Fun with Delta partner award space

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!

Conclusion

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!

Understanding Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan earning activity

I like to think there's a difference between loyalty programs that are confusing and those that are merely complicated. It's confusing how many Delta SkyMiles an award ticket will cost because Delta continually obfuscates and changes the number of SkyMiles required, while it's merely complicated to figure out whether a British Airways Avios redemption is cheaper when broken up with an intermediate stopover.

Since I'm relatively new to crediting paid fares to Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan, I wasn't familiar with their system of elite-qualifying-mile bookkeeping. I know that many of my readers are in the same position I am, aiming to keep or reach elite status with Alaska, so I thought it would be useful to share what I've found so far.

Crediting American Airlines flights to Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan

From the Alaska Airlines website, here are the rules for crediting American Airlines-operated flights to Mileage Plan:

"Elite Qualifying Flight Miles: Earned flight miles and premium cabin bonuses on American count towards Elite Status.

Economy Class Cabin: Earn actual flight miles* flown in B, G, H, I, K, L, M, N, O, Q, R, S, V, W, X or Y classes of service.

Business Class Cabin: Earn actual flight miles* flown in C, D, I, or J classes of service, plus 25% Bonus Miles.

First Class Cabin: Earn actual flight miles* flown in A, F, or P classes of service, plus 50% Bonus Miles.

*Earn 500 minimum miles on flights less than 500 miles. Actual miles flown = 1 mile per flight mile flown. O class of service accrues for flights taken on or after February 1, 2015. Miles may not be earned for tickets flown in E, T, U or Z classes of service. Some deeply discounted, and industry fares are ineligible to earn miles."

Since my American Airlines flights last week have finally posted to my Mileage Plan account, I can report that while these rules are followed, their application is unnecessarily opaque.

"Earn 500 minimum miles on flights less than 500 miles"

Here's the flight I was rebooked on from Reno to Los Angeles:

Since the actual miles flown was under 500 miles, I should have earned 500 miles, plus 625 bonus miles as an MVP Gold 75K elite. Instead, I was credited with the 390 miles actually flown and the "Bonus" column was "topped up" with the missing 110 miles, leaving me with the correct total number of miles.

"Earn actual flight miles* flown in A, F, or P classes of service, plus 50% Bonus Miles"

As I mentioned in a previous post, for my flight from Los Angeles to Dallas I was booked into the first class "F" fare bucket, which earns 50% bonus miles when credited to Alaska. Here's how that flight posted to my Mileage Plan account:

Here the third column reflects the number of miles actually flown, and the fourth column includes both the 50% class of service bonus and the 125% MVP Gold 75K elite status bonus. Importantly, the class of service bonus does not increase the base mileage to which the elite status bonus is applied: both bonuses are applied only to the base number of miles actually flown.

"Earned flight miles and premium cabin bonuses on American count towards Elite Status"

Here's where things get tricky: your total number of elite-qualifying miles is the number of actual miles flown (the entire third column), and the portion of the "bonus" column that represents 500-mile minimums and class of service bonuses.

The best way to illustrate this is another example. Here are all five paid flights I've credited to Mileage Plan this year:

And here's what my tier status counter looks like:

The elite-qualifying miles shown represent the sum of my actual miles flown (4226), the part of the "Bonus" column representing my 500-mile-minimum "top up" (501), and the 50% class-of-service bonus I earned on my flight from LAX to DFW (618).

Conclusion: Alaska Airlines elite-qualifying-mile earning is unnecessarily complicated, but fair

While I was credited with all the redeemable and elite-qualifying miles I was due for the 5 American Airlines flights I credited to Mileage Plan, Alaska doesn't make it trivial to verify those numbers. With just 5 flights I could check their math manually, but when that number gets up to 20 or 30 I'll be left taking their word that my miles are being allocated correctly (or keep my own running tally).

Alaska one-way partner awards are here!

As I reported a few weeks ago, Alaska irlines phone agents have been telling people that they're preparing to offer one-way award redemptions for half the cost of round-trip redemptions (instead of paying the round-trip cost for one-way redemptions, as you do using Delta Skymiles).

Well, I'm excited to announce that this change is now being rolled out for two of Alaska's domestic airline partners, American and Delta.  Tickets on both partners can be searched and booked online.  As of now one-way Delta awards are not yet pricing out at half the cost of round-trip awards, and it's ot clear whether this will be changed in the future.  However, they can now be combined with legs on Alaska or American to create much more flexible round-trip award redemptions than in the past, since previously it was impossible to combine partners on a single award.  This meant that if any of your legs was on Delta, Delta was the only partner you could use.  This was a serious drawback because of Delta's extremely limited award availability.  Now that airline partners can be combined on a single award, however, you can take advantage of what Delta award availability does exist in order to book trips combining flights on Alaska, American, and Delta.

Leveraging the Alaska Award Chart

Check out the Alaska award chart to see how many miles are required for various award redemptions.  While it's broadly similar to the award charts of other traditional airline loyalty programs, there are several nuances in the Alaska award chart which offer either better or worse value than redeeming partner miles on their own flights.  The best example of this is Business class flights from North America to Europe on Delta, which only cost 90,000 Alaska miles.  The same flights on the same Delta aircraft cost 100,000 Skymiles (although taxes and fees can be slightly ($20-$30) higher on Alaska).

Earning Alaska Airlines Miles

You can earn Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan miles by crediting paid flights flown on heir partner airlines to Alaska, as discussed in Chapter 4 of the book.  This is also a great way to earn elite status, if you don't have enough paid flights on either Delta or American to earn elite status in either of those programs.

There are also two credit cards which allow you to earn Mileage Plan miles:

  • Bank of America Alaska Airlines Visa Signature.  Currently a standard offer of 25,000 Alaska miles upon account approval (no minimum spending requirement).  $75 annual fee, not waived the first year.  The card also offers an annual $99 coach class companion ticket valid only on flights operated by Alaska Airlines.  Earn 1 mile per dollar spent on the card, and 3 miles per dollar spent on Alaska Airlines tickets.
  • Starwood Preferred Guest American Express Personal and Business cards.  Both cards offer 25,000 Starpoints after spending $5,000 in the first 6 months of card membership, and have a $65 annual fee, waived the first year of card membership.  As I discussed last month, You can transfer 20,000 Starpoints into Alaska miles and receive a bonus of 5,000 Starpoints, meaning you can earn 1.25 Alaska miles per dollar spent on this card, and making this signup bonus worth 30,000 Alaska miles, better than Alaska's own co-branded credit card!  Since the annual fee is waived the first year and the signup bonus is higher, this is a strictly better offer than the Alaska Airlines Visa Signature, although there's no reason you can't apply for both cards as part of the same churn.

[Confirmed] Potentially huge change coming to Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan

As discussed in Chapter 6 of the book, Alaska Airlines can be a valuable frequent flyer program for crediting miles flown on their non-alliance partners Delta and American Airlines, especially if you don't anticipate flying on either airline enough to earn elite status.

Well, according to this thread, that value might be about to get a lot better.  So far this is just a rumor, but a number of people have apparently been told the same thing by Alaska phone agents: you will soon be able to redeem Mileage Plan miles for one-way partner awards on Delta and American.

Why is this a game-changer?  First of all, Delta award availability is notoriously bad, and if you're booking award flights using Delta Skymiles (or, currently, with Alaska miles), you have to book your outbound and return legs at the same time, which means both legs must have award availability.  The consolation prize is that you can book a free one-way at the beginning or ending of your round-trip award.

If Alaska Mileage Plan miles can be used to book one-way awards on Delta, then you can book each leg as award space becomes available.  No more waiting for low-level availability on both legs to be available simultaneously.  This would make Alaska Mileage Plan miles much more valuable for Delta award flights than Delta's own program, assuming Delta continues to require round-trip bookings when you redeem Skymiles.

The second reason this is potentially a major game-changer is that by making Alaska miles so much more valuable, it also increases the value of Starwood Preferred Guest Starpoints.  Starwood points can be transferred to Mileage Plan miles at a 1:1 ratio with a 5,000 mile bonus at 20,000, 40,000, and 60,000 Starpoints (so 60,000 Starpoints become 75,000 Mileage Plan miles).  Keep in mind that these transfers are not instant, so you will need to plan ahead if going this route.

The rumored date for this change to go into effect is March 17, 2013.  If it ends up being true, I'll be recommending to all my friends and clients who are casual flyers to start crediting their Delta flights to Alaska.  Additionally, Starwood points, already one of the best hotel award currencies for low- and mid-tier properties, are about to get a lot more valuable!