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If you're looking for a frequent flyer program that offers business and first class international travel for a reasonable number of miles, Delta Air Lines SkyMiles isn’t your frequent flyer program. Still, the program does offer Delta loyalists a few ways to get a little bit of extra value out of their SkyMiles.
Here are a few strategies to maximize your Delta SkyMiles by redeeming them for high-value award flights.
What are Delta SkyMiles worth?
The baseline Delta SkyMiles value is 1.2 cents each when redeemed for economy tickets, according to NerdWallet's analysis. Because Delta did away with its award chart and pegs the prices of award tickets to the cash prices of the same flights, it is fairly difficult to do any better (or worse) than that value.
However, not every award is dynamically priced, and it is in these deviations from dynamic pricing that we find most Delta SkyMiles sweet spots. Will you get a round-trip award ticket to Europe for less than 240,000 SkyMiles? Very rarely. Can you get 2 cents per mile out of your SkyMiles with a little bit of work? Absolutely.
If you're holding a mountain of SkyMiles, here are some ways that you can squeeze a little bit of extra value out of them.
Best ways to use Delta SkyMiles
1. Delta flash sales
Probably the best use of Delta SkyMiles is through the airline's flash sales. Delta runs both advertised and unadvertised flash sales with limited-time discounts between certain city pairs on certain dates.
Booking tickets offered in a Delta flash sale can yield some incredible deals. These sales frequently feature one-way airfares within the United States starting at 5,000 miles in the main cabin; sometimes airfares have been spotted for as few as 2,500 miles each way.
Flash sales aren’t just for domestic travel; Delta often runs flash sales to Europe, discounting round-trip travel below 40,000 miles for a main cabin ticket. This past summer, as Australia opened up for travel, Delta even ran a 70,000-mile round-trip flash sale to Australia.
Many of Delta’s flash sale fares can be found on Delta’s website, where you can see current flash sale deals from your city. That said, some flash sales are unannounced. You might stumble upon those by doing a web search or by following updates from sites that track airfare deals.
» Learn more: How to save on Delta flights
2. International partner awards, particularly in coach
Unless Delta is running a flash sale, the prices that Delta charges for its flights in SkyMiles generally track the cash prices of the same flights. However, there is an exception: Redemptions on Delta airline partners.
While Delta doesn’t publish an award chart, it does offer fixed-price awards on partners when they open up award ticket availability. If you search for award availability on a route served by partners and see a block of dates with a consistent, lower price, that price is almost always going to be on a partner airline.
If you're looking to maximize the value of your SkyMiles, look for partner award tickets in coach that have relatively high cash prices.
For example, I searched for one-way tickets from New York-JFK to Munich in coach using Delta’s flexible dates search, and was presented the following award calendar.
All of those 35,000-mile award tickets are on Delta’s partner Air France-KLM. Equivalent tickets on Air France and KLM during this time period were priced around $790 for one-way travel. That means your miles are worth about 2.3 cents apiece in this redemption — way above NerdWallet's benchmark.
If you're looking to make the most of your SkyMiles, you can also find some value through business class awards on partners.
Below are the results of a search I did for business class award tickets between New York-JFK and Paris. Like the coach search above, all of the lowest-priced flights are on partners, mostly direct flights on Air France and connections through London-Heathrow on Virgin Atlantic. None of the lowest-priced flights are on Delta planes.
Since the equivalent business class flights were typically pricing at around $3,400, these redemptions are getting you around 2.8 cents per mile.
However, it’s worth mentioning that Delta’s lower-priced partner awards are still much higher than what other airline programs charge for the same flights. Where Delta charges 120,000 SkyMiles, Air France is charging 55,000 Flying Blue miles, less than half of what Delta is asking.
If you hold AmEx Membership Rewards points, which can be transferred to Delta SkyMiles or Flying Blue, you will get much more value by transferring those points to Flying Blue where you’ll find many of these same flights bookable for less than what Delta charges.
» Learn more: Plan your next redemption with our airline points tool
3. Lower award prices and cash fees on some international partners
Outside of Europe, you’ll find that Delta actually does sometimes price award flights lower than its international partners — and it charges lower fuel surcharges, taxes and fees as well. These savings vary by region, route and partner, but it can be worth checking because you might be able to save both miles and money.
For example, Delta offers flights on Korean Air and connecting itineraries on China Airlines from Seoul/Incheon to Hong Kong for 17,500 miles each way, plus 28,000 Korean won (about $20 at the time of writing).
Other SkyTeam partners like Flying Blue offer these same awards at higher prices, with much higher cash co-pays. The amount you’ll have to pay for taxes and fees could be closer to $90.
In some regions, you may pay a few thousand more miles with Delta, but you may end up saving several hundred dollars in cash by booking through Delta rather than a partner airline.
If you're booking an international flight on a SkyTeam member airline outside the U.S. and Europe, it can be worth looking up the award price with Delta to see if you can save some cash.
» Learn more: The best travel credit cards right now
4. Earning elite status
If you're chasing Delta elite status, the award tickets you book with your SkyMiles can help you achieve it. Earning status with award tickets is an under appreciated perk of using SkyMiles.
Currently, Delta is one of the few U.S. airlines — the other notable one is Southwest — that allows you to earn credit toward elite status by flying on award tickets.
If you book a ticket using SkyMiles on a Delta-marketed flight, you will earn Medallion Qualifying Miles (MQM), Medallion Qualifying Segments (MQS) and Medallion Qualification Dollars (MQD) for the flight.
MQMs are based on the distance flown.
MQSs are awarded per segment.
MQDs are awarded based on the number of SkyMiles paid for the ticket, divided by 100. For example, If your ticket cost 40,000 SkyMiles, plus a cash component of taxes and fees, you will earn $400 MQDs for that flight.
Note that MQMs and MQs are going away in 2024. Read more on that here.
» Learn more: The complete guide to Delta Medallion elite status
Delta SkyMiles deals, recapped
If you want to redeem SkyMiles as an avenue to access high-end luxury travel on the cheap, you're going to be disappointed for the most part. However, for many travelers who want flexibility and reasonable prices on award tickets in economy, Delta SkyMiles can still provide some value.
You’ll get consistent value from most awards, but if you're willing to put in a little extra work, you can get some marginal value increases out of your SkyMiles through sweet spot redemptions. Look for award flash sales and opportunities to use Delta miles on partners. If you're traveling outside of Europe, always price out your SkyTeam flights as a SkyMiles award. You probably won’t find any diamonds, but you might find some gold where you expect to find silver.
How to maximize your rewards
You want a travel credit card that prioritizes what’s important to you. Here are our picks for the best travel credit cards of 2023, including those best for:
Flexibility, point transfers and a large bonus: Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
No annual fee: Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card
Flat-rate travel rewards: Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card
Bonus travel rewards and high-end perks: Chase Sapphire Reserve®
Luxury perks: The Platinum Card® from American Express
Business travelers: Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card