How to use and find hidden value in the Delta award chart (or lack thereof)

When you run a search for an award ticket on Delta, the price is whatever Delta says it is, because Delta has no award chart. That makes it hard to know how many miles you need for a flight.

Although Delta is considered the best airline, as far as operations are concerned, it arguably has the worst loyalty program. It’s not worthless, but it requires some finesse to gauge how many miles you need to collect when you have a travel goal.

Delta really wants each mile to be worth 1 cent each, and bases award prices on the cash cost of the ticket, along with other “factors.” But you can still get outsized value and great deals if you know what to look for. Even better, there are increased Delta credit card offers on all seven products:

Let’s explore the Delta award chart – what’s left of it, anyway.

Delta miles can get you to fantastic destinations like England, if you know how to work the system to get the best deal – even without a proper Delta award chart. (Photo by ian woolcock/Shutterstock.)

How to navigate the Delta award chart that isn’t there

The Delta award chart exists only in theory. Getting a good price is a combination of:

  • Being flexible with your dates
  • Looking closely at the options
  • Trying a couple of tricks to get an award to price lower
  • Getting lucky

Delta prices its flights roughly based on cash price

Say, for example, you’re in Dallas and want to visit Chicago around April 2020. How many Delta miles do you need for a one-way coach flight? That should be an easy question, but …

Well now, that’s not very helpful.

Not so with Delta. You’ll need between 4,500 and 35,000 Delta miles, so that got me thinking … why does it vary?

It’s definitely driven by the cash price of the ticket. On the days you can get a flight for 4,500 Delta miles, you can buy the flight for $82. The days requiring the most Delta miles, like March 29 for 35,000 Delta miles, has a cash cost of $469.

In both of those examples, you can get nearly 2 cents of value per Delta mile, which is a good deal. But on the majority of days, you’ll get closer to 1 cent per mile (the same value you’ll get using Delta’s Pay With Miles).

Add a partner flight to get a lower price

Say you’re in Chicago and want to travel to Seoul. How many miles do you need?

Another mixed bag, but with a new element: We’ve added a partner.

Whereas Delta prices its own flights roughly based on the cash cost, that isn’t true with partners. Based on this search, the clue that we’re looking at partner flights is the ~$25 tax charge instead of Delta’s usual ~$6 price.

Remember, you can always click “Price Calendar” to get five weeks of pricing.

Delta partner awards always price at the lowest tier. Based on this, we know Delta wants at least 37,500 Delta miles for a one-way coach trip from Chicago to Seoul (though there are exceptions, like when there’s a fare sale or flash sale).

And, these awards are not based on the cash price.

As you can see, the cash price is the same regardless of the day you’re flying.

In this case, each Delta mile is worth just over 2 cents ($909 – $25 in taxes/37,500).

So what’s the lesson here? Try to look for partner awards — or add a partner flight to your Delta award to drop the price.

Anomalies abound

With Delta, nothing’s hard and fast. You simply have to play around with it until you find something you like.

Tricks like filtering for partner flights – don’t always produce results. At times, there’s no logic whatsoever. I’ve come across award flights where a seat in Comfort+ costs less than a first-class seat.

And booking with a partner, in the example above from Chicago to Seoul, lowers the price for the coach award, but actually raises the business-class price. So you’re better off flying the partner to save on the coach seat, but flying Delta airplanes saves you a lot of miles for the premium cabin. (I have a feeling the routing is a factor here.)

What does it all mean? How many miles do you need for an award flight?

Based on these patterns, we can deduce:

  • Domestic Delta award seats are usually tied to the cash cost of the ticket
  • International Delta coach award seats are loosely tied to the cash cost of the ticket – but not always
  • International Delta premium-class seats have semi-set prices, and are usually a better deal
  • Partner awards at the lowest levels are usually a good deal

This means if you want to fly Delta domestically, you get ~1 cent of value per Delta mile and for international awards, you’ll usually do better flying a partner airline (or at least adding a non-Delta segment to the award), but nothing is set in stone.

I recommend running test searches spread out over a few months, and using the 5-week calendar view, to check the average lowest prices for a given route. That requires having a travel goal in mind before you start saving your miles.

For example, I ran searches from Memphis to Maui round-trip in coach across a span from January to April 2020, to get a sense of the pricing. Based on this, I know I’ll pay anywhere from 28,500 and 90,000 Delta miles. If I wanted to travel several months from now and book an award in a month or two, I still have to remember the price could be higher or lower when I’m ready to book.

It’s not ideal, but having a ballpark number in mind is the best strategy, especially for domestic awards. If you want to travel abroad, find the lowest partner award price and aim to save that amount.

How do you book a Delta award flight?

MMS recently wrote about how to use Delta miles for award flights. You’ll find more tips for searching, as well as a full list of airline partners.

That said, it’s quite easy to book most Delta award flights directly on its website and it’s a good idea to get used to the particular quirks of the booking engine, especially if Delta is your go-to airline.

Bottom line

In the absence of an award chart, Delta flyers have to make their best guesstimate for how many miles are required for an award ticket on Delta flights and they have ways to figure out the best price for a seat with Delta’s airline partners.

It’s easy to run searches on Delta’s website and international partner awards still represent huge value and savings with Delta miles. Even adding a partner segment to your award can drop the price, but not always, as there are plenty of anomalies.

Ultimately, the best approach to Delta miles is to set a goal, then collect the miles you need – not the other way around. With some searching, there are still values to unlock, though they’re becoming harder to find a solution Delta marches toward revenue-based rewards where your miles are worth 1 cent each. Until then, do your best and keep poking around until you find what you’re looking for.

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