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Advanced Tips for Booking Delta SkyMiles Awards

March 12, 2020
Loyalty Programs, Reward Optimization, Travel
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Delta SkyMiles developed a bad reputation among award travel cognoscenti for offering “dynamic” pricing rather than a fixed award chart. Yet now that programs like United have moved to dynamic pricing, it may be time to lift the SkyMiles stigma.

Although Delta award “sweet spots” are trickier to nail down because of this dynamic pricing, there are still plenty of tips and tools to help maximize the value of those SkyMiles.

» Learn more: Delta Air Lines SkyMiles program: The complete guide

Skip the app

Don’t get us wrong, the Delta app is great. Delta has clearly poured tons of resources into making it not only slick-looking but also fast and useful.

That said, the award search functionality on the app just doesn’t hold up to the desktop experience. And when making a multi-thousand-point purchase, you really want to make sure you’re using the right tool for the job.

Use the price calendar

Delta defaults to a “flexible dates” view for both cash and award searches. However, we find the “calendar” view much more useful for booking with miles, as it shows the entire month at a glance, making it easy to spot the lowest available fare.

Just click on the “price calendar” toggle:

That brings up a view like this:

You can easily find which dates have lower-priced award availability and hone in your round-trip booking from there.

Unfortunately, Delta’s award search function in general has very limited filtering capabilities. It would be nice to filter by partner airline at the calendar, especially when searching for premium cabin seats, but unfortunately you’ll have to dig around in the specific dates to find the partner or aircraft you’re looking for.

Book round trips (yes, really)

With almost every other airline award program, the cost (in miles) of two one-way tickets is the same as a round-trip ticket. So it’s generally easier to search for two one-ways.

Not so with Delta. Round-trip tickets often (but not always) cost fewer miles than one-ways. Here’s an extreme example. We searched for two one-ways back and forth between Seattle and Munich:

Those were the lowest fares available all month, and they still came out to a whopping 154,000 miles plus $264 in fees!

Now, how about the same dates in a round-trip itinerary?

That’s right: 53,000 miles + $134 in fees, or roughly a third as many miles as the same itinerary with two one-ways.

What’s happening here? Delta is truly treating SkyMiles dynamically to reflect cash prices. A Google Flights search for the same dates on SkyTeam shows a $692 cash price for a round-trip and $2,313 for a single one-way:

Since Delta effectively treats SkyMiles like cash, the same rules for booking cash flights apply, and the normal award booking strategies mostly go out the window.

Remember: NerdWallet values Delta miles at 1.1 cents each.

So make sure to compare the value of award and cash options to make sure you’re getting roughly this much value (or more) from your SkyMiles.

Don’t fear close-in bookings

Many sources online will tell you to avoid last-minute award bookings, as Delta’s dynamic pricing means these are not as good of a deal as close-in tickets with other airline award programs.

However, our data-driven point and mile valuations showed no meaningful difference in value between close-in award bookings and those a few more months out:

Booking dateCents per mile
15 days out1.0
2 months out1.0
4 months out0.9

It’s fair to say that, if you have the choice between booking close-in award travel with a program that uses an award chart and no close-in booking fees (such as American) vs. using Delta miles for the same dates, you should check availability with those other programs first. But if you’re looking for the “best” way to use Delta miles, you won’t lose value by booking last-minute.

The bottom line

Delta gets dinged by a lot of experts for treating their SkyMiles like cash, as it makes the “hunt” for sweet-spot redemptions all but impossible. That’s true — but it also means that you’re almost sure to get a decent redemption from your Delta miles, no matter how you use them.

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 2020, including those best for:

Planning a trip? Check out these articles for more inspiration and advice:
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