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First things first – Delta does NOT have an award chart. When you run an award search, the price is whatever Delta says it is. That makes it hard to know how many miles you should save for an award ticket.
Delta is the best airline, as far as operations, with arguably the worst loyalty program. It’s not worthless, but does require finesse. There are a couple of ways to gauge how many miles to collect when you have a travel goal.
Delta really wants each mile to be worth 1 cent each, and bases their award prices on the cash cost of the ticket, along with other “factors.” But you can still get outsized value and great deals if you know what to look for.
Let’s explore the Delta award chart – what’s left of it, anyway. You can earn Delta miles with cards like the Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express, Platinum Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express, and Delta Reserve® Credit Card from American Express.
How to Navigate the Delta Award Chart That Isn’t There
The Delta award chart is a strange bird – and exists only in theory. Getting a good price is a combination of:
- Being flexible with your dates
- Looking closely into the options
- Trying a couple of tricks to get an award to price lower
- Sheer luck
Delta Prices Their Own Flights Roughly Based on Cash Price
Say, for example, you’re in Dallas and want to visit Chicago in December 2019. How many Delta miles do you need for a one-way coach flight? That should be an easy question, but…
Not so with Delta. You’ll need anywhere between 6,500 and 28,500 Delta miles.
Which got me thinking…why the variance?
It’s definitely driven by the cash price of the ticket. On the days you can get a flight for 6,500 Delta miles, you can just buy the flight for $77. The day requiring the most Delta miles, January 5 for 28,500 Delta miles, has a cash cost of $280.
In both cases, you’ll get roughly 1 cent of value per Delta mile, which seems to be what Delta wants.
But that’s just one example. Let’s look at a couple more.
Add a Partner Flight to Get a Lower Price
Say you’re in Chicago and want to visit Seoul. How many miles do you need?
Whereas Delta prices their own flights roughly based on the cash cost, that isn’t true with partners. Based on this search, the dead giveaway we’re looking at partner flights are the ~$25 tax charge instead of Delta’s usual ~$6 price.
Remember, you can always click “5 Weeks” under “Calendar View,” and then “Update Results” to see the lowest price across a 5-week period.
Delta partner awards always price at the lowest tier. Based on this, we know Delta wants at least 35,000 Delta miles for a one-way coach trip from Chicago to Seoul (though there are exceptions, like when there’s a fare sale or flash sale).
And, these awards are NOT based on the cash price.
In this case, each Delta mile is worth ~3 cents ($984 – $25 in taxes / 35,000), which is actually a bargain.
So what’s the lesson here? Try to look for partner awards – or add a partner flight to your Delta award to drop the price.
In another example, from Boston to Paris, you can fly on Delta non-stop in coach for 44,000 Delta miles. There’s a lot to be said for taking a non-stop flight.
But if you’re willing to connect, adding Air France as the overwater carrier – and a short Delta flight within the US – lowers the price to 25,000 or 34,500 miles. If you’re booking multiple awards (or even if you’re not), that’s a huge savings.
Even Adding Another Delta Flight Can Mean Savings…Sometimes
Flying non-stop out of a Delta hub can actually be more expensive. Here’s another example, this time from New York (JFK) to Paris and we want Business Class tickets.
Delta is asking for 320,000 Delta miles. You’ll see this as a standard price from lots of Delta hubs, and especially on non-stop flights, but adding a short domestic segment from a non-Delta hub sometimes makes it go down.
I added a short flight from Burlington to this award, and can access the same flight from New York to Paris, but this time for 105,000 Delta miles. That’s a third less than the original price. So folks near small airports that aren’t Delta hubs might actually come out ahead for certain awards.
I don’t know why or how this works, but it does in practice.
With Delta, nothing’s hard and fast. You simply have to play around with it until you find something you like.
And the tricks above – adding segments and filtering for partner flights – don’t always produce results. Other times, there’s just no logic whatsoever.
Like this non-stop flight from Minneapolis to Seoul. Delta wants MORE miles for Comfort+ than for First Class. Sure, I’d rather pay more and sit in the back…said no one ever.
And booking with a partner, in this example from Chicago to Seoul, lowers the coach award price, but actually raises the Business Class price. So you’re better off flying the partner (Air France) to save on the coach seat, but flying Delta’s own planes saves you a lot of miles for the premium cabin. (I have a feeling the routing is a factor here.)
What Does It All Mean? How Many Miles Do You Need for an Award Flight?
Based on these patterns, we can deduce:
- Domestic Delta award seats are usually tied to the cash cost of the ticket
- International Delta coach award seats are loosely tied to the cash cost of the ticket – but not always
- International Delta premium class seats have semi-set prices, and are usually a better deal
- Partner awards at the lowest levels are usually a good deal
This means if you want to fly Delta domestically, be prepared to get ~1 cent of value per Delta mile and for international awards, you’ll usually do better flying a partner airline (or at least adding a non-Delta segment to the award), but nothing is set in stone.
I recommend running test searches spread out over a few months, and using the 5-week calendar view, to check the average lowest prices for a given route. That requires having a travel goal in mind before you start saving your miles.
For example, I ran searches from Memphis to Maui round-trip in coach across a span from June to January to get a sense of the pricing. Based on this, I know I’ll pay between 63,500 and 70,000 Delta miles – for the most part. If I wanted to travel several months from now and book an award in a month or two, I still have to remember the price could be higher or lower when I’m ready to book.
It’s not ideal, but having a ball-park number in mind is the best way to go, especially for domestic awards. If you want to travel abroad, find the lowest partner award price and aim to save that amount.
How Do You Book a Delta Award Flight?
I recently wrote about how to use Delta miles for award flights. You’ll find more tips for searching, as well as a full list of airline partners.
That said, it’s quite easy to book most Delta award flights directly on their website and it’s a good idea to get used to the particular quirks of the booking engine, especially if Delta is your go-to airline.
In the absence of an award chart, Delta flyers have to make their best guesstimate for how many miles are required for an award ticket on Delta flights – but have ways to figure out the best price for a seat with Delta’s airline partners.
It’s easy to run searches on Delta’s website and international partner awards still represent huge value and savings with Delta miles. Even adding a partner segment to your award can drop the price, but not always, as there are plenty of anomalies.
Ultimately, the best approach to Delta miles is to have a goal first, then collect the miles you need – not the other way around. With some searching, there are still values to unlock, though they’re fewer and further between as Delta marches toward revenue-based rewards where your miles are worth 1 cent each. Until then, do your best and keep poking around until you find what you’re looking for.
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