People have different opinions when it comes to booking award tickets with frequent flyer miles. I, for one, love booking award tickets and enjoy the challenge that comes with doing so. Booking award tickets are like puzzles to me and I love solving them. Other people hate booking award tickets, consider them too much of a hassle, or even go so far as to believing their frequent flyer miles are completely worthless. I’ve decided to put a guide together for those of you who fall in between – people who want to book award tickets themselves but feel like they need some pointers. This guide will assume some basic knowledge, namely, that you know how to log in to your frequent flyer account and check your mileage balance. Other than that, the guide is here to help you through the process – hope you find it useful! Feel free to refer to the index at the bottom of the page for other entries.
To put it quite simply: delta.com is pretty broken when it comes to award searches and bookings. In fact, it’s one of the reasons people hate Delta Skymiles – they believe (incorrectly) that it’s impossible to book a ticket at low level prices or get so frustrated that they don’t bother trying. For awhile, it was easy to avoid Delta – they were the first to devalue their award chart so for awhile their premium awards were too expensive. Everyone has since devalued their charts (AA/US coming for sure), so Delta has more or less fallen back in line with the pack. This doesn’t solve the problem of how difficult it is to book awards or search for award space on delta.com – but hopefully this entry into the DIY Guide will help with that.
This post will be a little bit different. For most award search engines, I don’t need to use red circles or anything like that – you can figure it out on your own. Delta is a different type of beast, though. So what I will do is go through a mock award booking step by step. Almost every step highlights either a delta.com quirk, a delta.com tip, or something I feel you need to know in order to be successful with Delta. This is long, but hopefully there should be a lot of useful stuff in here for you. I’ll summarize at the end as well. Here we go!
Tip 1: You can’t trust the delta.com award calendar
So I decided just to search for a round trip for two (searching for one person is always a lot easier – but a lot less true to real life award travel) between Boston and London in October. My first tip for you if you’re going to use delta.com – don’t trust the award calendar. There are three colors that display on the calendar – green is good, yellow is bad, blue is horrible (they stand for low, medium, and high cost awards respectively). However, the calendar will not always display green even if there is a low level award available. This commonly happens in two circumstances:
1) There is a flight on a Skyteam partner that you can take – these always price at low level but the delta.com award calendar conveniently ignores their existence
2) Any time one flight on an itinerary is only available at the medium or high price, the entire itinerary prices at that higher cost
The reality is, there is a decent amount of award space on Delta flights flying transatlantic to Europe – it’s the domestic legs that have abysmal low level availability. If you were to click through on October 8th, you would see that delta.com doesn’t show any low level award space in business class to London from Boston – but that doesn’t mean it’s true. How can you find that space? Tip 2.
Tip 2: When flying transatlantic (or far in general), if you can’t find low level space from your home airport, start by searching from Delta hubs. Then search any other Delta airport that flies directly to where you want to go.
This isn’t a hard and fast rule but I find it works more often than not. Most of Delta’s longhaul flights originate from hubs, generally with more than one flight to the big destinations per day. There is going to be a better chance for award space from a city that has two flights to London per day than a city that only has one. When I’m doing this, I generally search JFK, DTW, MSP, LAX, SLC, SEA – in that order (I’m coming from Boston).
The trick here is, you just want to find low level award space from any city in the United States. Remember, it’s best practice to search for one way segments, and for Delta we’ll start with the longhaul transatlantic one. In this case, I didn’t have to go past DTW – there are two seats in business class on the DTW-LHR flight. Now that I had found low level award space, it was time to look for a flight from Boston to DTW aka Tip 3.
Tip 3: After you find low level award space from anywhere, find low level space from your home city to the transatlantic gateway – in economy if you have to
Basically, the existence of the low level award space on the DTW-LHR flight told me this – as long as I could get to my transatlantic gateway, DTW, using low level awards, I’d be able to fly all the way to London only paying the low price (that’s how Delta works). So now I just searched BOS-DTW – no domestic first class low level award space. But, do I really need to fly in first class for short haul flights? Personally, I don’t, so I repeated the search, except for economy.
Bingo – if I’m willing to take two legs (through Cincinnati), I can get to Detroit in economy on low level awards in time for the longhaul flight to London. Now I realize that this might not be ideal for everyone, especially if you have kids. Two years ago I would have dragged Jess on this type of itinerary with me – now, I would never consider it. But it’s an option for using your Delta Skymiles at a good rate. That’s what’s important.
Tip 4: If Delta changes your flights by more than an hour, you can almost always change to more convenient flights for free
Delta has a pretty generous schedule change rule which you can read here. They’re also notorious for changing their schedules all the time. I also find their agents are generally pretty understanding when schedule or equipment changes happen. Therefore, yes I would be booking a two leg journey to get to my transatlantic gateway, but I’d monitor my flights and if Delta changes my schedule enough I’ll ask for a change. This works with all airlines, but in my experience I have found Delta to be one of the more accommodating ones. Still, in a worst case scenario I’m taking two short haul flights to lie flat on my way across the Atlantic.
Tip 5: You can mix classes (business/economy) on Delta awards and your round trip price will be the average cost
Unlike some other airlines, you can mix classes on your outbound and return and the cost of your trip will be the average of the two award levels. So I decided to search for an economy flight home. As you can see, there is no low level availability on October 16th. Or is there? Like I said in Tip 1: never trust this stupid calendar. Clicking through will reveal that there is a direct Virgin Atlantic flight to Boston with low level economy space!
Delta hides partner award space below its own flights, even cheaper partner awards, so make sure you select “Miles per passenger” as the method for organizing the flights (I’ll hit on this more in my forthcoming delta.com advanced techniques post). So now I’ve found low level space in business one way to London, and in economy back. Time to book.
Tip 6: Use a multi-city search to piece together your entire award segment by segment
As you search for your award low level segment by low level segment, write down every single low level award flight you want to take. After you’ve determined the flights you want to take, you’ve finished the hard part. Now it’s time for the fun part – booking! To do this, you want to pull up delta.com’s lovely award search tool yet again, but this time you want to do a multi-city itinerary.
Take every single segment you found and plug it in. In this case it would be BOS-CVG, CVG-DTW, DTW-LHR, and LHR-BOS. Instead of searching by “price”, ask the system to search by “schedule”. Now start your search! For each segment, you will be given a list of flights to choose from – including all low, medium, and high level award flights! Which ones do you choose?
Well, I think you know the answer to that. But just in case – look for the flights that you wrote down that you know have low level award space and choose them! Remember to be sure to choose economy for the flights that only had low level in economy – you can’t make a single mistake otherwise the itinerary won’t price correctly.
But if you do it right – suddenly you have a low level Delta award! As you can see, this priced out to 92,500 miles round trip (Delta doesn’t allow one way awards until 2015). That is exactly the average of a round trip business and economy class low level award to Europe: (125,000 + 60,000) / 2 = 92,500. Delta even automatically upgraded the BOS-CVG leg to domestic first because low level space was available (never seen that before, btw!)
Hopefully you’ve followed along okay, but here’s a quick review of the tips (paraphrased) outlined in this post.
Tip 1: Friends don’t let friends trust delta.com’s award calendar
Tip 2: Find low level transatlantic space first, even if it’s not from your hometown
Tip 3: Find low level award space from your hometown to the city in Tip 2, “downgrading” to economy if that gets you in a low level award if necessary
Tip 4: Delta schedule changes are your friend – if they mess with your flights too much you can probably switch to more convenient ones
Tip 5: You can mix class of service and save some miles if you want
Tip 6: Piece your entire itinerary together piece by piece in the multi-city award search to book
Honestly, I kind of forgot how much I enjoy booking Delta awards. It’s like hunting for big game in Africa or something, the thrill is in the challenge. I actually cherry picked a fairly easy itinerary – there are a lot tougher ones out there but I just wanted to illustrate my points. Hopefully this post shows you that you can book low level Delta awards! Is it tedious? Yes. Is it annoying? Yes. Do you have to sometimes take weird routings? Yes. Is it worth it? Well, that’s up to you. Personally, I think it is. Delta Skymiles are cheap to earn, the devil is in burning them at low level prices. Hopefully this post helps you on your way to doing just that.
I haven’t even gotten to the fun stuff you can do yet. Delta allows both an open jaw and a stopover on award tickets – something you can take advantage of to extend the value of your miles. I’ll hit on that in my next DIY post involving advanced Delta award booking techniques. Should be a real cracker! (Hopefully at least a few of you watch soccer and get the reference).