What I really think about Delta’s frequent flyer program


Last week, feeling hurt that United was getting all of the negative attention for their devaluation, Delta jumped in and devalued their SkyMiles program once again (see “Delta FURTHER Devalues SkyMiles“).  That set off an entertaining series of posts as follows:

I couldn’t help but give my own mostly joking answer in the comments.

Gary re-published my 5 joke responses, but not my final “on a serious note”.  Here is what I worte, in full:

Sure, I’ll defend them:

1. For those who enjoy puzzles, Delta.com can provide days of enjoyment while you try to piece together a saver level award.
2. With other programs, its tough to part with your miles since they’re so valuable. No such issue with SkyMiles.
3. Pay with Miles. At 1 cent per mile value, only Delta can make a credible claim that this is a good deal.
4. One way and round trip awards for the same price. Most people see this as a negative, but instead you could think of it as a free return trip with each one-way award!
5. The fact that they make award chart changes effective immediately without prior notice is great. By pissing off their loyal customers, I hope enough of them will abandon Delta so that I can get upgrades and saver level awards more easily!

On a serious note, I do love that they allow stop-overs and open jaws on domestic awards. I use that a lot and actually do get good value from my miles.

Let’s look at each of my points from that comment to see what I really think…

1. Days of “enjoyment” piecing together awards

Delta has an unbelievably bad award search tool.  Here’s a typical experience I’ve had when searching for awards:

  • Look for a Detroit to Paris award.  Delta.com shows saver level availability if I connect in Amsterdam, but no non-stop flights at that level.
  • OK, Amsterdam sounds nice, so maybe we’ll stop there.  Let’s just look for non-stop Detroit to Amsterdam.  Oh, there’s one at the saver level, but it requires a stop in Paris!
  • Try Detroit to Paris again, and once again it requires a stop in Amsterdam.  Ahhhh!!!!
  • After deciding on my exact itinerary, I write down each leg of the trip that has shown saver level availability and input all of them one by one into the multi-city search tool.  I get it to price correctly (after many hours of struggle).  I click “book it” and I get an error message saying that something is wrong.  Thanks Delta.com!

2. Easier to part with miles

It’s true that I value most other airline mile currencies more highly than Delta’s, but there’s more going on than just that.  There are a few reasons that I’d rather part with Delta miles than others:

  1. I value other mile programs more because they tend to have better award availability at lower award prices.  Finding saver level awards on Delta can be near impossible.  Finding saver level awards with United miles tends to be relatively easy.  Also, most other programs allow for international first class awards.  Delta does not (they allow Business Class, but not First Class on international flights).
  2. Fear of more devaluation.  Delta might switch to revenue based redemptions at any time.  When that happens, getting more than 1 cent per mile value for awards will probably be impossible (unless they copy Southwest’s approach to giving more value to points when used to redeem for cheaper seats).
  3. Free changes.  Thanks to my having Platinum elite status with Delta, I can book awards and change or cancel them for free up to 72 hours before departure.  As a result, I prefer to book Delta awards because they are refundable.
  4. Easier to get miles.  Well, this isn’t entirely true…  Thanks to Chase’s Ultimate Rewards program, I tend to rack up those points more easily than any other (and those points are transferrable to United, Southwest, British Airways, etc.).  But, in order to maintain Delta elite status, I put a lot of spend on Delta credit cards and predictably earn huge numbers of miles (see “Mileage running, from home“).  And, for people with the SunTrust debit card, there are many ways to easily earn hundreds of thousands of miles for little or no cost.

So, yes, given my circumstances, I’d rather part with Delta miles than most other miles.

3. Pay with Miles

Delta Amex cardholders can use their miles to pay for a flight regardless of award availability at a rate of 1 cent per mile as long (as you redeem miles for at least $250 towards a ticket).  Airline miles don’t excite me if all I can get is 1 cent per mile value.  If that’s all I’m going to get, I might as well stick with cash back credit cards instead (and I’m increasingly thinking that is the way to go).  However, as Delta devalues their program more and more, it’s nice that they’ve set a floor on how little a mile can be worth.  At least my miles are worth that much!  Maybe I’m just an optimist, but I think its unlikely they’ll lower the value for the Pay with Miles option to less than a penny per mile.

4. One way awards

It’s incredibly frustrating that Delta doesn’t allow one way awards for half the price of round trip.  And, it’s almost criminal that they publish their award chart as if they do.  Here’s a small section of their award chart:


Notice that they list economy class domestic awards as costing 12,500 miles.  But, there is no way to book an award for that much!  If you book a one-way award at the Saver level, it will cost the same as round trip: 25,000 miles.  US Airways has the same policy of requiring round trip awards, but they publish their award prices as you would expect.  They’re quite clear that the best you can do is 25,000 miles for a domestic award:


5. No notice regarding changes

Most airlines give some notice before major award price changes take effect.  For example, with United’s recent massive devaluation, they announced the changes recently but told us that they wouldn’t go into effect until February.  Until then, we can book awards at the old rates, even for dates of travel after February.  That’s a customer friendly way of delivering a customer unfriendly devaluation.  Delta, though, has announced changes effective immediately.  If you want to fly Delta next summer on an award ticket, you’ll pay the new prices.  Period.  There was no chance to hurry and book awards before the new prices took effect.  Sorry Delta, but that sucks.

6. Stop-overs and open-jaws on domestic awards

This may be the only advantage that Delta’s frequent flyer program has over its competition, but to me it’s a big one.  For the price of one award ticket, Delta will let you book a more flexible itinerary than with a paid ticket.  You can use these flexible routing rules to book multiple destinations within one trip, or even to book one and half separate trips for the price of one (Delta still thinks of them as one trip, but to you they’ll be separate).  It’s outside the scope of this post to go into details about these options.  Instead, please see these posts:


Wrap up

There’s little doubt in my mind that Delta has one of the worst frequent flyer programs in the country.  That doesn’t mean it’s a bad airline though!  While its far from amazing, I mostly like flying Delta, and I love their safety videos (really!).  Since I live near a Delta hub, Delta often is the only good option for getting me to where I want to go.  So, to me, having Delta status and Delta Skymiles is valuable.  That combination makes it possible for me to fly non-stop on my preferred airline more often than not, and I usually get reasonably good value from those miles.

If I didn’t live near a Delta hub, I probably wouldn’t even consider collecting Delta SkyMiles.  But I do, so I will.  Until the next devaluation…

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marathon man

What I like about Delta is this:

1) For me, it is the best and most convenient way to travel from home to see family, non stop.

2) It is almost always available for me at the lowest redemption level they have (and yes that goes up but so did UA so there) and sometimes I can even find those award flights a week before travel! That is not usually doable (and rarely without fees, mind you) if you have no status and are trying to do this with AA, for example.

3) When DL devalues, we know it already. It is par for the course so no big deal. Oh well. But when UA does, we feel a shock. i would rather know I am dying and live it up til I kick it, than to go out there thinking I am fine only to be killed and done.

4) besides, generally speaking, there are several ways to combat devaluation through the printing of DL miles. You cannot do this with UA right now, and AA has a method but it’s half as good and twice as slow with many times the limits.


All true.


Frequent Miler, seeing that you live outside Suntrust’s service area, have you had success getting a bank account with Suntrust and their debit card?


Brandon: I did get a Suntrust card during my Million Mile Madness adventure last March. But, they closed my account before I had a chance to use it. I’m going to try getting my wife to signup when we visit Florida.


What I’d like to hear about from Delta flyers is do the take offs and landings make your ears hurt like an American old rickety ass plane does? And when you board are there one or two passengers left to board like an American flight that does not have status??


I’ve seen you repeatedly be down on delta, and have never been included to respond, but since I get now why we have divergent opinions, I’ll take some time to respond.

I am a business traveler, and I fly almost every week out of Austin. I fly to accomplish work, and I greatly prefer having a decent experience in exchange for having to be away from family. I am Delta, with enough Southwest a year to keep companion pass, changed from American. I stopped reading post above about the day of flight experience, because I don’t want to parrot it, but I expect I will agree 100%.

1. Only Delta (and southwest to a much lesser degree) have credit cards that give you butts in seats miles. I have both the delta reserve and the personal cards. That gives me *50k* MQM’s that I don’t have to fly and maintain or increase status. That is *40%* of the required flying I don’t have to fly. I flipped diamond in October.

2. Delta gives all levels a chance at a free upgrade. I got *scores and scores and scores* of upgrades from Delta as a platinum. I NEVER got an upgrade from American EVER.

For me, I can stop there. Getting upgraded almost every flight, as platinum, is so dramatically better than I ever had with American it is unquestionable. Day of flight experience is the critical factor. As such, on a minor note, ATL is a dramatically dramatically better airport than DFW if you have to layover.

Obviously I intend to use the points, but I am not too worked up about 2.5-5k points, which is the apparently range of most of the stuff people with families are likely to book (and no change on economy class)


Dustin: I actually haven’t meant to sound down on Delta. I think that their SkyMiles program is severely lacking, but I think that the airline on a whole is very well run. And, as others have pointed out, it is still possible to get very good value from Delta SkyMiles. It’s just more work.


Can you comment to my #1 and #2 in context of the comment “SkyMiles program is severely lacking?” I don’t know if you are making a distinction between the skymiles program and the frequent flyer program, but 1 and 2 = I’m a delta lifer, and I suppose I technically fall into American territory in Austin.

(Which brings me to my crazy idea that Delta should make Austin a hub as a jumpoff to the west and south, to counteract american in dallas and united in houston, but hey, I can dream)


Dustin: Sure. My dislike is mostly around redeeming miles. The elite program is pretty good. Specifically:
1) I agree that the ability to earn elite status through spend on the Delta cards is fantastic. I do that myself.
2) Coming from a Delta hub, even as a Platinum Medallion, I rarely get free upgrades with Delta. There are too many Diamond Medallions! I think that it just depends on which routes you fly and what time of day/week as to whether upgrades are likely or not. That said, I like that we always have the opportunity to get upgraded.


Are you planning on doing a write up of your analysis on 2% cash back cards. Would be interested on seeing your thoughts behind considering the move


Daniel: Yes, I think its time to revisit the benefits of earning cash (or cash equivalents) instead of miles!


After a pretty miserable round trip with connections from SFO-BOS in FC on AA I am rethinking the whole idea of whether guaranteed FC with connections is better than non-stop in coach……….where your hub is really pushes one toward that airline, like it or not…….


I agree with THEsocalledfan. I have scored the direct fly fron DTW to CDG in business for 100000 on Air France (X2, me and my wife) several times. Then you fly Air France to the rest of the world from CDG. I guess it will cost know 125000 miles, still a good value in my book.


Good post miler. They only thing that you missed, is despite what the other bloggers state, I don’t have that hard of time finding low tier biz availability to Europe on Alitalia and Air France which, at least for now, Delta lets you book at the 100k-125k rate depending on when you go. Last I checked, that is a heck of lot cheaper for miles than what United will be giving for partners…..

I think the puzzle thing must be what scares folks off; once you know how to solve the puzzle by avoiding Delta seats, it really ain’t that hard to find the seats at the price you want. I admit, I have not tried for Asia.


THEsocalledfan: That’s true: for some routes Delta’s saver availability seems to actually be pretty good (even on Delta metal occasionally). I do think it is fair to say, though, that on average it is much easier to find Star Alliance availability.


Quite honestly, at this point, customers need to start considering their day of travel experience. We all know the inevitable, they all are going to points per $ program.

It is time to give more weigh on day of travel experience and benefits. What airline truly goes out of their way to take care of their customers? What airline offers convenience? What airline gets you to your destination with ease?

Frequent Flyer program(s) should be an afterthought. Or else, one will be disappointed, upset often and frustrated. FF programs used to be worthwhile going out of your way to stick with certain airlines for its attractive redemption opportunities. Not so much anymore and it is going to be a lot worst in that regard a few years down the road.

So, time to stop preaching people to stick with Airline A because their miles are more valuable. Start talking about what airline takes care of their customer, offers superior onboard experience, the competitiveness of their elite program, the reliability of their operation, ease of travel with multiple partners [is it easier to connect to smaller points in Europe through *A? OneWorld? Skyteam?], etc.

Those are the questions that should be addressed more often in the blogosphere and the answers to those questions should be the primary factors of how one chooses an airline going forward.


@golfingboy You seem to have hit the ball squarely down the fairway 400 yards……


I agree. I think there are two very different things to consider: 1) which airline(s) to fly regularly; and 2) which airline miles to collect outside of flying. The first should be driven by quality and convenience of flights and price. The second should be driven by: 1) how easy is it to collect those miles and 2) how valuable are those miles for redemption. It is really just on that last point (the value of miles for redemption) where Delta falls short.


I actually like the pay with miles option for business and first class tickets, especially if I am a little short of cash at the time. You get your 1 cent a mile, but you also earn the miles (and segments) for the flight.