The truth about Delta


Delta has long been the punching bag of airline programs for those in the miles & points hobby… for good reason.  For years, their award booking website was famously broken; saver level awards (e.g. such as 25,000 mile domestic round trip awards) seemed to be more myth than reality; one-way awards used to cost as much as round-trip; and Delta freely changed their award chart without notice.  Getting outsized value from Delta SkyMiles was possible, but it was a lot of work.

Delta sucks

Now things have changed, but not all for the better:

  • Delta changed the way miles are earned.  Customers now earn miles based on the amount paid rather than miles flown.
  • Delta took away free award stop-overs and open-jaws. Previously, these were key to eking out value from SkyMiles.
  • Delta introduced true one-way award pricing (a good thing!)
  • Delta’s online booking tool now works pretty well, BUT when an itinerary includes multiple legs on different aircraft types, all heck breaks loose.  This important nuance is outside of the scope of this post, but you can read all of the gory details over at  One Mile at a Time.

And, more recently:

  • Delta removed their award charts from their website.  Today, the only way to know how much an award might cost is to actually try to book it.
  • Delta increased award rates for most flights departing within 21 days.  As I’ve explained before, this seems to be an alternative to adding a close-in booking fee, which is common with other airlines.
  • Delta announced that “For travel on or after June 1, 2016, the number of miles needed will change based on destination, demand and other dynamics.”  Most industry observers interpret this to mean that Delta will move even closer to a revenue based redemption model.  That is, award prices will based on the cash price of the same itinerary at the time of booking.

In reaction to the above changes, many blogs and forums have weighed in against Delta.  I’ve done so myself a few times, too, including this recent post: What Delta said. What Delta meant. What Delta wanted to say.

Now, ridiculing Delta’s program has gone mainstream.  On August 1, the New York Times published “Guesswork in Cashing In Delta’s Frequent-Flier Miles”.  There, the main complaint was Delta’s removal of award charts, and the fact that they have been increasingly tying award prices to paid ticket prices.  The end result of this move will likely be that it will be impossible to get outsized value from SkyMiles.  When earning rewards from credit card spend, the article accurately states that most people will get better value from 2% cash back cards than from miles earned from the Delta Gold credit card.

Then, there was this article from The Business Journals, that held back no punches:

SkyMiles, its frequent flyer program, is offensively, aggressively awful. And the general public and business travelers in specific are beginning to judge everything the airline does through the lens of the carrier’s parsimonious, disingenuous and disreputable management of SkyMiles.

The truth is… complicated

If you walk into a room full of miles & points enthusiasts and ask about Delta, you’re likely to hear more than one person assert vehemently that “Delta sucks”.  Many blogs say the same thing, but usually with a bit more nuance.  So, is that true?  Does Delta suck?

Flying Delta doesn’t suck

No one that I’ve talked to argues that Delta is a worse airline for flying.  In fact, in many ways I’d argue that they’re better than their primary rivals: United and American Airlines.  In my opinion, Delta has done a better job than AA and United in on-time arrivals, avoiding cancellations, dealing with delays, upgrading their aircraft, providing wi-fi and inflight entertainment on all flights, and providing reasonably tasty food on-board.  In other words, relative to their competition, flying Delta does not suck.

Delta’s elite program doesn’t suck

Even Delta’s loyalty program does not suck across the board.  One very important aspect of airline loyalty programs is the set of elite benefits given to their most valuable customers.  Does Delta’s elite program suck?  In my opinion, no.  In fact, there are a few features of Delta’s elite program that are, to me, better than the competition:

  • Rollover MQMs: Delta awards elite status based on earning a certain number of MQMs (Medallion Qualifying Miles) each year. You can think of these as miles flown.  At 25,000 MQMs you get Silver status; 50,000 Gold; 75,000 Platinum; and 125,000 Diamond.  Any MQMs earned above the status level reached are automatically rolled over to the next year.  For example, if you earn 65,000 MQMs in a calendar year, you will be granted Gold status for the rest of that year and all of the next year and 15,000 MQMs will roll over to the next year.
  • Unlimited complimentary domestic upgrades, even on awards: AA provides unlimited upgrades only to their top tier elites and does not upgrade award tickets. United does offer upgrades on award tickets, but only if you are a United credit card holder.  Delta requires Gold status or higher to get upgrades on award tickets.
  • Regional upgrade certificates: Platinum elites can choose to get 4 regional upgrade certificates each year that they qualify for Platinum status.  These can be used to upgrade from economy to first class at the time of booking, if available, or waitlist for an upgrade and essentially “jump the line” in the upgrade queue.
  • Global upgrade certificates: Diamond elites can choose to get 4 global upgrade certificates each year that they qualify for Diamond status.  These can be used to upgrade to business class on a purchased international economy ticket.  Upgrades are processed immediately when upgrade space is available.  Otherwise, the request is waitlisted and should be automatically processed if/when upgrade space becomes available.  American Airlines arguably offers a much better deal to their top tier elites: 8 systemwide upgrades that can be applied to yourself or to others.  That said, I personally find Delta’s global upgrade certificates to be more valuable simply because Delta has a stronger worldwide route network than AA.

On the other hand, there are areas where Delta’s program is below-par:

  • No award changes within 72 hours of departure: While Delta does waive award change and redeposit fees for Platinum and Diamond elites, they don’t officially allow changes to awards within 72 hours of departure.  Unofficially, phone agents do have the ability to waive this restriction.
  • Same day confirmed changes: Delta waives same day changes for Gold and higher elites, but they don’t waive a crazy restriction: With economy fares,  you can only be rebooked in the same fare class as your original flight.  This is a BIG problem since discount fare classes are rarely available within 24 hours of a flight.

The two issues listed above aren’t really specific to Delta’s elite program per se, but they do limit the value one can get from the waived fees that come with elite status.

Overall, Delta’s elite program has positives and negatives, but as a whole I think its pretty good.

Delta branded credit cards: suck for some, but not all

There are three different Delta branded Amex cards in the US: Gold, Platinum, and Delta Reserve.  The pros and cons of each card are complicated.  Whether or not each card is good or bad for you depends on many factors: Is priority boarding important to you? Do you often fly Delta and check bags?  Do you have elite status? Do you want to use your card to help secure status in the future?  Would you otherwise pay for lounge access?

Full details can be found in these write-ups:

To cut to the chase, if you primarily use Delta credit cards to earn miles for free trips then you can almost certainly do better with any number of other credit cards, including no-fee 2% cash back cards such as the Citi Double Cash card or the Fidelity Investment Rewards American Express.  However, if you keep the cards for the perks (and you get good value from those perks), or to help secure elite status (and you value elite status), then the cards certainly do not suck.

One other thing to note: Delta credit card holders can choose to pay for any flight with miles at a value of 1 cent per mile.  Usually, award tickets offer better value than that, but at least this feature puts a bottom floor on the value of SkyMiles.  One cent per mile is far from great, but this feature does make it ridiculous for people to argue that SkyMiles are worthless.  They may very well be worth less than other airline mile currencies, but they’re not worthless.

Delta SkyMiles earnings from flying sucks for most

Delta used to award SkyMiles based on the number of miles flown, regardless of the price of a ticket.  Now, they award between 5 and 11 SkyMiles per dollar, depending upon your elite level.  Those who frequently fly short, but expensive flights, will earn many more miles than before.  Most people, though, are likely to earn significantly fewer miles than before.  So, compared to how things used to be, and compared to airlines that have not yet moved to revenue based miles earnings, for many people Delta sucks.

Delta SkyMiles award redemptions mostly suck, and may suck worse in the future (but not for everyone)

As I mentioned early in this post, with a lot of effort it used to be possible to get outsized value from Delta SkyMiles.  There were an endless collection of tricks that insiders could use to secure saver level awards, book 3 trips for the price of 2, etc.  With the new SkyMiles program, most of those tricks are history.  Today it is still possible to get good value from Delta SkyMiles (e.g. around 2 cents per mile) or great value from Delta partners, but usually just with extremely simple itineraries.  As itineraries involve more segments on more aircraft types, the chance of getting a good priced award drops substantially.

As Delta moves to a revenue based redemption model (tying award prices to ticket prices), many fear that all options for high value redemptions will go away.  For the sake of argument, let’s assume that the worst will happen and Delta will include partner awards in their new model.  In that case, Delta will probably peg all awards to a value of between 1 and 1.5 cents per mile (that’s just my best guess).  For those who like to eek out the most value from their miles (i.e. most of my readers), this will definitely suck.

There are many, though, who will benefit greatly from the new redemption model.  Yes, really.  Many people have always done what Delta now wants everyone to do: they’ve let the award engine (or a phone rep) tell them how much an award costs (in miles) and have happily paid those miles to get their “free” trip.  What this means is that many people have blindly received far worse than 1 cent per mile value from their SkyMiles.  While its not certain, it is likely that the new program (post June 1, 2016) will result in all award bookings returning 1 cent per mile value, or better.  In other words, people who don’t know better will likely be better off than they were before.


To grossly oversimplify things, the truth about Delta is:

  1. Delta is a very good airline
  2. Delta’s credit cards are good for some, but a waste for others
  3. Delta’s SkyMiles program is significantly less rewarding than some other programs for those who seek to earn free trips, but for those who primarily value elite status perks its not bad at all.

Of course, opinions expressed here are my own.  And, based on prior experience in writing about Delta, there are bound to be extreme reactions to this post.  Some will angrily describe me as a Delta apologist.  Others will say that I’m wrong about SkyMiles: in their experience, they get great value.  Go for it – write your opinions below.   I expect that the comments on this post will be an entertaining read.

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