There's no doubt about it: Delta has a terrible reputation for award availability.
SkyMiles are incredibly easy to accrue, since Gold and Platinum Medallion members earn 100% bonus miles on all paid tickets and Diamond Medallions earn 125% bonus SkyMiles. Meanwhile the American Express Delta Platinum card earns 1.4 SkyMiles per dollar at the $25,000 and $50,000 spend thresholds and the Delta Reserve card earns 1.5 SkyMiles per dollar at the $30,000 and $60,000 thresholds.
Meanwhile on the redemption side, Delta has 3 redemption levels (versus the 2 redemption levels offered by most of the other traditional airlines) and availability at the "low" level is notoriously hard to come by.
Personally, I think the two factors balance each other out fairly evenly: miles are about as much easier to earn as they are harder to redeem. On the other hand, there's no denying the amount of frustration caused by the cost of Delta award tickets. I come from a family of Delta flyers, and trust me, I hear a LOT of complaints about low-level award availability on Delta. My brother called me the other day and asked, "Why does an award trip to Indiana cost 32,500 miles?"
I asked him, "How much is a paid ticket?" It was over $600, which would give him a value of over 1.8 cents per SkyMile! That's not bad, especially since as a Gold Medallion he earns double miles on all his paid flights.
Still, I eventually end up with virtually all of my award tickets booked at the "low" level, and I want to give a quick rundown of the techniques I use to make sure I don't spend more SkyMiles than I have to.
Before you Start
Before you start looking for award tickets, there are two things you should do if at all possible:
- Have elite status. Platinum and Diamond Medallions are allowed unlimited, free "Award Redeposit/Reissue" up to 72 hours before an award flight. Importantly, changes are still allowed after you've flown your outbound leg.
- Have a Delta American Express card. This will give you access to increased economy award availability on domestic routes. If you aggressively manufacture spend, the Platinum and Reserve cards also make it easier to reach a higher Medallion status. Now that the Gold card no longer comes with an annual $99 companion ticket, it's probably only worth signing up for with a monster bonus, like the 70,000 SkyMile offer about 6 months back.
While you're Searching
Since the Delta award calendar function doesn't work, to find low-level availability you'll probably need to search for each leg of your trip separately.
- Use ITA Matrix to find possible routes, then start plugging dates and legs into the Delta award search engine. I recommend using an "Incognito" or "Private Browsing" window to do this: once the booking engine stops returning any useful results, close the window, open a new one, and continue where you left off.
- Your total mile cost will be the average of your outbound and inbound legs.
- The cost of your outbound and inbound legs will be the cost of the most expensive cabin on each leg at the most expensive level on each leg. For example, if your outbound leg is JFK-SLC-LAX, and you have found low-level first class availability for the JFK-SLC flight, but only high-level economy for the SLC-LAX flight, then you'll be charged for first class (most expensive cabin) at the high level (most expensive level).
- If you're booking an international trip, start by looking for your international flights. Once you've found low-level availability for your international segments, you can start looking for availability for your domestic connections.
- Use the "Multi-city" booking function to feed the flights you've found to Delta one-by-one. It helps to take screenshots as you go, or at least write down the exact flights you find.
After you've Booked
If you don't have Platinum or Diamond Medallion status, then congratulations, you're done! If you do have one of those, then you can start looking for better connections and lower-level flights. This is not particularly glamorous, but it's definitely worth it to get the most out of your miles.
Here's an example: for my current award trip, I had my return booked in BusinessElite non-stop from Prague to JFK, and then in economy from JFK to Boston Logan, since that's all I could find at the low level. But every morning as part of my ritual I would log into Delta and spend 35 seconds seeing if any first class availability had opened up at the "low" level. This morning I was pleased to see that it had. As a Platinum Medallion, I could switch from economy to first class on that flight for free (since I had already technically booked a first class ticket: that was the "highest cabin" I had booked on that leg).
If you have a "medium" or "high" level award booked, you can also call in and have the difference in miles refunded if "low" level availability appears.
A similar technique applies if you don't have Platinum or Diamond Medallion status: if a significant schedule change happens you can request that your ticket be refunded. However, you only have one chance to do this, so you should wait until low-level availability appears, then request the refund and rebook your low-level ticket.
I've never had a problem simply calling into the Platinum Medallion service line and having my tickets reissued at the "low" level, or in first class – until today, when I was connected to an inexperienced agent who was unable to reissue just my JFK-BOS segment. Instead of following the rule of "hang up; call back," I decided to see if Delta's Twitter customer service team could make the change for me instead. I've used @DeltaAssist for everything from canceling an upgrade request to thanking a particularly helpful phone agent, but I'd never asked them to move me from economy to first class on an award ticket.
It turns out it worked perfectly: I tweeted them my confirmation number and the flight on which first class award availability had opened up, and they were able to reissue my ticket within about 5 minutes. Just another thing I'll be using the Twitter team for from now on!