What No One Else Will Tell You About Booking Delta Awards

Filed Under: Awards, Delta

Earlier this week Delta changed the verbiage on their website to suggest SkyMiles would no longer allow mixed-cabin awards. It turns out the changes on the website were poorly worded, and were intended to reflect changes implemented as of January 1st.

As Live and Let Fly summarized,

The changes do not appear to be as bad as imagined — rather they are more a formal acknowledgement of what has already occurred on delta.com, the inability to book a round-trip award in one direction in economy class and the other in business class.

Or so they claim.

But this is SkyMiles, so of course there’s more to the story.

Disclaimer: We are going to get into some heady stuff in this post. I would be shocked if there are more than a few dozen people who understand this currently. I only get it (or think I do), because I am fortunate enough to have my colleague Mac, who knows more about the inner workings of the SkyMiles program than most people with a Delta Employee ID card anyone.

I’ll do my best to explain everything, but this is pretty complex. And if you have Delta SkyMiles, or plan on having Delta SkyMiles, you should have a general idea of how Delta prices awards, but it’s okay if you don’t understand this all at first. You can bookmark this and come back later, I don’t mind. 🙂

Now that everyone but my mother has stopped reading (Hi Mom!), let’s dive in to how Delta prices awards nowadays.

How multi-cabin awards actually price

The spotlight has been focused on the “round-trip” question, which makes sense given the higher fees charged for originating outside the US. That aspect has been blogged about extensively, so what I’d like to focus on is how SkyMiles prices awards, and what you can expect to pay for your trip.

We already know some of the basic rules, based on how Delta priced award tickets prior to 2015:

  • SkyMiles has multiple pricing tiers (1-5)
  • Partner-operated segments fall into the lowest tier of pricing (so always 1)
  • Mixing tiers can cause additive pricing, or force the entire award into the next tier

These rules are still in place, but in addition to the pricing tiers (which you just have to trust me on, as Delta no longer publishes their award charts), the tiers are further divided by aircraft type.

Yes, aircraft type.

So it’s no longer enough to look for low-level space (or space at an equivalent tier to your long-haul segment), you have to consider whether that particular airplane has the potential to have First/Business class seating, even if award inventory isn’t available.

Here’s (my attempt at) an illustration of how SkyMiles prices awards in practice:

SkyMiles Pricing

As before, if you’re not matching up your pricing levels, the pricing either becomes additive, and you effectively pay for multiple awards, or you pay for the entire award as though it were at the highest tier.

This is how the pricing for SkyMiles awards has become downright laughable in the past — the combination of multiple pricing tiers and additive pricing can produce ridiculous results, like domestic itineraries for 300,000 miles.

So crazy numbers have always been a key element of SkyMiles redemptions.

What’s new, however, is that in practice, Delta has eliminated mixed-cabin itineraries on Delta metal with the exception of single-cabin aircraft.

Not only do these awards not price correctly online, but the combinations labeled as “Invalid” above will not price at all.

Even if you call and ask for specific award fare buckets (and find an agent willing to play along), the computer will override the agent and force the mis-matched economy segment into the appropriate first/business class tier. If it’s not available, and you really want those specific economy flights, it has to be issued as two separate records.

I have no idea why this is. I’m not entirely sure this was even intentional on the part of SkyMiles. But it’s consistent.

Delta.com is better but still not accurate

Despite Delta’s insistence that “the price is the price,” the website continues to be…well, I’d say error-ridden, but I am grown-up enough to suspect it’s working as designed.

As an example, let’s look at a trip from Savannah to Paris. We’re going to look at economy awards to try and simplify things, and the goal here is to find the lowest level of space — 30,000 miles each way.

Searching segment-by-segment, we can see Air France has award space between Atlanta and Paris.


Partner awards always price at the lowest tier, so we’re going to be looking for Tier 1 award space between Savannah and Atlanta. Fortunately, every single flight has space (this image only shows half of them):


Based on everything we know, this award should price at 30,000 miles for the one-way in economy, right? But look at what happens once you enter Savannah > Paris into the award search tool:


Where did all the Air France flights from Atlanta go?!?

Sometimes websites need help, so let’s narrow the results to force the Atlanta connection:


No? What about if we enter the flights we want into the multi-city tool?


Still no.


I have no idea why this doesn’t work. However, as this itinerary is all at the same tier, and doesn’t use Delta metal for the longhaul portion, this should be bookable at the 30,000 rate if you call.

Mysterious routing rules

While awards involving partners can be priced differently over the phone, when it comes to awards on Delta metal, the price you see is the price you get.

For a trip between Charleston and Dublin, for example, let’s look first at space between Atlanta and Dublin. Delta flies this route non-stop, and has business class availability at the Tier 1 level of 62,500 miles:


If we follow the rules that we know, we should be able to have the entire one-way itinerary price at Tier 1. Our choices for connecting flights then are:

  • Single cabin aircraft at the Tier 1 economy price
  • Multi cabin aircraft at the Tier 1 first/business price
  • Partner flights, which are always Tier 1

Looking at the next segment, two of the flights between Charleston and Atlanta have Tier 1 space in first.


Based on the rules we know, combining the 5:30AM flight from Charleston with the long segment to Dublin should price at 62,500 (matching tiers, in the same class of service).

But it doesn’t. Because SkyMiles.



Another example, and this time let’s look at economy. For a trip between Savannah and Dublin, there is Tier 1 space on the Atlanta > Dublin flight:


Even better, every single Savannah > Dublin flight is at the Tier 1 level as well, so you’d think you’d be able to choose the most convenient connection.


But you’d be wrong.


Only certain combinations of flights will price at the lowest possible level. Other days you won’t see any combinations at the lowest level, even when both segments are at the lowest tier. Calling will not change the price.

We see this time and time again (and mostly Mac, because he has the patience of all the Saints). There is some additional element to the award pricing algorithm nowadays. Delta ultimately wants award pricing to vary based on market rates, and it seems that a minimum price is being set on some routes, regardless of the individual components.

Mac asserts (and I tend to agree), that this is the next step in further pegging the redemption side of SkyMiles to revenue. In some cities (Savannah and Charleston are particularly subject to this, along with other smaller cities where Delta has control of the market), the lowest effective award price to Europe is 28% more expensive than in 2014.

You don’t see this happening as much in more competitive markets, and again, if you use partner airlines for the long-haul segment, this isn’t an issue.

Can’t I just call the manual reissue desk?

In the good old days, the manual reissue desk could hand-compile awards that other agents couldn’t.

My guess is that this is still possible in some circumstances, but you’re going to have to spend some time to find a willing agent. Delta agents have been told “the price is the price” and that each market is different, so they don’t have a reason to manually build an itinerary.

So you can try, but I can almost guarantee this isn’t worth the time required in most cases.

Bottom line

Regardless of what is being allowed in terms of round-trip awards, SkyMiles is already limiting mixed-cabin bookings. Delta seems to be taking steps towards more actively controlling the price of certain routes as well.
In terms of pricing your own awards, all this essentially boils down to two best practices:
  • If all your flights are on Delta, the price the computer gives you is the price you’re getting
  • If you’re leveraging a partner (and you should!) the old rules of searching segment by segment for the lowest tier still apply

I have always found SkyMiles to be useful, and I’ll continue to use SkyMiles despite the program changes — my household is even actively working on minimum spends for new Delta credit cards. So even if you don’t want to learn the minutiae of the program (and no one would blame you!), having a general understanding of how awards price will hopefully help you to use your miles more effectively.


Again, many thanks to Mac, for patiently explaining this to me and others on a near-daily basis.

  1. Fascinating. So glad I’m no longer in the Skymiles boat, though I miss flying Delta domestically

  2. This may or may not have anything to do with it, but… 10000 miles is not technically “Tier 1” on the 5 tier system, it is the special 10k 1-way only available on certain specific routes (obviously sav-atl and chs-atl are two of them). Perhaps Delta.com isn’t able to match up partner flights with the new one-way tier? Does this problem happen when there are 12.5k segments available?

  3. I really hope AA doesn’t go the same route. All of this is way too convoluted and they’re making it harder to get your miles worth out of award flights.

  4. Tiffany, you say “Delta agents have been told “the price is the price” – so how do you book tickets for your clients? do you simply tell them to pay the higher price? or what is the solution to this mess?

  5. @ Jason — That could be a factor, absolutely, but it’s more complex than that. The same thing will happen will all-partner itineraries as well, so I think it’s more related to partner awards than the Delta flight. I think.

  6. I wanted to book LAX-JFK-AMS one way on D1. I was quoted at 125,000 miles (62.5×2). Should I have been able to book the award for 62,500? In the end I purchased LAX-JFK on AA and upgraded with miles.

  7. Nice analysis. This is what separates this blog from the rest IMO. Meanwhile, some other blogs still write glowingly about the best uses for Skymiles – in order to make money off credit card links – when they know full well that they are being laughably unrealistic in their assessments of the problems with this program. Delta is a nice airline to fly with, if you buy a cash ticket. Using points is a total crapshoot and is meant to be that way to discourage their use. Delta is the most disingenuous North American airline out there, when it comes to its mileage program. That’s about all you need to know.

  8. @ Lantean — Well, a lot of it is understanding the system, and what will and won’t price. I feel like having that foundation makes it less of a mess for those in the hobby, because you’re not beating your head against the system for no reason, and know what to reasonably expect.

    For clients, we tend to give people options. So route A is one price, versus a less pricey route B that might have more connections or a longer layover, etc. People have different priorities, so it works out.

  9. This is really freaking annoying. I wish they would just say a mile is worth one cent and just use the price already. Either be revenue or not. This in between stuff is frustrating.

  10. @ Darin — Not necessarily, and you definitely can’t assume there is Tier 1 space on a transcon flight. Was the JFK-AMS on KLM, or Delta?

  11. @ Stephan — Hah, thanks.

    Though to be clear, I still LOVE using SkyMiles, particularly to Europe, and will happily apply for cards to replenish those balances. Having a bit of knowledge makes actually redeeming those miles less frustrating, in my experience, but most people don’t know where to even start 🙁

  12. I’m not sure this has anything to do with partners or tiers or anything … I think the simpler answer is that Delta has imposed O&D pricing for awards on all-DL-metal tickets, which is why finding two segments with DL Tier 1 space does not mean you can book the entire award at Tier 1. There have been numerous reports of this kind of thing on FT.

    Really, this is not so surprising … and is perfectly consistent with Delta’s reasoning for removing the award chart … buying a cash ticket SAV-ATL-CDG and back does not cost the same as buying SAV-ATL plus ATL-CDG, and it certainly (usually) doesn’t cost the same as ATL-CDG, so why should it for awards?

    FWIW, I have found at least one instance on an ORD-DTW-ICN routing where the DTW-ICN DL flight had lots of business class seats open at Tier 1 (like 5), and trying to book 5 seats on the ORD-DTW flight by itself pushed it into a higher tier, but booking the entire trip would let you have 5 seats on both flights at Tier 1 pricing. So in theory O&D pricing can work to customers’ benefit as well as to their detriment, though beneficial cases are presumably going to be rare.

    The problem is that Delta seems to have a pretty clear idea of how they want to handle awards on their own metal going forward (increasingly mirroring the way revenue flights are priced with things like highly dynamic pricing and O&D pricing, and maybe eventually just saying 1 SkyMile = 1 cent or something), but seems to have given little thought, or little IT attention, to what that means when partner awards get involved, which is why trying to mix DL domestic connections and international partner flights has been extremely unpredictable this year.

  13. @ DennisLAX — In ways? I think it’s a bit more of an Origin/Destination restriction, like @Bgriff described above.

  14. DL still works if you are patient. Just last week, I booked SAT-MEX-EZE MDZ-EZE-MEX-SAT. The MDZ-EZE segment is a one-cabin flight with Aerolineas Argentinas. The rest of the flights are AM in business class (787!).

    It was all booked at saver prices. DL’s engine wouldn’t price this properly due to the 22hr layover I wanted in MEX, but an agent was able to price it just right. 125k per person in business class.

    You gotta do research and be patient. I actually don’t mind more complicated systems; it makes the chase more fun & it gets rid of newbies and others who aren’t willing to do the work.

  15. @ Bgriff — Your last paragraph is spot-on (I mean, the rest is all good too). The people running SkyMiles have a definite vision of what their awards will look like in the future, but that doesn’t necessarily align with their partner agreements.

  16. What Bgriff said…
    I think the frequent flyer blogging community has to understand that with the airlines moving to O&D-based revenue management, this will naturally be extended to reward seats. The glory days of segment-by-segment construction will likely come to an end with all of the majors over the next decade. It’s unfortunate, but it’s better business for them. That said, they’re going to have to come up with some semi-transparent way of communicating if they wish to still harness the value of these programs in the future, to the extent that they have in the past.

  17. “If you’re leveraging a partner (and you should!) the old rules of searching segment by segment for the lowest tier still apply”

    But if you find individual segments at the lowest tier but DL.com won’t recognize the combination, or prices it additively, aren’t you still SOL?

  18. @ italdesign — If you find individual segments at the lowest tier, and the award involves a partner, it should price at the lowest level if you call. It’s the all-Delta awards that have nefarious pricing whether online or via phone.

  19. Announced today, the Delta Skymiles credit card was just discontinued in Canada. The card apparently saw a flood of cancellations and only signed up fewer than 100 new card holders in the first quarter of this year! Delta is committing suicide.

  20. Been fiddling with Skymiles use in Asia… finding that a KLM routin, for, say, PVG-AMS will get priced at 80k in J oneway, and PVG-AMS-AUH will be 70k. And on some days the system will show “Mixed Cabin” availability for PVG-AMS-AUH.

    And AF/KL flights only get tacked with fuel surcharges out of Europe, CAI and TLV. Not out of Africa, North/South America or Asia. Hmmmm.

    Moral of story: Skymiles better used on partner airlines.

  21. @iv – “Delta is committing suicide.”

    We may not like what Delta is doing, but they are most definitely NOT committing suicide. They’re actually doing quite well, money-wise.

  22. FWIW, those discontinued Delta Skymiles cards in Canada were Capital One cards, not the US Amex kinds, so it’s hard to know what this says for the rest of us.

  23. This one is a tough one to swallow.

    I found a 62,500 Virgin flight out of New York to London in Upper Class but needed to depart from San Diego. In the past I have almost always used an economy routing at no extra charge but in this case the SAN-JFK leg in economy was so high priced in miles I ended up buying a ticket for that portion. SAN-JFK $240 JFK-LHR 62,500 miles. If my flight gets screwed up out of SAN I may miss the VIrgin flight and have to forfeit the miles. Getting really hard to get value out of Skymiles now…perhaps partners on international segments and the occasional gift when the Skymiles machine is have a bad day.

  24. This is good stuff, Tiffany, though way over my head. Can I back up and ask what I think is a basic question? I am looking to travel from LAX to PRG. When I search LAX-CDG, I come up with a seat in business on AF for 62,500 miles. When I search CDG to PRG for a departure the next day, I come up with a seat in business on AF for 25,000 miles — the two segments if I put them together would have a 3 hour connection. But when I search from LAX to PRG, it will not put these segments together and it will only give my itineraries that price at 100k. Are you saying that this is something that Delta should be able to do by phone since it involves all partner flights? What magic words do I need to use with Delta on the phone?

    Also, is it possible to not transfer Amex to delta until I have an agent telling me he or she can do it, or will they not do that? I would hate to make the transfer and then have an agent say they can’t put the segments together.

  25. The DL Canada cards offered 2x miles on ALL spend, so maybe it wasn’t affordable for Capital One in the end.

  26. Lucky, whatever you’re paying Tiffany, it isn’t enough! Would love to see more of her posts, including trip reports. Nick’s funny too. That’s a nice trio.

  27. I’m commenting without first reading the entire post (so I reserve the right to amend if necessary), but I don’t think I need to read it for what I’d like to say. The more complicated delta can make its program, the harder it will be for customers to know when they are being f…ked out of there harder-to-earn miles. And some deltaphiles who get their employers to shell out big bucks for their flights may not even care. Step 1, hide the award charts. So much for delta’s self-proclaimed core values of honesty, integrity and respect. At least delta hasn’t been brazen enough to add transparency as one of its values. End rant.

  28. @Larry

    I would definitely call and have them piece it together… it’s absurd the website can’t handle it.
    if they tell you that you don’t have enough miles in your account, say you’ll make an instant transfer from Amex as soon as they tell you how many miles it actually is.

  29. So if at least one segment is on a partner, it should price ok. How about if we fly DL metal to CDG or AMS and connect to AF/KL intra-Europe from there, still pricing ok?

  30. @ Larry — What Lantean said above is perfect! That should price if you call (though you can also try the multi-city tool), it’s the same as the Savannah > Paris example in the post, and should price correctly if you call.

    And 99% of agents are perfectly willing to construct the itinerary and then wait while you transfer the points, we do that all the time.

  31. @ M — If the Delta segment is at Tier 1, then that’s fine (as all AF/KL flights are Tier 1). If the Delta segment is Tier 2-5 the pricing will be additive, but you can at least get it on one ticket.

  32. “nemme says:
    June 12, 2015 at 7:19 pm
    Lucky, whatever you’re paying Tiffany, it isn’t enough! Would love to see more of her posts, including trip reports. Nick’s funny too. That’s a nice trio.”

    Second that nemme 🙂

  33. Tiffany, if DL can’t figure out what to do with partners and awards, do you think they may end up doing what VX does, and have flex-pricing for their metal, but traditional miles-based awards for partners?

  34. Another vote for Tiffany’s posts!
    Real quality each time.

    Tiffany: outside DL and AF/KL and KE (cos I am in a region that somehow cannot access KE in any manner at the moment – even Starpoints can’t go there), any other award charts within the skyteam are you familiar with and will recommend to accumulate in order to book skyteam awards?

  35. Lucky/Tiffany:

    I am also interested if anyone within your team has booked EY awards on EY or EY’s partners.
    I am keen to find out the booking experiences with their call centres, especially when it comes to their partner awards.

  36. @ Brian L. — I’m really not great at industry analysis, but maybe Ben will chime in? That certainly seems reasonable to me, but I think SkyMiles has a grander vision for loyalty programs as a whole.

  37. @ flyingfish — You’ve left me with a lot of options 😉 Alitalia doesn’t have a horrible chart, so that could be interesting. What carriers would you reasonably be looking to book on?

  38. I am wondering if Delta’s system is not correctly applying the stopover rule. In your first two examples, your domestic legs are in the morning, and your international leg is in the evening. This creates a connection time of more than 4 hours, which is the limit for domestic-domestic connections (but not domestic-international as up to 24 hours is allowed). And the reason why you see the connections through JFK showing at the Tier 1 price point is that they are connecting to a partner flight, where the rule is correctly applied (allowing up to 24 hours).

  39. Great, great post.

    It sounds almost as complicated to get a full ticket on DL as it does to find space on BA for a companion ticket flight!

    Why would you not just buy two separate tickets, one for each leg?

  40. @ meegabroad — Thanks! The effort is justified by the decreased price (hopefully). If you can match up the tiers you can save quite a bit compared to buying the tickets separately.

  41. @Rian – “Why would anyone give this company their business and enable them to do this crap.”

    Because Delta, in spite of SkyMiles, is a good airline. Not everyone cares about FF miles as much as we do.

  42. Thanks for a very thoughtful and well-written article on the state of the Skymiles redemptions.

    About 3 days ago i booked a mixed cabin itinerary at the low level (all 2-cabin flights). I won’t say how (you have to do this in a very specific way) online, because Delta will then”fix” the problem sooner rather than later. But I agree that for the most part, the software is successfully subjecting such itineraries to additive pricing or refusing to display them. Competitors are moving this way too, but not as aggressively as Delta is. The elite benefits and Skymiles program no longer serve to incentivize me to fly Delta more which means I’ll probably be flying them less in the coming years.

  43. Delta is doing extremely well with both revenue and profit, so they can afford to not actively encourage flying vis a vis its frequent flyer program as much –that’s the essential fact that people seem to be missing. Delta is clearly making it harder to get value from its Skypesos, and people still collect them and fly Delta, anyway. Good for them–and better for me and everyone who doesn’t fly Delta or collect Skypesos!

    If I must fly Delta because its route is somehow best, then I ALWAYS use Amex MR points or Alaska miles to book awards–never Skypesos directly, which is why I don’t bother with any of the DL credit cards. I always call first to make sure they have the award for the route first, THEN I transfer Amex MR points into my DL account for the award. But this is also why I so often avoid Delta routes whenever possible.

    Delta is a horrible award airline proposition, and it has been for years. It only is getting worse as Delta needs to rely on its frequent flyer program less and less as its “reputation” for great flights continues to grow.

  44. My solution to this award search problem is to just book awards using AF/KL on their non-stops from the big cities, that they fly US to CDG/AMS. This doesn’t work for everyone, but if you live within 200 miles, that’s a 4 hour (or less) drive that can be managed by most. ORD is my best example. In the summer, AF and DL, both have flights ORD>CDG. The charts usually show the AF flight for 62,500 for J, but the Delta flight is usually 100,000 or more, even at 331 days in advance release. I imagine JFK is the same way. Delta plays so much with inventory and their whole res system is so screwed up, that trying to make heads or tails prediction of how and what to book, is sometimes almost impossible. Now that AF/KL have mostly lay flat J, why bother with DL?

  45. Go I heard there is such thing to book nuc-Lon and then change it to nyc- tlv on delta direct on save rewards does anyone know how to do it

  46. If I can force a routing onto a partner and everything is at tier 1, will it price at the saver level? E.g. SFO-JFK is at 12,500 and JFK-YHZ is at 12,500, but SFO-JFK-YHZ is at 25,000. If SFO-SEA is available at 12,500 on AS, and SEA-JFK is also available at 12,500 (on either DL or AS), should SFO-SEA-JFK-YHZ price at 12,500?

  47. @ Matt C — Only if the entire award is on partner metal. Once you have a Delta flight involved (which I’m assuming you’d have JFK-YHZ), you’re potentially subject to their origin and destination pricing.

    The only way to know for sure is to price it out, unfortunately.

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