Delta has earned a dualistic reputation among frequent fliers. By just about every metric, the airline easily tops its major competitors in the United States. Delta is more frequently on-time, offers more legroom in economy seats, often has better beds in business class and serves better food in both places. Then there is the frequent flier program: SkyMiles.
On one hand, a business analyst might call Delta “progressive” in its frequent flier decisions. Delta has certainly been ahead of an industry wide trend of mileage devaluations. A premium one-way award on Delta costs about 12 percent more than it did 12 months ago. This is a trend that has continued since at least 2014. Awards on Delta’s partner airlines have been devalued even more. Of course, that’s if you’re able to find a flight to begin with.
Delta, now joined by American, releases a paltry minimum of seats at their lowest SkyMiles award levels. Often times, instead of finding mileage award fares to Europe for 30,000 SkyMiles in economy and 70,000 in business class, frequent fliers will see prices double, or even triple. Ouch.
Fortunately, there is something about the Delta.com award system that keeps certain SkyMiles awards available on a regular basis, at the lowest price. That’s because you can’t see these awards at all on Delta.com.
Here are a few hidden options bookable using SkyMiles. If you don’t have time to go on a miles hunt, the folks at Juicy Miles can take care of the award search for you.
Say you want to book an award flight this fall from New York City to Bangkok in business class. Here are the options you are getting when you put in a search on Delta.com:
Not a pretty picture. No one should ever, ever, ever spend 280,000 SkyMiles on a one-way business class award. If this was the only way to save the life of a family member, it might make sense. But if times are that desperate it probably won’t kill you to sit in the back. The one and only non-fortune award showing up on Delta’s calendar is for 165,000 miles, double the cost of a one-way award. That flight requires a 10 hour layover in Paris and you won’t arrive until two days after departure. Ouch. Not a great mileage redemption.
There is a much, much better option than this, however, that you will never see on the Delta Air Lines website.
China Airlines is a SkyTeam member airline, meaning that all of their available partner awards can be booked through Delta and can be combined with flights on any other SkyTeam member. They operate daily nonstop service between their hub in Taipei and four North American cities: Los Angeles, New York Kennedy, San Francisco and Vancouver. All of the flights are on either Boeing 777-300er or Airbus A350-900 aircraft, featuring the airline’s renowned Premium Business Class seats and service.
In the past, China Airlines awards appeared on Delta.com on a route-by-route basis. That meant that only nonstop flights would appear, while China Airlines connections would not. Following recent changes to the Delta website, not even these nonstop awards are appearing in Delta’s online search engine.
China Airlines awards do appear on Air France, however. You will need a Flying Blue membership in order to search award space through Air France, however. China Airlines awards can also be searched on a nonstop basis using ExpertFlyer.
Once you’ve found space on China Airlines, you’ll have to call Delta to book the award using SkyMiles. Delta’s rate for partner awards between North America and Asia is 95,000 miles, and taxes and fees on China Airlines usually amount to about $60 one-way.
I generally find wide open availability on China Airlines in both economy and premium business class. To sweeten the deal, the airline offers a generally higher level of service than some of the other commonly available carriers when searching for flights between the U.S. and Asia on Delta, such as China Eastern and China Southern. China Airlines’ Taipei-based route network provides easy connections to most major airport in Southeast Asia and Oceania, as well, making a luxurious award vacation fairly attainable on most dates.
Europe, the long way
While award availability to Europe is generally easier to come by than Asia, it can still be tricky to find level 1 awards using SkyMiles on certain dates and at certain times. Lets take a look at award space to Amsterdam, around Christmas time.
This is another situation where a Delta partner has award inventory between North America and the destination, but won’t show you the availability in these calendar results. Jet Airways operates a daily nonstop between Toronto and Amsterdam using a three-class 777-300er airplane. Their business class cabin features direct-aisle access herringbone-style seats similar to those used on Delta’s own 777 aircraft.
To search for Jet Airways availability, you’ll have to specifically look at the Toronto (YYZ) to Amsterdam (AMS) route.
Jet Airways is not a member of any airline alliance, and also shares partnerships with United Airlines and American Airlines (though not for long). Delta does allow you to combine a Jet Airways flight with Delta flight, though, meaning you could arrange an itinerary between a U.S. city and Amsterdam using Toronto as a connection.
Delta flights don’t have to be available at Level 1, but you will pay additional miles to book a Delta connection at a higher mileage level. If you can find Level 1 space on a Delta flight into Toronto, the whole award will cost 85,000 miles, one-way.
While nonstop Jet Airways awards can be booked through Delta.com, any connecting itinerary will have to be completed over the phone. Be sure to have the specific flight numbers available.
Europe, the expedient way
Another option to get between the U.S. and Europe is on little-known SkyTeam partner Air Europa. While their business class product lags behind the likes of Delta, Air France and KLM, their award availability is significantly better. Like other SkyTeam partners, a single award can be assembled using partner awards on any other airline, making it possible to assemble a journey to just about any European destination via the airline’s Madrid hub. The catch: none of the major SkyTeam airlines show Air Europa availability online. This means calling and specifically asking about awards on Air Europa, or using an inventory search engine like ExpertFlyer.
Air Europa’s onboard experience is improving, too. Their new Boeing 787 Dreamliners, operated between Miami and Madrid, feature fully lie-flat seats. Their Airbus A330s, still in use on routes between Madrid and Boston or New York (JFK), feature outdated angled seats in business class.
Once you’ve found award availability, you will have to book AirEuropa awards over the phone. Business class awards are charged at the partner rate, 85,000 miles each way, but come with minimal taxes and fees.
Last minute to Australia
Finding availability to Australia and New Zealand can be uniquely frustrating on Delta. Unlike United, Delta’s award rules do not favor booking through Asian hubs like Seoul and Taipei (the airline charges extra miles). Delta cranks up prices on its own flights down under, leaving its award calendar, even far out in the distance, looking rather barren.
There is a way around this, however, if you’re willing to hold your breath. Virgin Australia has one of the latest partner award windows of any airline I normally book with. The Aussie outpost of Richard Branson’s airline empire keeps its business class seats off-limits to partners until about two weeks before departure, at the earliest.
The good news for flexible vacationers is that this means wonderful availability once the awards finally do open. Delta seems to follow suit with its own awards on these routes, too, meaning overall reliable availability up close, if you’re willing to build a day or two of flexibility into your travel plans. The Level 1 price for Delta awards to Australia is 95,000 SkyMiles, while Virgin Australia awards clock in at 115,000 miles. This is still a bit steep, but much more attractive than the 175,000 the airline is asking for throughout the rest of the calendar year.
Virgin Australia has Delta beat in terms of product comfort, for now anyway. Virgin currently operates 777-300er aircraft outfitted with reverse herringbone B/E Diamond seating. These seats will be eclipses sometime in late 2017 or early 2018, however, when Delta begins operating its LAX to Sydney route using the Airbus A350, complete with enclosed Delta One suites.
While finding award space for SkyMiles seems impossible at times, employing these tricks makes it a lot easier. Taking advantage of these hidden options, I generally have an easier time finding award space on Delta partners than American. The competence of Delta’s phone reps makes booking with unusual partners fairly easy, so long as you’ve confirmed availability and have the schedule and flight numbers nailed down ahead of time.
If you’re having trouble finding awards with your miles, or don’t have the time to go on a hunt for availability, let the folks at Juicy Miles do the work for you.