business / First on American Airlines, particularly from Austin to Traverse City.

From Austin to Traverse City:

Are Delta Miles Really That Hard To Use
There Are Quite a Few Dates Available With Low-Level First / Business Class Award Seats

From Traverse City to Austin:

Are Delta Miles Really That Hard To Use
Fewer Low-Level Business / First Class Award Seats Available From Traverse City to Austin
United Airlines

A search on United Airlines for low-level award seats between Austin and Traverse City also had similar results.  There were very few dates with available seats, both in coach class and First / Business class.

Although standard awards were available most days, they’re expensive (50,000 miles round-trip).

From Austin to Traverse City:

Are Delta Miles Really That Hard To Use
Just a Few Dates With Low-Level Award Seats Available, but There Are Standard Awards

From Traverse City to Austin:

Are Delta Miles Really That Hard To Use
Saver Award Tickets on the Return Trip Are Also Hard to Find

Conclusion:   Low-level award seats between smaller cities can be difficult to find on all 3 airlines.  However, standard award seats could be available.  Always compare the number of miles needed for a standard award ticket, because prices vary.  You might pay 40,000 miles on Delta, but 50,000 on United Airlines.

3.   San Francisco to Honolulu in April

Award tickets to Hawaii are often hard to find on any airline, especially during busy periods like Spring Break.  So I searched for round-trip award tickets from San Francisco to Honolulu in April.

Delta

There were very few low-level coach class tickets (45,000 miles round-trip) available going from San Francisco to Honolulu in April, both on the outbound and the return trips.

There are more dates with standard and peak coach class award seats available, but these are much more expensive (65,000 and 90,000 miles round-trip respectively).

Are Delta Miles Really That Hard To Use
Not Many Choices for Low-Level Coach Class Seats Between San Francisco and Honolulu in April

A search for low-level Business / First award tickets (90,000 miles round-trip) shows even fewer dates available.

Are Delta Miles Really That Hard To Use
No Low-Level Award Seats on the Outbound Flight, and Very Few Choices on the Return
American Airlines

I searched for the same dates on American Airlines between San Francisco and Honolulu.  There were many more available award seats!

Low-level coach class award seats cost 45,000 miles round-trip, and there are seats available almost every day in April!

From San Francisco to Honolulu:

Are Delta Miles Really That Hard To Use
A Great Selection of Coach Class Seats in April From San Francisco to Honolulu

And coming back:

Are Delta Miles Really That Hard To Use
Plenty of Choices on the Return Leg as Well

In Business / First class, there are low-level award seats available every day!  American Airlines charges 75,000 miles for a low-level round-trip Business / First Class ticket.

From San Francisco to Honolulu:

Are Delta Miles Really That Hard To Use
Business / First Low-Level Award Seats Available Every Day in April!

From Honolulu to San Francisco:

Are Delta Miles Really That Hard To Use
And There Are Seats Available Every Day Coming Back!
United Airlines

A search for flights between San Francisco and Honolulu in April showed many dates available for low-level, coach class award tickets (45,000 miles round-trip), but no dates at all for low-level First / Business class seats (80,000 miles round-trip)!

From San Francisco to Honolulu:

Are Delta Miles Really That Hard To Use
Lots of Coach Class Saver Award Seats Available, but Nothing for United First / Business

From Honolulu to San Francisco:

Are Delta Miles Really That Hard To Use
The Situation Is Similar on the Return Leg

Conclusion:   On this route and dates, American Airlines has by far the most award seats available in both coach class and First / Business class.  United has some coach class seats available, but nothing in First / Business class.  And Delta has the overall least number of dates with low-level award seats available, but you can still find a few in both classes of service.

4.   Washington, DC, to Frankfurt in June

Award travel to Europe in the spring and summer months can be tricky, depending on the route.  I searched for low-level award seats between Washington, DC, and Frankfurt in June.

Delta

Going to Frankfurt, there were almost no dates available with low-level coach class award seats, but every day had standard level (95,000 miles round-trip) seats available.  Coming back, there were more seats, but some dates only had peak award seats available (130,000 miles round-trip).

Are Delta Miles Really That Hard To Use
Not Many Low-Level Award Seats Available, but Lots of Standard Level Award Seats

In First / Business Class, there are actually many more dates available for low-level tickets.

Are Delta Miles Really That Hard To Use
You’ll Have Better Luck With Low-Level First / Business Class Award Tickets
American Airlines

There are many more low-level coach class seats available on American Airlines (60,000 miles round-trip).

From Washington, DC, to Frankfurt:

Are Delta Miles Really That Hard To Use
There Are Lots of Choices for Coach Class Low-Level Award Seats From Washington, DC, to Frankfurt

From Frankfurt to Washington, DC:

Are Delta Miles Really That Hard To Use
And Still a Good Selection on the Return Trip

In Business / First Class, there are a handful of available low-level dates on the outbound leg, and quite a few coming back.

From Washington, DC, to Frankfurt:

Are Delta Miles Really That Hard To Use
There Are Still Some Low-Level First / Business Class Seats in June

From Frankfurt to Washington, DC:

Are Delta Miles Really That Hard To Use
Lots of Choices Coming Back From Frankfurt
United Airlines

United Airlines has some low-level coach class award seats (60,000 miles round-trip) available in June from Washington, DC, to Frankfurt, but very few dates with low-level First / Business Class (140,000 miles round-trip) award seats available.

From Washington, DC, to Frankfurt:

Are Delta Miles Really That Hard To Use
Mostly Low-Level Coach Class Seats Available

From Frankfurt to Washington, DC:

Are Delta Miles Really That Hard To Use
Much Better Choices on the Return Trip!

Conclusion:   Europe can be tricky to get to, but there are still good low-level options available on United Airlines and American Airlines.  Delta has the fewest low-level award seats.

Which Airline Has the Most Low-Level Award Seats?

It depends on the route, but generally (not always) American Airlines and United Airlines seem to have more low-level award seats available.

That said, on dates when there are only standard awards available, Delta might be a better choice.  That’s because they have 3 levels of award pricing:  Saver (low-level), standard (mid-level), and peak (high-level).

So for example, on dates where only standard awards are available on all airlines, you might pay 40,000 miles round-trip in coach class on Delta for a domestic award ticket, instead of 50,000 miles for the same ticket on United Airlines (which only has 2 levels of award ticket pricing).

As always, do the math and see what works for you.  But don’t assume that you won’t be able to find good award seats on Delta.  You may just find the award you’re looking for, even if United Airlines and American Airlines don’t have low-level seats.

Bottom Line

Delta Airlines miles can sometimes be hard to use, depending on the route and time of year.  In general, they tend to release fewer award seats than other big airlines, like American Airlines or United Airlines.

But that’s not always the case, so it’s worth checking if you’re shopping around for an award ticket.  And often, if there are only standard award seats available, you might pay fewer miles for your Delta award ticket.  That’s because they have 3 levels of award ticket pricing.

What has your experience been like booking Delta award tickets?  Do you find their miles hard to use?

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Editorial Note: We're the Million Mile Secrets team. And we're proud of our content, opinions and analysis, and of our reader's comments. These haven’t been reviewed, approved or endorsed by any of the airlines, hotels, or credit card issuers which we often write about. And that’s just how we like it! :)

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Looking for a one-way ticket from India to IAD using SkyMiles. Do not see many options online on Delta (only one I see is via Moscow and would very much like to avoid that). Would calling Delta be a better option?

Also, how does one avoid those surcharges for trips originating overseas?

thanks,

I was part of US Airways rewards program years ago and got so frustrated trying to book flights I gave it up. It seem you could only fly to places nobody wanted to go to at times no one wanted to fly. Flash forward to 2014 and I’m trying them again. I now found they have gotten worse and as a previous poster said, they seem to track your interests by cookies and change the reward levels upward once they know you are interested. They basically can do what they want to their customers and as the mergers continue to be allowed, it will only get worse.

Terrible article. Waste of the 90 seconds it took me to read it.

For anyone living outside the US, Delta is crap because they add an “International Originating Surcharge” for most award bookings starting outside the US – for example LHR-JFK-LHR costs much more than JFK-LHR-JFK. United and American don’t do this. I’ve had to resort to some very creative routings in order to actually make use of my Delta miles without paying these extortionate fees!

I have to admit that I have gotten lucky with Delta miles when booking flights from NC to CO which cost me 32,500 miles for $400 RT tickets a few years ago. But after that it has been almost impossible to use them. Sold the rest of the 200K+ miles to someone for 1.2cpm. Another option if you don’t want to take your “never-gonna-expire” Delta miles to grave 🙂

I have also had a lot of trouble booking Delta award flights. However, there was one exception. In May to June 2009 I took a round trip (saver) coach flight from PDX to Amsterdam, which is a non-stop–though I booked a stopover on the way back. I booked it in January or February of that year. You know why I think it worked? If you recall, the big stock market crash was in the fall of 2008, and lots of people were not spending money back then. So maybe if we have another crash it’ll work again.

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