Like anyone who does a fair amount of paid and award travel on Delta, I've been annoyed by their "flexible" award prices, which are generally calibrated to ensure you don't get too much value from your SkyMiles. On the other hand, if you keep a variety of points currencies around you always have the option of redeeming the one best suited for the flights you have in mind.
The real trouble comes about when trying to get value from one of Delta's partner award programs, like AeroMexico, Korean Air SKYPASS, or Air France/KLM Flying Blue. We used to say that airlines typically make "low-level" award space available to their partners. But with Delta's "what you see is what you get" pricing, that terminology doesn't make much sense. In fact, Delta awards at a variety of price points show in award searches as what used to be low-level "N" award seats.
What we'd really like to know is what kind of partner award space Delta makes available to their SkyTeam partners. Fortunately, Korean Air SKYPASS now shows Delta award availability online. I've been fiddling around with a variety of search terms and have a few preliminary observations.
Partner award space generally corresponds to "low-level" space
Drew at Travel is Free put together a sort of brute force Delta award chart based on an algorithm running award searches. If you can find flights at those prices then they'll typically be bookable as partner awards.
If you're using Korean Air SKYPASS you can only book roundtrip awards (although open jaws and stopovers are allowed), and I believe you can only search single-cabin awards online, but if you can find roundtrip award availability in the same cabin, there are good values on Delta. For example, a roundtrip on one of Delta's transcontinental Delta One flights costs 80,000 SkyMiles, but just 45,000 SKYPASS miles. Likewise roundtrip flights from the continental United States to Alaska and Hawaii cost just 25,000 SKYPASS miles in economy and 45,000 miles in first class.
I stumbled over a few tricks to keep in mind when booking Delta flights with SKYPASS miles. When searching for SkyTeam awards on the Korean Air website, you have to select "Economy Class," "Prestige Class," or "First Class." For flights in Delta's domestic first class cabins, you select "First Class," but flights in Delta One are coded as business class partner awards, which corresponds to "Prestige Class." There's no difference in cost for flights within North America including Hawaii and Alaska.
Sample booking: JFK-LAX, 6/1 - 7/17, Delta One: 80,000 SkyMiles, 65,000 Alaska Mileage Plan miles, 45,000 SKYPASS miles.
Partners generally have access to sub-low-level space
While Delta's flexible redemption rates generally punish SkyMiles members by charging them more for more expensive flights, they also sometimes show flights that are cheaper than the "low" award rate. In those instances I was able to find the same flights with Korean Air SKYPASS, although Korean Air naturally charged the higher, standard rate.
Sample booking: JFK-PDX, 6/2 - 6/8, Main Cabin: 24,000 SkyMiles, 25,000 Mileage Plan miles, 25,000 SKYPASS miles.
Partners have more creative routing rules
One big problem with "what you see is what you get" pricing is that even though you may have found Delta partner award space on an itinerary, Delta might not price it out at the low level through their multi-city pricing tool due to their own award routing rules. For example, this is a perfectly legal SKYPASS redemption for 25,000 miles:
While there should be low-level SkyMiles award seats available for the entire route, Delta prices it out at 38,000 SkyMiles, instead:
I presume this is because Delta treats the overnight stay in Las Angeles as a domestic stopover and so prices the itinerary out as 3 separate legs, but since "what you see is what you get," I can't say for sure.
What this means is that while you might start your search by looking for Delta low-level award space between your origin and destination, before giving up hope you should also experiment with Korean Air's search tool to identify routings that Delta won't show you by default or will charge more for. Unfortunately SKYPASS searches are both fairly cumbersome and will return an error message if there's no availability on any one of your search legs, which makes it difficult to diagnose exactly where the error is originating.
Now, naturally many of these irregular routings won't be especially convenient (like the overnight stay in LA above), but that's the point: more flexible routing rules increase the likelihood of finding some routing that will allow you to redeem miles instead of spending cash.
Sample booking: DCA-AMS, 8/29 - 9/5, Main Cabin. Outbound: 3 low-level SkyMiles routings found, 30 low-level SKYPASS routings found. Inbound: 20 low-level SkyMiles routings, 30 low-level SKYPASS routings found.
That sample booking has the added bonus of revealing that there is a ton of award space available between JFK and Glasgow and Edinburgh this summer and fall. It's enough to make you want to visit Scotland!
The ease of earning Delta SkyMiles through transfers from American Express Membership Rewards, Starwood Preferred Guest, or putting spend on an American Express Delta Platinum or Reserve card, and earning Korean Air SKYPASS miles through Chase Ultimate Rewards transfers, creates the following curious situation:
- where SkyTeam partner award space is available, it's best booked using Delta SkyMiles since (with a few exceptions) they don't pass along fuel surcharges;
- when Delta makes premium cabin award space available, it should be booked using SKYPASS miles, since Delta doesn't charge fuel surcharges for SKYPASS to pass along!