In case you've been staying in a buddhist travel hacker monastery for the last week, the big news to come out of the loyalty world this week was the unannounced addition of Flying Blue, the loyalty program of Air France and KLM, as a transfer partner for "flexible" Chase Ultimate Rewards points.
This post is going to come across as a bit cynical, so in the hopes of heading off sniping in the comments, let me first explain why this is phenomenal news.
Korean Airlines is not a great Skyteam program
While it's true that Ultimate Rewards already had transfer partners in oneworld (British Airways), Star Alliance (United), and Skyteam (Korean Airlines), Korean Airlines SKYPASS is a notoriously complex program to work with, with the gaping drawback that you can only book award tickets for relatives — and if you take them at their word, that even excludes stepchildren!
By contrast, Flying Blue has an online award search engine that allows you to book award tickets for anyone you like (as long as you don't get caught in one of their fraud traps).
Ultimate Rewards is a vibrant and growing program
Any expansion of a loyalty program to include new ways to earn or redeem points is an objective positive. If I never book a Flying Blue award ticket, I'll still be glad to know that it's someone's job at Chase to hunt down loyalty programs, negotiate transfer agreements, and implement the technology required to expand our Ultimate Rewards redemption options. To me that's a sign that the program still has a degree of vibrancy and is not yet ready to stagnate, like American Express Membership Rewards.
With that out of the way, let's talk about Flying Blue redemptions.
Delta makes life as hard as possible for their partners
To understand how difficult it is to redeem Flying Blue miles on Delta, it's important to understand how Delta makes award space available to its own members and to partners.
Delta dynamically prices awards for its own members. It's no longer rare to find cases where the constituent flights on a connecting award ticket are more or less expensive than the complete itinerary. Here's an itinerary connecting in Minneapolis that's more expensive than either of the constituent flights on their own:
The constituent flights price at 12,500 SkyMiles:
And 11,500 SkyMiles:
Unrelated to SkyMiles pricing for their own members, Delta makes some seats on some flights available to partners for awards.
Let's see those same three searches using Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan. Here's the first leg (it's 25,000 instead of 12,500 because I'm searching for one-way flights):
Here's the second leg:
Here's the catch: Delta doesn't make that complete itinerary available to partners, which we can only surmise is because it prices higher at the 15,500-mile level. Here are the only options Alaska shows when doing a one-way search between BWI and MSO on September 19:
Fortunately, Alaska allows you to construct your own Delta routing as a "Multi-city" flight search. By feeding Alaska the flights I know have award space (because I checked earlier), I can easily produce my desired award:
It's important to understand exactly what's happening here: Delta is making its cheapest award space available to its own members and to partners on individual segments, but charging its own members more on the complete itinerary and not making that complete itinerary available to partners. The reason the Alaska workaround works is that Alaska is willing to search for each leg individually in a multi-city search, and then price the entire itinerary according to its own routing rules, which make it a valid one-way itinerary.
Flying Blue does not allow multi-city awards to be booked online
This is what Flying Blue's multi-city search engine looks like:
Flying Blue doesn't let you construct Delta itineraries online because your final destination must be your originating airport.
I assume you could construct this itinerary over the phone
Conclusion: how I'll be using Flying Blue
So Flying Blue isn't the key to unlimited cheap flights on Delta. That doesn't mean it's useless! On the contrary, it's going to be one of my first stops along with Alaska, British Airways, and United, each time I start planning a new trip. The search engine makes it easy to see at a glance whether there are award seats available, and if there are, they will usually be among the cheapest, not because of their great award chart or their low fuel surcharges (on the contrary, they have a fairly standard award chart and pass along fuel surcharges to customers), but because the miles themselves are so cheap when transferred from a Chase Ultimate Rewards account.
To make the same point another way, a redemption of 12,500 SkyMiles manufactured with a Delta Platinum American Express card costs $188 in opportunity cost ($8,929 manufactured on a 2.105% cash back card), while a 12,500-mile Flying Blue redemption costs just $125 in Ultimate Rewards points: a 33.5% discount.
I don't expect those redemption to be very frequent — but I do expect to make them each and every time the opportunity presents itself!