What are Delta miles worth? (towards domestic economy flights)

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Two years ago, after collecting data and crunching numbers, I determined that Delta SkyMiles were worth an average of 1.2 cents per mile towards domestic flights.  Now, I’ve collected new data, crunched the new numbers, and found that the value has inched up to 1.3 cents per mile for non-cardholders, and has jumped all the way to 1.5 cents per mile for those with Delta Gold, Platinum, and Reserve cards thanks to the new TakeOff 15 award discount for those cardholders.

a large airplane on a tarmac

At Frequent Miler, we keep a database of point valuations (we call these “Reasonable Redemption Values“).  These are point estimates of airline miles, hotel points, transferable points, and more.  The idea is that we try to identify the value at which it is “reasonable” to get that much value or more from your points.  This information is critical for making informed decisions.  In fact, it’s a key component of the First Year Value information shown on our Best Credit Card Offers page, and it’s similarly used to show which cards offer the best value for everyday spend, and which offer the best category bonuses.

a map of the united states
Image courtesy of Great Circle Mapper. Shown above are the airline markets used to estimate airline mile reasonable redemption values.

Reasonable Redemption Value Process

Most airline miles are redeemed in the United States for domestic flights.  To identify the value of redeeming miles for domestic flights, I put together a list of 8 of the busiest airports (or airport markets) in the United States which are also spread out geographically across the lower 48 states.  The airports and airport markets I selected are:

  • New York Metro Area (NYC)
  • Washington DC Metro Area (WAS)
  • Atlanta (ATL)
  • Los Angeles (LAX)
  • Chicago Metro Area (CHI)
  • Dallas Fort Worth (DFW)
  • Denver (DEN)
  • Seattle (SEA)

I then setup a list of airport pairs so that one-way flights between every airport (or metro area) listed above were accounted for.  This resulted in a list of 28 airport pairs.

For each of the 28 airport pairs, I identified a one-way flight and recorded both the cash price and the mile price (plus fees).  Here is the process for picking a flight departure date:

Departure date: Look 3 months from today’s date and find the closest Wednesday.  For example, if it is currently February 9, 2023 when collecting data, then look forward to May 9 and find the Wednesday closest to that date (May 10, 2023).

For any given airport pairing and date, there are usually many flight options.  In order to identify a specific flight for each airport pair, I came up with a scenario to try to make a realistic real world choice.  The idea is that the person booking the flight doesn’t want to have to get up too early in the morning, prefers nonstop flights, wants an actual seat assignment in advance, and would like to arrive before 5:30pm in order to make it to a late dinner.  So, I used these rules as a guideline:

  1. No flights before 7:30 am (6:30 from west coast flying east)
  2. Arrive no later than 5:30pm
  3. No more than 1 stop (prefer nonstop)
  4. Prefer cheapest flight
  5. Prefer shortest connection
  6. Never pick basic economy
  7. No preference for particular airport in a metro area (this last rule was the least realistic, but useful for collecting the data quickly)

Calculations

For each flight, I recorded the following pieces of information:

  • Cash price
  • Cash ticket miles earned (Non-elite members earn 5 miles per dollar)
  • Award miles required (I collected both the miles required without a discount and with the 15% off cardmember discount)
  • Award fees ($5.60 TSA fee)

With the above, I calculated the Cents Per Mile (CPM) value of Delta miles, as follows:

  • CPM = 100 x (Cash price – Award fees) / (Award miles required + Cash ticket miles earned)

By including the cash ticket miles earned in the above formula, we calculate a more conservative value for our miles.  The idea is to account for the fact that when you book an award ticket you give up earning miles from that flight and so the cost in miles to you is both the award cost plus the miles not earned from a cash flight.

Findings

I calculated the CPM, as described above, for all 28 flights via Delta.com.  Here are the results:

2/9/23 Analysis
15% Discount
2/9/23 Analysis
No Discount
3/16/21 Analysis
Median CPM 1.5 1.3 1.2
Minimum CPM 0.7 0.6 1.0
Maximum CPM 1.7 1.4 1.7

Since the 2021 analysis, the undiscounted median CPM inched up from 1.2 to 1.3, but the minimum and maximums both went down.  So, even though the average CPM is slightly better today, in 2021 we seemingly had less chance of getting badly burned (with an 0.6 CPM) and a better chance of getting outsized value (1.7).

The discounted median CPM of 1.5 is obviously a big improvement from what we had before.

Conclusion

The exercise described above resulted in a new Reasonable Redemption Value (RRV) for Delta miles.  Where we previously pegged Delta miles as being worth 1.2 cents each, we now list Delta miles as being worth 1.3 cents each.  I consider that an extremely conservative estimate since it doesn’t take into account the 15% off discount now available to cardmembers.

Please keep in mind that this does not mean that you will always get 1.3 cents per mile value from your Delta miles.  Most likely, if you’re not a cardholder, you’ll sometimes find better than 1.3 cents per mile value and sometimes you’ll find worse.  And if you are a cardholder, you’ll sometimes find better than 1.5 cents per mile value and sometimes worse.  And that’s specifically with domestic flights when no award flash sales are going on.  There are a number of ways to get better value from Delta miles.  For details, see: Best uses for Delta miles.

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