The logic and illogic of Delta award pricing

I mentioned earlier in the week that I'm planning a summer trip to the Czech Republic, and discussed some different strategies I'm considering for booking our first few nights in Karlovy Vary (check out the comments to that post for some great reader suggestions for saving money at independent hotels).

Today I finally pulled the trigger on our airline tickets, about one day later than would have been ideal, but you book tickets at the prices you have, not the prices you might want or wish to have at an earlier time.

Because I'd been watching the ticket prices so closely, I noticed an odd price move.

Delta award tickets are not perfectly aligned with prices

While Delta has adopted revenue-based earning on paid tickets, they've only fitfully moved towards revenue-based redemptions. More expensive award tickets do tend to cost more miles than cheaper tickets, but the relationship isn't linear, which means Delta SkyMiles still offer a range of redemption values, rather than a fixed redemption rate.

Today I saw that the cash price of our ideal itinerary had moved from $953 to $1,409, while the award price remained at 80,000 SkyMiles (plus $55 in taxes and fees). Since I was planning to book my partner's award ticket with miles anyway, I did so immediately. Theoretically, this begs the question of whether I got $1,354 in value or $898 in value, but that part doesn't worry me too much, since the revenue price had already increased by the time I decided to book it, turning the decision to book with miles from a head-scratcher into a no-brainer.

What interested me was how I was going to book my own revenue ticket now that the price had shot up.

It still pays to search one leg at a time

I already knew our outbound itinerary was the ideal one, with a short connection at New York's JFK airport and a nonstop flight to Prague, and that itinerary is still available for 30,000 SkyMiles. But perusing Google Flights, I realized that there were still cheap itineraries including our transatlantic return leg.

And that's when it hit me that the final, domestic leg was the one messing up the pricing. The itinerary including the domestic leg priced out at $1,408:

While the same itinerary without the final domestic leg cost just $1,013:

Given those conditions, I booked my international itinerary to end at JFK, and I'll figure out my own way home from there. Revenue flights are just $216 (compared to the full itinerary price difference of $456), and I can redeem Chase Ultimate Rewards or US Bank Flexpoints for that leg.

Or I'll just catch a Chinatown bus if I have to!


I went into this booking with a pretty restrictive set of constraints, so I didn't initially do as much work as I should have figuring out which flights were available at high and low revenue and award prices. Once I realized my mistake, I was able to immediately save hundreds of dollars by stopping short of my final destination and figuring out my own way home from there.

The lesson is clear: search multiple combinations of routes and itineraries in order to identify which legs are the most expensive, and see if you can find alternate methods of transportation to avoid them.