Where and How to Redeem Delta SkyMiles Now

No time like the present to spend those Delta SkyMiles on great trips if you can get them. After two devaluations in 2013, it is possible there will be a few months without a devaluation since the most disingenuous aspect of Delta’s 2015 SkyMiles bombshell is they won’t deign to tell customers what will happen to redemptions until Q4.

Delta has an increasingly tenuous relationship with its SkyTeam partners. It is focusing more on its ownership stakes in Virgin Altantic and Brazil’s Gol, as well as attacking Alaska Airlines in Seattle. Gutting partner earning is so 2013. Like with its own awards, there is no precedent to expect things will improve with partners, so now is the time time try for that dream international trip that may only be possible on SkyTeam.

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KLM’s Audrey Hepburn plane bound for Tehran

Recently View from the Wing published Top Eight Best Uses of Delta SkyMiles and The Points Guy followed with Top 10: Ways to Redeem Delta SkyMiles. Both are good posts, I prefer View from the Wing’s because it is candid on the challenges with booking these awards, while the other glosses over how damn hard it can be to find and book some of these awards.

Both take a very different approach to travel than I. They view ‘aspirational travel’ as sitting (in airport and hotel club lounges) and reclining (in a snazzy airplane seat). My home kitchen and bed do better for me in both regards, so my travel aspirations are about seeing the world.

We all agree, though, that under their view SkyTeam is hardly ‘aspirational.’ Delta’s 747 Business Elite may be the best seat in SkyTeam and it shouldn’t be. Korean Air should be the proud Asian carrier, but it is stuck up and underwhelming. The first time I saw their first class I did not realize it, thinking, “Why do these business class seats look slightly different than mine?” See a review of Korean Airlines A380 first class and China Southern A380 First Class (must read controversy!) on One Mile at a Time, though Delta does not allow partner redemptions in first class. SkyTeam has some real duds like China Eastern’s A340 and Kenya Airways 767-300, and lots of middling products like Saudia’s 777. Air France and KLM are way behind the competition. Alitalia…no need to go through the full list.

What SkyTeam offers is some gems of destinations that other alliances don’t touch and if they are on your travel wish list, that is where I urge you to focus. Every alliance can get you to Thailand, not every alliance can get you to Comoros.

Some Delta award principles (ultra-condensed version):

  • Learn how to work around delta.com’s dysfunction. How to price segments. What partners show and how reliably. Check partner blackout dates. Learn how to check availability via Air France/KLM FlyingBlue, wandr.me, Flight Stats and other sources. Learn about Delta Term. You need to learn this and more because few Delta agents know any of this. This requires a big investment of time. Learn Delta routing rules, stopovers, etc.
  • Learn Delta’s quirky pricing where one segment can inflate the price of the whole trip. Example: a mid-level economy Boston-New York segment paired with a low-level New York-Paris business segments turns into a mid-level business award to Europe. Scummy.
  • Expect that you will need to call several or many times to find an agent that can book anything on partners. If you get an agent in Chisholm, MN, do not let go until you have every ticket booked.
  • Why focus on partners? Because if they have seats, awards price at the low (saver) level, always. If you can avoid Delta entirely on an award you are set, pricing-wise.
  • Escape across the Atlantic by Virgin Atlantic or Saudia, occasionally Air Europa. Occasionally KLM has some economy seats. Delta or Air France seem to block all trans-Atlantic Air France flights. Virgin Altantic from New York JFK or Newark means taxes and extra connections to get from London to SkyTeam hubs like Amsterdam and Paris.
  • Escape across the Pacific by China Eastern, China Southern and AeroMexico (Tijuana – Shanghai). Sometimes China Airlines to Osaka or Taipei. None are ideal or plentiful. Occasionally Delta trans-Pacific flights from Detroit and now Seattle have occasional availability at tolerable prices.
  • Escape southward by AeroMexico or Gol.
  • Go back in time to use nwa.com.

I didn’t say it would be easy!

Now research SkyTeam airlines by their Wikipedia destinations pages and see what tickles your fancy, or skip to my list. Check flight schedules with ITA Matrix, since many of the most exotic destinations may fly as little as once a week or be seasonal.

Plus other Delta partners:

So where does SkyTeam really shine destination-wise?

1. Christmas and Cocos Islands, yes, west from Australia on Virgin Australia. They have some great Pacific Islands, too. They no longer offer an AirPass and these are mega expensive tickets. Fortunately, all Virgin Australia flights are now theoretically eligible for awards, contrasted to when I went to Australia many flights still had the old DJ code from Virgin Blue and could not be redeemed by Delta. Note that Australia domestic is terrible value, an economy roundtrip is 60,000 miles, use British Airways Avios on Qantas instead and pay as little at 9,000.

Availability: pretty good for the less exotic flights.

Difficulty: easy to book on delta.com.

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WWII history in the Solomon Islands

2. Antarctica trips and more from Argentina. By all accounts Aerolíneas Argentinas is desperately dysfunctional but they are the only game in town for many of the most attractive destinations in Argentina and revenue tickets are absurdly expensive.

Availability: I have limited experience, they seem to have availability, even on JFK-Buenos Aires.

How: find on wandr.me and call to book.

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Gaucho in Argentina

3. Caribbean-ish to Europe via Air France/KLM. A sweep of attractive destinations and colonial outposts from Miami to French Guiana are served by Air France/KLM.

Availability: hit or miss, subject to the current state of relations between them and Delta.

How: Find on the FlyingBlue website (must be Promo or Classic Award), sometimes can book online.

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Palace in Haiti

4. Africa from north to west to east on Air France/KLM. More colonialism. Expensive destinations served by few airlines. Enjoy a free stopover in Europe.

Availability: hit or miss, subject to the current state of relations between them and Delta and popularity of the destination. Nairobi is easy on Kenya Airways with options from Amsterdam, London and Paris, though Korean Air also serves Nairobi.

How: Find on the FlyingBlue website (must be Promo or Classic Award), sometimes can book online.

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Ancient Rome in Algeria

5. Indian Ocean Island Hopping on Air France/KLM and Kenya Airways. Same theme as #4. I did this circuit in December.

Availability: Air France Paris Orly to Réunion has good availability. Mauritius is tough. Madagascar is easier on Kenya Airways than Air France. Kenya Airways also serves Comoros.

How: Find on the FlyingBlue website (must be Promo or Classic Award), sometimes can book online.

Madagascar Lemurs

Madagascar Lemurs

6. Central Asia and Siberia on China Southern. From its regional hub in Ürümqi, China Southern has the most extensive Central Asian network of any airline. Korea Air adds a few more destinatons like Ulaan Baatar and Vladivostok. One of my favorite parts of the world.

Availability: I have not studied these in detail since NWA days.

How: find on wandr.me and call to book. Expect many issues with Delta agents trying to see availability, especially for multiple seats. May need to book one and hope a second seat soon opens. Similar issues for China Eastern.

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Cowboys in Turkmenistan

7. Osaka, Japan from New York on China Airlines. This incredible city and gateway to Nara, Kyoto, Hiroshima and more, only has two flights from the US. Not that China Airlines is great, but is United from San Francisco any better?

Availability: Not great, especially with large Delta-imposed blackout dates.

How: Find on the FlyingBlue website but keep in mind Delta’s blackout dates.

Osaka Okonomiyaki

Osaka okonomiyaki pancake

8. Palau on Korean Air.  A superb destination difficult and expensive to reach. Korean Air is the most stylish option (Delta also flies it, from Tokyo-Narita). The only reason to fly United is is doing the full Micronesia Island Hopper.

Availability: Not great, especially with large Delta-imposed blackout dates.

How: Find on the FlyingBlue website (sometimes) or Delta website (sometimes)  but keep in mind Delta’s blackout dates.

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Friendly jellyfish in Palau

9. Saudia to the Middle East and South Asia. Saudia really gives the full Saudi cultural experience. Not a great airline. Great availability

Availability: Excellent throughout its network, including from US.

How: Find on Flight Stats but search results are wonky, keep trying, once you get the flight to show, availability is accurate. About the only way for tourists to visit Saudi Arabia is with a transit visa, so this may be your opportunity.

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Coral houses in Saudi Arabia

10. Delta summer flights from JFK to Prince Edward Island, Canada. The place my wife said, “This is the North America I dreamed of.” Anne of Green Gables country, scenic drives and communal lobster suppers. Stay at my favorite B&B, Knox’s Dam Bed & Breakfast, maybe we’ll see you this summer.

Availability: This is the only flight to PEI from the US and only runs July-August. Surprisingly, compared to similar Delta seasonal flights to Massachusetts, there are a fair amount of low awards available. Year-round alternatives are to fly to Halifax and drive or use the Canadian airlines.

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Knox’s Dam Bed & Breakfast

How: delta.com, one segment at a time.

11. Readers, please turn it up to 11.

Note: Why did I exclude so many conventional choices? When another alliance serves a regional equally or better. For example, Aeroflot has steep fuel surcharges on Delta awards, while OneWorld’s S7 does not on redemptions from British Airways Avios. Moscow-Sochi roundtrip is 25,000 miles + $200+ from Delta or 15,000 miles + about $4 from British Airways. Europe there are so many options, air and non-air, no point in highlighting those. Ditto for Southeast Asia and much of South America.

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  • Al

    Personally, I think the best redemption value is actually low level economy domestic tickets if you have high status. It’s basically 25K for domestic first class. You can add a free one-way too (just like AA for international, but Delta is the only one allowing this for domestic). I recently redeem 25K for such a trip, ORD->ATL, ATL->YVR, YVR->ATL, all legs cleared for first class.

  • @Al – I agree domestic can be good if you can find low award availability, and good point on the free one-way, I always forget to add those. I figure domestic changes won’t be so drastic in 2015 but I am really worried of a UA-style change or worse to partners.

  • Jamie

    This is a fantastic post. We have kids and mostly travel to visit family or to go to take my husband to Europe to satisfy his occasional home-sickness. So, we don’t think along the lines of this post. And most miles/points don’t write about stuff like this. I really enjoy how your posts make me consider using my points to travel somewhere I wouldn’t have thought of going.
    Also, we will have to list as one of the positives of the Delta changes that it seems to have lead to greater frequency of RTC blog posts. 🙂

  • @Jamie – thank you, I got in a bit of funk for a few weeks and was also busy for work, so took a bit of break blogging, trying to get back to the daily routine.

  • john

    This is a great post. Not just for Delta but in general for difficult destinations. Its very nice to see the interesting places that only skyteam will get you. If anyone wants to go to some of these places, its worth noting that the easiest way may be with membership rewards transferred to air france. That is how I am eyeing cayenne amongst other places.

    Really nice post and would be interesting to compare notes on the other alliances difficult places like Longyearbyen and rapa nui.

  • @john – good point on Air France, certainly booking is much easier online, though if needing to call Air France…yikes. Air France’s promo awards are great. Sometimes the surcharges are a killer on ones were Delta does not collect them or not as much.

    French Guiana is interesting. When I went down that way Delta still have JFK to Georgetwon, Guyana and then I flew back on on a rather expensive Caribbean Airlines ticket.

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  • Joey

    Terrific post! I have been away the past month and just read this post of yours. Korean Air also flies to Tashkent in Central Asia and is considered part of North Asia.

    Visiting West Africa (visa entente countries) and Sierra Leone/Liberia/Eq Guinea are on my bucket list so I’m still figuring out whether it’s best to use skyteam carriers to go there (Air France/Delta) or go to a regional hub like Dakar or Accra and then fly local carriers from there.

    @john, I flew SAS using united miles to LYR a few years ago. As for rapa nui, I believe LAN is the only airline that flies there which means oneworld may be your best bet.