It’s ironic given how many posts I’ve written against both Flying Blue and Sky Miles that I get a lot of use out of both programs. Delta’s actually not bad if you’re trying to use it for domestic redemptions — the flights are more expensive, but the fact that they’re available in the first place makes a pretty big difference. (I have called this the “Delta Availability Tax” in the past). I don’t know if this is quite as much of a competitive advantage anymore, since the other US airlines are making more space available these days… well, American definitely is, and as long as United releases a couple saver seats a month, that would still count as “more” given their piss-poor history. But my point is that Sky Miles can be useful if you stop trying to hold it to the standard that loyalty programs established ten years ago.
I know we’ve all seen the famous “Loyalty Programs Should be Loyal” ad, and it’s certainly ironic given how relentlessly Delta has devalued their miles. However, they’ve also provided opportunities to keep up with the point deflation by stockpiling Amex cards. Between personal and business cards, you can vacuum up a half million Delta miles in fairly short order, which is something you most certainly can’t do with United, American, or Alaska (thanks to 5/24, Citi’s one-bonus-per-family rule, Barclay’s unwritten 6/24 rule, and BofA sucking, respectively). And while Amex’s once-per-lifetime bonus restriction is the most draconian on paper, they’re very liberal in how they target people for special offers that don’t include that once-per-lifetime language. To wit: this week I applied for my third Delta Gold card in three years, which is honestly pretty shocking.
Plus, the “best ever” bonuses for those cards have ballooned like crazy in that period, to the point that 50k used to be remarkable whereas now anything under 75 is a snoozer (unless of course it’s one of those glistening targeted offers like the one I got this week, in which case I’ll happily settle for 60k). And these days, the Reserve card, which used to only award MQMs as a sign-up bonus and made waves when they offered 45k redeemable miles, is also getting in on the 75-80k action. So while the miles have admittedly wilted, the credit card situation is at least providing somewhat of a counterbalance. Sure, when Amex inevitably implements a once-per-family rule, my tune will change in a hurry… but we’re not there yet (thankfully).
One thing about Sky Miles that’s easy to forget about, however, is that despite having unpublished award pricing levels (that change without notice), they very much are a revenue-based program. In practice, this means that awards are always priced from origin-to-destination and not according to regions in an award chart. That means that it can sometimes be difficult to change award itineraries, since changes will affect the origin and destination pair, causing the whole itinerary to re-price at the current rate. This happened to me recently with an itinerary from SFO-LAX-CDG in which I was trying to change the origin from SFO to DEN. In a chart-based program, as long as your origin and destination regions don’t change (AND there’s saver space on the new leg AND you follow the other routing rules), you would be able to make that change after paying the change fee. (For what it’s worth, I confirmed this with United and American before writing this post, just to be sure I wasn’t making shit up.)
However, since Delta doesn’t really have “award space” to begin with, it operates differently. There aren’t region-based rules or anything like that, there’s just the cost between two cities. Honestly, I’m pretty stupid for thinking I could make that SFO/DEN swap in the first place, since I’d never make the same assumption when changing a revenue ticket. It’s basically like asking the airline to let me do hidden city ticketing or something, but I was thinking of my award ticket as being different from a revenue ticket, and the way Delta’s program works, there’s no real difference. That’s important to keep in mind, since it makes Delta award tickets less flexible than those from chart-based programs. Sometimes plans change and you need to suck it up and pay a change fee, which is fine. But with Delta, it’s not just the fee you need to pay, since it’s pretty likely that the cost of your trip will quadruple as well.
In this specific case, I went ahead and just canceled the reservation. I hate coughing up $150 in cases like this, but sticking to the original routing would have made for a really stressful trip, so it was worth it just to eat the $150 and start over. The problem is that I was trying to fly transatlantic in business class in peak season on a specific day, and awards were pretty much non-existent. Direct flights were a non-starter, given that I’d be limited to United (no availability) or British Airways. While I’d probably pay BA’s fuel surcharge for first class out of desperation, there weren’t any seats on the day I needed. Business was available as usual, but I just can’t debase myself enough to spend $600 + a bunch of miles + another $150 to select a seat (IN BUSINESS CLASS). I poked around various programs and didn’t find anything good, but then I decided to check on Flying Blue as a last resort.
Speaking of Flying Blue, they recently went to a system that looks a lot like Delta’s, with dynamic pricing, multiple price levels, and plenty of origin-destination pricing quirks that you can leverage to get some unexpected great deals. What I’m not fully clear on is how programs with this sort of structure handle partner awards, since those awards are much simpler — either the airline releases saver inventory on a particular flight to its partners, or it doesn’t. When I started researching this post, it occurred to me that I hadn’t seen an Air France or KLM saver award on Delta in a long time, so I started to worry that both programs shifting to dynamic pricing made partner saver awards a thing of the past. Thankfully that isn’t true (I found some SFO-CDG business class awards on Air France for 75k Sky Miles in January 2020 as proof), but it doesn’t exactly answer my question either.
(As an aside, in the course of working on this post, I also found some SFO-CDG awards for an eye-watering 320,000 Sky Miles, which is new to me. For a while it seemed like 280k was the upper limit, and while that was certainly bad enough, “bad enough” is not nearly bad enough when it comes to Sky Miles.)
In the case of the Air France partner award i found for 75k via Delta, that same flight is available for 71,000 Flying Blue miles, which is the new “saver” amount for that route, This suggests that Air France treats a certain subset of its inventory as “saver” which means both that it gets released to partners and that it is priced at the current lowest level for that award. That’s pretty intuitive, but what I found when I was trying to book my DEN-CDG award definitely was not. See, I poked Delta in a variety of places to try to find a low-level award, but alas every business class seat on Delta from the USA to CDG on the day I needed was 280k. That’s why I wasn’t that optimistic when I went to check Flying Blue — I was actually hoping to find a mid-level (non-saver) Air France award, since I had backed myself into a corner and knew I’d probably have to use more miles than I wanted to.
However, what I found BLEW MY MIND. (Well not really, but I never use clickbaity words on this site, so cut me some slack.) What I found was a near-perfect Delta award from DEN-MSP-CDG with the MSP-CDG leg on a refurbished 777 featuring Delta One Suites for only 72,000 miles and $5.60. I immediately went back to Delta and pulled up the exact same flights, thinking I must have missed something… but it was at 280k, just like I had originally found. So what was this flight I was seeing on Flying Blue then? If you’re a seasoned travel hacker, you’re probably muttering something involving “phantom award” under your breath, or maybe even yelling “I CERTAINLY HOPE YOU DIDN’T TRANSFER POINTS TO FLYING BLUE TO TRY TO BOOK AN OBVIOUS PHANTOM AWARD YOU FUCKING MORON!” at your screen.
While I was pretty sure I was looking at a phantom award (what other explanation could there be???), I still did the extremely reckless thing and transferred 72,000 Amex points. The transfer was instant and I went all the way through the booking process, only to be confronted with an error that the award couldn’t be booked. No big deal, I’ve had this error before, and I was able to book the award on the second or third try in those cases. Five tries later (across three different browsers), I was ready to admit that I had wasted 72,000 Amex points (or at least severely limited their usefulness), but I was deep enough in the process that I didn’t want to give up without pleading with a phone agent to book the award for me.
I called in and got a nice French guy on the line right away, and he went in and booked the award without a hitch. He even waived the phone booking fee since the website wouldn’t let me book it online. I was in shock, and for a couple weeks I figured Delta was going to email me to tell me that the award was booked in error… while that hasn’t happened yet, I’m still mentally prepared for it, since this whole situation is so weird. Is Delta releasing partner award space that prices at their insultingly high rates within their own system? (That wouldn’t exactly be off-brand for them.) Was this a Flying Blue glitch? I haven’t been able to find any other instances of it, so it could very well have been a one-off. That being said, if you’re trying to book a Delta award, it’s definitely worth your time to check on Flying Blue just in case Delta is hiding the good scotch in Flying Blue’s liquor cabinet.
Anyone else have any similar stories? I’m really curious about this, since we’re literally in unCHARTed territory now that so many programs are moving to this crappy dynamic pricing model. (I’m sorry, I had to.)
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1) This seems to be the norm. I’ve been able to do similar things with Flying Club when Delta wants an arm and a leg for flights on their own metal.
2) With the piece about being able to change awards on UA and AA, remember that AA has put in a bunch of married segment logic on its saver awards. So while in theory that holds for AA, in practice it’s more complicated.
I’ve seen this a number of times in the last year or so with both AF/KL and VS. It’s actually how I found a bunch of DL J space on ATL-JNB for my newsletter last year. I’ll take these quirks where I can find them.