Delta SkyMiles Overview
While Delta is often lauded for their flight performance and customer service, their loyalty program has long been the butt of jokes in the frequent flier community. Delta’s redeemable miles, SkyMiles, are often derisively referred to as “SkyPesos” to indicate how relatively worthless they are. Delta’s elite program used to trail the pack as well.
Over time, Delta has steadily increased elite perks, especially for top tier elites. Today, I believe that Delta actually has one of the best elite programs among the major full-service airlines.
The story regarding redeemable SkyMiles isn’t as rosy. In 2015, Delta eliminated award charts. Since then, they’ve systematically stamped out most sweet-spot awards that previously made it possible to get fantastic value from your miles. That’s the bad news. The good news is that, today, it’s hard to find awards where miles are worth less than 1 cent each compared to cash prices. The net result is that it’s much harder today to get far outsized value from your miles, but it’s also easier to avoid getting terrible value. In my research I’ve found that most awards tend towards 1.2 to 1.3 cents per mile value, but it’s not unheard of to get up to about 2 cents per mile value.
Recent posts about Delta
Delta SkyMiles Pros and Cons
- Free changes and cancellations for all awards originating in North America
- No fuel surcharges are included on awards originating in North America
- Miles don’t expire until you do (miles do not expire as long as you are alive)
- Elite program offers excellent perks, especially for top-tier elites
- Upgrade certificates available to very high level elites can be used on award flights
- Miles can almost always be used instead of cash for any Delta-operated flight, regardless of how full it is.
- No award charts: this makes it hard to plan for future award travel.
- Very high award prices: International business class award prices, especially, are usually far, far higher than with competing programs.
- Fuel surcharges are imposed on certain awards originating outside of North America. For example, an award from Europe to the U.S. will cost much more in fees than an award from the U.S. to Europe. This is true for both one-way and round-trip awards.
Base members earn 5 miles per dollar on Delta marketed flights. Elite members earn more, depending upon their status level, as follows:
- Silver: 7 miles per dollar
- Gold: 8 miles per dollar
- Platinum: 9 miles per dollar
- Diamond: 11 miles per dollar
- Flights booked as part of vacation packages, cruise packages, consolidator fares, etc. are considered “exception fares”. With these flights, you’ll earn miles based on the distance flown. Details can be found here.
- Partner flights that are not marketed by Delta earn miles based on the distance flown. Details vary by partner. Details can be found here.
Delta credit cards
Miles can be earned from credit card welcome bonuses and from credit card spend. In general, while I recommend earning lots of miles through new-card welcome bonuses (or upgrade bonuses), earning from spend is not usually a good idea. There are many other cards on the market that offer much better rewards for everyday spend. One exception is if you use the Delta Platinum or Delta Reserve card to spend your way to elite status. More about these topics can be found in the elite status and credit card sections later in this post.
Transfer from other points programs
Amex Membership Rewards
American Express offers a number of cards that earn more Membership Rewards points per dollar than their Delta cards earn in SkyMiles. This is particularly interesting here because American Express Membership Rewards points transfer 1 to 1 to Delta. Even if your main goal is to earn Delta miles through spend, you would most likely be better off earning Amex Membership Rewards points first. Then, you’d also have the great benefit of being able to use points for other purposes besides Delta.
Unfortunately, Amex charges a small “excise tax offset fee” of $0.0006 per point (with a maximum fee of $99) when transferring to a U.S. based program like Delta. Here are some sample fees:
- 10,000 miles: $6
- 50,000 miles: $30
- 100,000 miles: $60
- 150,000 miles: $90
- 165,000 miles (or more): $99
For more details, see: Amex Membership Rewards Points Complete Guide
Marriott points can be transferred to Delta at a rate of 3 Marriott points to 1 Delta mile. Additionally, when you transfer 60,000 Marriott points at a time, you get 5,000 extra Delta miles. So, the best you can do is transfer 60,000 Marriott points to 25,000 Delta miles.
For more, see: Marriott Bonvoy Complete Guide.
Non-flight options for earning points
Earn 1 mile per dollar for each Lyft ride. To enable this, link your Delta and Lyft accounts here.
Earn 1 mile per dollar for each Airbnb stay. To enable this, book your Airbnb stay through the link found here.
When shopping online, you can often earn additional miles, beyond those earned with your credit card, by starting your shopping with an online shopping portal. Skymiles Shopping is a portal that allows you to earn Delta miles.
Other Earning Options
Delta lists other options for earning SkyMiles through partners here.
Booking flights with Delta miles is easy. On Delta.com, simply check the box to “Shop with miles” when searching for flights. Delta defaults to showing results for a week at a time, but you can then click “Price Calendar” to see results for 5 weeks at a time.
Award Booking Tips
Here are a few miscellaneous tips:
- Book round-trip. Often Delta charges fewer miles for round-trip awards.
- Scroll down or sort. Delta won’t always show the best priced award at the top, especially when partner flights are involved.
- Beware of basic economy. Free award changes and cancellations do not apply to basic economy tickets. You can still save a lot by booking basic economy, but it’s not worth it if you’re likely to want to change or cancel the flight.
Best Uses of Miles
In my experience, most award flights average 1.2 to 1.3 cents per mile in value. It is possible to do significantly better, though. For details, click one of the links below:
Great Value Options
- Delta Skymiles Flash Sales
- US to Canada via WestJet for 12.5K one-way, economy
- US to South America via LATAM for 25K one-way economy
- Mexico to Europe for 65K one-way (business class)
- Sky Club Premium Drinks
Good Value Options
- US to Middle East (including Israel) for 85K one-way (business class)
- US to Africa for 95K one-way (business class)
- Mexico to/from Asia for 90K one-way (business class)
- Flights within Asia for 35K one-way (business class)
- Delta’s “Lowest Award Price”
Flights on partner airlines can be booked with Delta SkyMiles as long as the partner has saver-level award space available for the given flight. The following partners are available to book online with Delta SkyMiles:
- Aerolineas Argentinas
- Air France
- China Eastern
- China Airlines
- China Southern
- Hawaiian Airlines
- KLM Royal Dutch Airlines
- Korean Air
- Mandarin Airlines
- Middle East Airlines
- Saudia Airlines
- Shanghai Airlines
- Tarom Airlines
- Vietnam Airlines
- Virgin Atlantic
- Virgin Australia
- Xiamen Airlines
Miles + Cash Awards
If you don’t have enough miles for a given award flight, Delta will let you choose Miles + Cash awards. Shown above is a standard award on top, with a miles + cash award below. Basically, this feature lets you indirectly buy needed miles for about 1.8 cents each. That’s not a great price considering that the per mile value for most awards is around 1.2 or 1.3 cents. On the other hand, it’s much cheaper than outright buying miles from Delta.
I recommend this only when you don’t have enough miles to book your flight (but you have almost enough).
Award Change & Cancellation Fees
For awards with travel originating in North America (including the Caribbean), award changes and cancellations are free. With changes, your award will be re-priced and so you may have to pay extra miles and/or taxes, but there is no fee for the change itself. With cancellations, your miles will be redeposited to your account and your form of payment will be reimbursed for any taxes and fees.
Use miles like money to book flights
There are two ways to use Delta Skymiles at a value of 1 cent each to book flights:
Pay with Miles
Delta's "Pay with Miles" feature is limited to primary cardholders of any Delta card (Blue, Gold, Platinum, or Reserve). This feature lets you pay for cash tickets in part or in full with Delta SkyMiles at a value of 1 cent per mile. You must pay in increments of 5,000 miles. Every 5,000 miles you apply decreases the ticket cost by $50. In other words, each mile is worth exactly 1 penny with this feature.
No miles earned: Flights that are paid for in this way earn full MQMs (Medallion Qualifying Dollars) and MQSs (Medallion Qualifying Segments). However, only the portion paid in cash earns redeemable SkyMiles and MQDs (Medallion Qualifying Dollars). The latter two issues reduce the value of the Pay with Miles feature.
Tip: Unless the full ticket amount is an exact multiple of $50, I recommend stopping short of paying the whole fare with miles since you'll get lower value from the last 5,000 miles. For example, if you want to use this feature and your ticket costs $228, I recommend paying 20,000 miles to decrease the cash cost to $28. Otherwise you would have to pay another 5,000 miles for that last $28 (which is a poor value).
Delta Vacations lets you pay for vacation packages (air+hotel or air+car) with Delta SkyMiles. Miles are worth exactly 1 cent each when used that way.
Non-flight options for spending miles
- Flight upgrades: This usually offers poor value
- Premium Delta SkyClub drinks: Miles can be used to pay for top-shelf liquor at a value of 2 cents per miles. This is an excellent use of miles in my opinion.
- Delta gift cards: Don’t do this. You’ll get less than 1 cent per mile value.
- Magazines: If you want to subscribe to one of the available magazines, this can be a great deal. More here: Mags for Miles.
Delta Elite Status
Most airlines offer extra benefits to their most valuable customers. This is usually handled through elite status. If you fly enough with an airline, you can become “elite”. Of course, not all elites are equal. Most airlines have multiple elite tiers to differentiate their valuable customers from their really valuable customers. And, of course, airlines offer the best perks to their highest tier elites.
Delta does the same. They offer elite tiers ranging from Silver status to Diamond status. Silver status perks are only slightly better than those you get from holding a Delta branded credit card. Diamond perks, though, are very nice.
Delta’s top level Diamond Elites can choose global upgrade certificates as a choice benefit. These can be used to upgrade from economy to lie-flat business seats on international flights.
Delta elite status requirements
- MQMs: Medallion Qualifying Miles can be roughly thought of as the actual miles flown. It’s important to understand that these are different from redeemable miles which can be used to book award flights. MQMs are only used for earning elite status.
- MQSs: Medallion Qualifying Segments are the number of segments flown. Unless you fly a very large number of short flights, you are unlikely to earn elite status through MQSs.
- MQDs: Medallion Qualifying Dollars are the sum total of your base-fare spend (e.g. doesn’t include taxes) on Delta-marketed flights.
In general, to reach each elite tier, Delta SkyMiles members must earn the stated number of MQMs or MQSs and spend the targeted amount of MQDs. In other words, its not enough to just fly far or often, you also need to spend a lot of money with Delta.
Fortunately, there’s an easy exception to the MQD requirement for Platinum status and below: Simply spend $25,000 or more with Delta branded credit cards and the MQD requirement goes away. Even better, several Delta branded credit cards offer bonus MQMs for high spend, so it is possible to tackle both requirements (MQMs and MQDs) through spend without setting foot on a plane. Unfortunately, Delta requires $250,000 in credit card spend (across all Delta cards you have) to get a MQD waiver for top tier Diamond status.
Most airlines require that you fully re-earn status every calendar year. Delta is mostly that way too, but with one exception: if you earn elite status in a calendar year, any MQMs not used to reach status are rolled over to the next year. For example, if you earn 70,000 MQMs and meet Gold MQD requirements, you’ll earn Gold status (at 50,000 MQMs), and 20,000 MQMs will be rolled over to the next year to give you a jumpstart towards re-qualifying.
- Earn 145,000 MQMs and a MQD waiver up to Platinum elite status: Earn Platinum status (75K MQMs required) and 70,000 MQMs rollover to the next year.
- Earn 80,000 MQMs, but only enough MQDs to qualify for Silver status (25K MQMs required), and you haven’t earned a MQD waiver: Earn Silver status and 55,000 MQMs rollover.
- Earn 40,000 MQMs (or 40,000 MQMs rolled over from last year), but you haven’t earned enough MQDs to qualify for Silver status, nor have you earned a MQD waiver through credit card spend: No elite status. MQMs do not rollover.
Delta’s chart of elite benefits can be found here. Here’s a summarized chart I created:
The elite benefits I’ve personally found to be most valuable are:
- Unlimited complimentary upgrades (when available, upgrade from coach to first class on domestic flights). Higher status leads to better chance of upgrades.
- Waived same-day confirmed fees and waived same-day standby fees (switch to different flight on same day as ticketed flight). Requires Gold or higher.
- Complementary Comfort+ seats (more leg room, free drinks, better snacks).
- Free award changes and cancellations. This used to be huge, but now all awards originating in North America are free to change or cancel. Requires Platinum or higher for free changes on awards originating outside of North America.
- Regional upgrade certificates. Puts you to the front of the line for regional upgrades. This is great to use for flights where upgrades are most important to you. For example, I use these for flights of about 3 hours or longer. This is a choice benefit for Platinum and Diamond status. Upgrade certificates became more valuable recently when Delta added the ability to use them to upgrade award flights and made it possible to find upgrade availability online.
- Global upgrade certificates. Use these to upgrade from coach to business class on any international flight when upgrade space is available. In many cases the upgrade space won’t be available at the time of booking, but you can then waitlist for the upgrade. This is a choice benefit for Diamond status only. Upgrade certificates became more valuable recently when Delta added the ability to use them to upgrade award flights and made it possible to find upgrade availability online.
Elite earning on flights
On Delta marketed flights, elite earnings are straightforward:
- MQMs: Earn 1 Medallion Qualifying Mile for each mile flown, with bonuses based on class of service, as follows:
- Full-fare First & Business: 200% of distance flown
Fare Codes: F, J
- Discounted First, Discounted Business, Premium Select, and full-fare economy: 150%
Fare Codes: P, A, G, C, D, I, Z, Y, B
- Comfort+, Economy, Basic Economy: 100%
Fare Codes: M, S, H, Q, K, L, U, T, X, V, E
- Full-fare First & Business: 200% of distance flown
- MQDs: Earn 1 Medallion Qualifying Dollar for each dollar spent towards the base fare (e.g. doesn’t include taxes).
- MQSs: Earn 1 MQS for each segment flown
There are exceptions where elite earnings are different from above:
- Flights booked as part of vacation packages, cruise packages, consolidator fares, etc. are considered “exception fares”. With these flights, you’ll earn MQDs based one-fifth of the miles earned (and miles earned on these fares are a function of distance flown). For example, if you earn 10,000 miles on an exception fare, you’ll earn 2,000 MQDs. Details can be found here.
- Partner flights that are not marketed by Delta earn MQDs based on the fare class and distance flown. Details vary by partner. For example, with Virgin Atlantic premium economy fares, you’ll earn 30% of the miles flown as MQDs. For example, if you fly 6,000 miles, you’ll earn 2,000 MQDs. Details can be found here by partner airline.
Elite earning from credit cards
Where Delta differs from all other major airlines is that they offer a path to elite status that does not require flying. Via certain Delta branded American Express credit cards, it’s possible to spend your way to high level elite status.
You might wonder why bother earning elite status without flying? After all, the only way to enjoy those benefits is to fly, right? True, but there’s a difference between earning elite status through flying and enjoying elite status while flying. Most who earn elite status through flying, hate to book award flights for themselves because it means flying without earning more elite qualifying miles. Those who earn elite status through credit card spend don’t mind using miles to fly. You still get elite perks and you don’t have to worry about losing out on status earning.
Here are the options for elite earnings with each qualifying Delta credit card issued in the United States:
- Delta Platinum and Delta Platinum Business. For each $25K of calendar year spend (up to $50K), earn 10,000 MQMs (earn 12,500 MQMs in 2021).
- Delta Reserve and Delta Reserve Business. For each $30K of calendar year spend (up to $120K), earn 15,000 MQMs (earn 18,750 MQMs in 2021)
Additionally, with high spend you’ll earn MQD waivers, as follows:
- Silver, Gold, or Platinum MQD Waiver: Spend $25,000 within a calendar year (spend can be on one or more Delta cards)
- Diamond Waiver: Spend $250,000 within a calendar year (spend can be on one or more Delta cards)
Delta Platinum elites get to choose one Choice Benefit each year they qualify and Delta Diamond elites get to choose three Choice Benefits (in addition to the one from earning Platinum status).
To view your Choice Benefits options, click here to jump directly to the Choice Benefits page.
Platinum Choice Benefits
Here’s a list of Platinum Choice Benefits, sorted in order of my personal preference:
- Four Regional Upgrade Certificates: Book a heavily discounted economy flight and use a regional upgrade certificate to confirm an upgrade to first class for a one-way itinerary (or apply 2 for round-trip). If upgrade space is available at the time of booking, you can apply certificates to upgrade immediately. Otherwise, you can ask to use certificates to waitlist for first class. Then, if upgrade space becomes available before your flight, you’ll be moved to first class in advance. If upgrade space never appears, you’ll still be on the list for complementary upgrades before the flight, but by wait-listing you’ll move ahead of higher level elites who haven’t used their upgrade certificates. Note that upgrade certificates cannot be used with Basic Economy fares, but they can be used with award tickets. Certificates expire 1 year after they are claimed.
- 20,000 Bonus Miles: With miles worth about 1.2 cents each, this is like getting $240 in value. Miles never expire.
- Gift Silver Medallion Status: Gift Silver status to a friend. Be very careful about the end date of status. For selections made for 2021 Choice Benefits, recipient status is valid through January 31, 2022; for selections made for 2022 Choice Benefits, recipient status is valid through January 31, 2023.
- $200 Travel Voucher or Retail Gift Card: $200 Delta Travel Voucher is valid for 12 months from the date of issuance. $200 Tiffany & Co. gift card doesn’t expire. In my opinion most people would be much better off taking 20,000 bonus miles instead of either of these options.
Diamond Choice Benefits
Here’s a list of Diamond Choice Benefits, sorted in order of my personal preference:
- Upgrade certificates: 4 Global, or 8 Regional, or 2 Global AND 4 Regional. I love the global upgrade certificates. Consider that we often see dirt-cheap flights to Europe. You could buy dirt-cheap economy tickets but still fly in lie-flat business class (Delta One) by applying these certificates. Often you’ll have to wait-list for the upgrade, but my wife and I have had nearly 100% success in clearing the upgrades so far. Even better, the ability to use these upgrades with partners such as Air France, KLM, and Virgin Atlantic keeps improving. Note that upgrade certificates cannot be used with Basic Economy fares, but they can be used with award tickets. Certificates expire 1 year after they are claimed.
- Delta Sky Club Individual Membership. If you don’t have a Delta Reserve or non-Delta Amex Platinum card then this is a valuable option for gaining free access to SkyClubs when flying Delta. Note that this membership does not allow you to enter unless you’re flying Delta same-day (Delta imposes the same rules on those with credit card access).
- Gift Gold status. To achieve Gold status, some people go to great lengths with end of year mileage runs, or they pay Delta outrageous prices for an end of year status boost. This is a great alternative. Be very careful about the end date of status. For selections made for 2021 Choice Benefits, recipient status is valid through January 31, 2022; for selections made for 2022 Choice Benefits, recipient status is valid through January 31, 2023.
- Delta Sky Club Guest Options:
- Delta Sky Club Guest Pass (Credit Card Access). Many get access to Delta SkyClubs when flying Delta thanks to having either Delta Reserve or non-Delta Amex Platinum cards. This benefit lets you bring in up to two guests.
- Delta Sky Club Executive Membership. With Executive Membership you can guest in up to 2 people per visit. If you don’t already have an Individual Membership, Delta will charge you two Choice Benefits to get Executive Membership.
- 25,000 Bonus Miles. With Delta miles worth about 1.2 cents each towards award flights, this benefit is worth about $300 in flights. One cool feature of the 25K miles choice benefit is that you can optionally gift the miles to someone else.
- $200 Travel Voucher or retail gift card. Choose either a $200 Delta travel voucher which expires in 1 year or a $200 Tiffany & Co gift card. In my opinion most people would be much better off taking 25,000 bonus miles since they’re worth at least $250 off flights.
Pick more than one: If you really like a particular Choice Benefit, you may be able to select the same benefit multiple times. Here are the Diamond Choice Benefits where you’re allowed to pick more than one…
- Gift Gold status. You can gift Gold status to up to 3 people by spending all 3 Choice Benefits on this option.
- 25,000 Bonus Miles. If you want 50,000 or 75,000 miles you can apply multiple Choice Benefits. You can also keep 25K or 50K for yourself and gift the rest.
- $200 Travel Voucher or retail gift card. Please don’t.
When to choose Choice Benefits?
All Choice Benefits must be selected by the time your earned status expires. That translates to the end of January, two calendar years after you earned status. For example, if you earned Diamond status in 2020 for the 2021 calendar year, then your status is good until January 31, 2022. You must select all of your Choice Benefits by that date or you’ll lose them. It’s important to understand though that some of the options are useless if you wait until the last moment to pick them. Sky Club access options and gifted elite status expire when your earned elite status expires (Jan 31 on the second year after status was earned).
Choice Benefits to choose as soon as possible
The following benefits are only valid until your elite year is complete (i.e. through January 2022 for those who earned Diamond status in 2020):
- Gift Silver/Gold status
- Delta Sky Club Individual Membership
- Delta Sky Club Guest Options:
- Delta Sky Club Guest Pass (Credit Card Access)
- Delta Sky Club Executive Membership
Choice Benefits worth waiting for
Some benefits are good for a year from the time they are selected:
- Upgrade certificates: These are good for a year after they are selected. So, wait until you’re ready to book a flight that you want to upgrade. Note though that if your upgrade is wait-listed, it is good to get on that list as soon as possible in order to have upgrade priority over others.
- $200 Travel Voucher: I don’t recommend this option, but if you pick it against my advice, then wait until you really need it. The voucher expires after a year.
Choice Benefits that can be chosen any time
These options have no time constraints regarding when they must be used:
- 25000 Bonus Miles
- $200 retail gift card: I don’t recommend this option
Status Match Challenge
If you have elite status with another airline, you may be able to qualify for Delta’s Status Match Challenge. This will give you three months of Delta Medallion status plus the ability to earn a full year of status with fewer MQMs and MQDs than normally required.
To extend your matched status past three months, you must earn the following numbers of MQMs or MQSs, & MQDs during the three month trial period:
American Express issues seven different Delta credit cards in the United States. Click into any of the following credit card displays for more info about each card:
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