Delta SkyMiles: Getting the Most Value on Flight Redemptions

Delta SkyMiles: Getting the Most Value on Flight Redemptions

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SkyMiles by Delta Airlines is not always the most warmly received frequent flyer rewards program. Restrictions and high prices have eroded its value to the average SkyMiles flyer over the past years, but continued participation in the program can see you coming away with fantastic deals on free flights. Delta's fleet numbers over 809 planes and serves more than 64 countries, which essentially opens up more free flights and upgrades than any other program. As a key Skyteam member, you also have access to several other major carriers as well as a few non-aligned members. Below we will detail for you what the value of your miles are, and how you can maximize their utility.

Value of a Delta SkyMile

We define the value of your SkyMiles as the number of miles needed to redeem a certain flight. The fewer SkyMiles needed, and the more expensive the flight, the better the value. It is ever-changing and depends on a variety of factors such as where and when you are flying, but it can range from as low as 0.6 cents a mile to over 5.0 cents a mile. We sampled several flights, international and domestic, between major Delta hubs and non-hub airports and found an average value of 1.3 and 2.1 cents per SkyMile for main cabin and first class seats on round-trip flights and 2.3 cents per mile and 2.9 cents per SkyMile for main cabin and first class seats on one-way flights.

Round TripOne Way

Main CabinFirst/BusinessMain CabinFirst/Business


Hub to Hub1.0 cents0.7 cents1.2 cents1.3 cents

Hub to Non-Hub1.2 cents1.5 cents1.3 cents1.5 cents

Non-Hub to Non-Hub1.3 cents1.3 cents0.9 cents1.4 cents


Hub to Hub1.5 cents4.0 cents4.2 cents5.9 cents

Hub to Non-Hub1.6 cents3.2 cents2.4 cents3.7 cents

Non-Hub to Non-Hub1.3 cents1.9 cents3.7 cents3.4 cents


1.3 cents2.1 cents2.3 cents2.9 cents

Redeeming SkyMiles for Free Flights

The main function of SkyMiles for most consumers is to redeem their miles for free flights. Unfortunately, Delta has made it harder for its passengers to know what is a good deal by removing the rewards chart from their website - much to the disapproval of frequent flyers. Delta mitigated the unpopular move in a way by finally offering reward tickets for one-way flights, something they had not done previous to 2015. They have also made it easier to see where and when you can book flights for the smallest amount of SkyMiles. Delta’s streamlined search tool allowed us to analyze several itineraries and flights, which enabled us to discover certain trends that can help you decide where to allocate your miles.

Better SkyMiles Value on International Flights

The most striking trend we discovered was that main cabin, one-way and round-trip international flights fetch an average value of 2.5 cents per mile compared to 1.2 cents per mile domestically for one-way and round-trips. Higher tier seats also generally give you a better value for your miles, although there are some cases such as domestic flights, where the first class ticket is a less valuable redemption. For many European one-way tickets, the airfare is higher versus domestic fares, but the number of miles halves, giving you tremendous mile values when booking one-ways. Where you fly is also of importance. The greatest value comes when flying from a Delta Hub in the US to a Delta Hub or Non-Hub internationally, for example, JFK in New York to Charles De Gaulle in Paris, which you can almost always book a direct flight with miles. Below you can see all of the Delta hubs domestically and internationally.



New York

JFK, LGAMinneapolisMSP


ATLSalt Lake CitySLC







Domestic Hub Travel Not the Best Redemption Option: Proximity or frequent travel to any of the Delta hubs gives you access to numerous direct flights every day that can be paid for with your SkyMiles. Through its network in New York, Atlanta, Minneapolis, Orlando, Chicago, and a heavy presence in Los Angeles, Delta serves the ten most flown domestic routes, several times a day.

domestic map

We researched how the value of your SkyMile changes between those routes, and present the values below. As you can see, many of these flights have below average values, which is unfortunate because these are the paths Americans will fly the most. Generally speaking, we actually recommend you hold off redeeming your miles on these flights if you want to maximize value. Another approach, if you travel these routes frequently, is to use them to earn miles. On average between these 10 routes, you earn 1,133 SkyMiles at the lowest status level. You can then use the miles for a a vacation in Paris for example, which has higher average mile values than all of those routes.


Main Cabin Mile ValueFirst Class/Business Mile Value


0.73 cents0.77 cents


0.9 cents0.49 cents


1.7 cents1.7 cents


1.7 cents1.9 cents


1.1 cents1.5 cents


0.7 cents0.57 cents


0.8 cents0.62 cents


1.2 cents0.76 cents


1.4 cents0.8 cents


0.88 cents0.91 cents

The Booking Process: Redeeming Your SkyMiles for Flights

When it comes to starting the booking process, the first step is to determine when you will get the best deal. By checking flexible dates and then “five weeks” when searching for a flight through Delta, you will be allowed to see “reward space” for your itinerary for the five weeks surrounding the selected travel date. Delta has made it very easy to find the days with the lowest fares, as you can see with this sample itinerary of New York to Barcelona in the first three months in 2016.


When you pick the day with the best fare, the next step is to determine whether it is a good deal. As we mentioned earlier, when it comes to getting the greatest bang for your miles in booking these tickets, you want a ticket that is worth spending miles rather than dollars on. Let's take a sample New York-London itinerary. Currently, the trip airfare costs $630 (excluding additional fees) to purchase or 77,500 miles to redeem. In this situation, we think the best deal would be to purchase the tickets for $630. If you're redeeming 77,500 miles for this Delta ticket, you'll only be getting 0.9 cents per SkyMile when you really want the value of your miles to be greater than our round-trip average of 1.3 cents. The NYC-BCN itinerary on the other hand is a 60,000 miles round-trip flight that normally costs $991 giving you a value of 1.7 cents per SkyMile - a much better deal.

Lastly, you need to remember taxes, fees and surcharges. Fuel surcharges, which we will discuss below, can be avoided, while taxes and fees cannot. You can find a great booking day and deal, but end up paying over $100 to $500 in taxes and fees for some flights. The good news is that not every flight needs to have high taxes. Flights that leave the UK, Germany, Russia, for example will always have high taxes, while flights out of smaller European countries such as Ireland, as well as domestic US flights will have lower taxes. Be wary as well when selecting flights that have a connection. A transfer through the U.K can end up costing you a lot more money. The reward space calendar is also a great way to see which days will be taxed heavier than others. Booking on March 2nd rather than the 4th for the itinerary above is the difference of $183.

Delta Flights from Europe: Booking One-Way Flights to Save on Fuel Surcharges

One of SkyMiles' biggest flaws that we need to address are the hefty fuel surcharges that get tacked on when flying from Europe. Essentially, all one-ways and round trips originating in Europe, meaning the first leg of the journey starts in Europe, and some parts of Asia, can be subjected to a fuel surcharge that can cost hundreds of dollars. The sample itinerary from London to JFK carries a GBP 163 or $246 charge, not even including the GBP 151 ($228) taxes.


What is even the purpose of a “free ticket” when you have to spend 77,500 miles, and then an extra $474? By our lowest estimations, 77,500 miles are worth $930, essentially meaning you are paying $1,404 for a flight that can be purchased for GBP 415 or $630. One good work around however is to book a one-way to Europe with your SkyMiles and pay for the return leg on a flight with another carrier that does not charge fuel surcharges. Using the same itinerary, you can purchase the one-way from New York to London for 37,500 miles plus only $5 in taxes, a mile value of close to 4 cents due to the one-way ticket being worth $1,156. We would then recommend using a travel site where you can find a cheap one-way ticket from London to New York. We were able to find tickets ranging in value of $400 to $500 on the site, but you may use a host of travel aggregator sites such as Travelocity, Expedia, etc, any site that fetches you prices from a variety of sources. If we choose an Iberia flight, rather than spending 77,500 SkyMiles and $474, you spend 37,500 SkyMiles and $425 for the same flight.

good deal

Additionally, if you collect miles with another airlines such as United, which does not impose surcharges, you can use the miles to pay for a 30,000 mile flight back.

Another advantage of the one way booking is that you can fly different classes on different legs of your journey. A round trip JFK to ATL will cost 25,000 miles in the main cabin or 92,500 miles for first class. If you wanted first class on the way there, you could redeem 55,000 SkyMiles for it, and then book 12,500 miles in the main cabin on the return leg. You will be spending 42,500 extra, but 67,000 SkyMiles is still less than 92,500.

Redeeming SkyMiles with SkyTeam Partners for Other Countries

As a key member of Skyteam, you can use your SkyMiles toward free flight on airlines within the alliance, which you can see below.


Additionally, Virgin, although not a member of Skyteam, has a partnership with Delta, allowing you to use your SkyMiles for their flights. The advantage of this alliance is how far-reaching it extends; direct flights to Asia are made possible with China Eastern and Southern Airlines, while the alliance with Air France and Virgin Atlantic make travel to Europe always readily available. Using SkyMiles for Virgin Atlantic flights is also a great way to avoid surcharges imposed by Virgin when using them to fly. Another benefit of Skyteam is that it not only does it consist of over 18 airlines, but they're major airlines: Alitalia (Italy), Air France, Aerolineas Argentina, Aero Mexico, Korean Air, etc. Alliances with these major airlines give you access to the smaller, less popular cities within those countries. For example, a flight from JFK to Naples, Italy will cost you an average of $920, yet you can get the same flight for 60,000 miles due to the Alitalia alliance, a 1.5 cent per mile value. You are also given access to flights you ordinarily cannot purchase directly from Delta. Many Korean Air flights can be booked with SkyMiles and get you to your destination in Asia faster than a Delta flight. The biggest issue to arise from this is that it's a bit more difficult to redeem your SkyMiles for these rewards flights online. For example with many Aerolineas Argentina flights within South America, you will need to call Delta to book with miles.

Change in 2016 and Upgrades

Delta changed their program January 1st of 2015, a move met by widespread outcry as many felt the airline did not give enough notice. As a result, this year the changes to the program will take place June 1st. Some flights will experience an increase in the amount of miles needed for redemption. Because Delta isn't disclosing their rewards charts, it is hard to say which flights will experience the increase in miles, but it means a devaluation for some flights. We would encourage you to compare flights for your desired itinerary before and after June 1st to see if you should bump that get-away perhaps before June.

The other side of the Delta program change in 2016 is the amount they will increase the miles needed to upgrade between classes, something we have yet to mention in this article. Delta had a chart detailing how many miles it required to upgrade a class, but that chart has been taken down as well. Essentially, based on the old charts, an upgrade of one class can cost anywhere between 5,000 and 30,000 miles, sometimes worth more than the flight itself. However, because of Delta’s inconsistency with its free flights rewards, it is not the best practice to rely on the old charts for upgrades as well. As for the changes in 2016, it is speculated that upgrade miles will also increase sharply, further devaluing this option.

Delta Skymiles Credit Cards: Other Ways to Earn SkyMiles

One way to accelerate earning SkyMiles is through the use of credit cards (must be used responsibly). There are three different co-branded Delta credit cards offered by American Express. These cards can help earn extra Skymiles, as well as earn different perks with the airline - including companion tickets, lounge access, and free checked baggage. Each of the cards has its own strengths and weaknesses that make it ideal for different types of Delta travelers. The Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card, for example, is best for individuals spending less than $25k annually. The Delta SkyMiles® Platinum Card is best for those who travel in pairs, due to the annual companion ticket it issues cardholders. Finally, the Delta SkyMiles® Reserve American Express Card, with a $550, is best for those individuals who want access to Delta Sky Club®. The tool can help you compare how rewarding these cards are, based on how you spend money. You can learn more about the differences between these cards in our comprehensive guide to Delta credit cards.

Assumptions based on $1,430 monthly spend
Monthly spending:

Bottom Line

Delta SkyMiles is certainly a program that requires some knowledge in order to get the best deals. If you are not careful, you may end up wasting many SkyMiles on Delta flights that fetch you little value. We urge you to remember the things we speak about above: redeeming for a value higher than 1.3 cents per mile, utilizing one-way trips to avoid surcharges, and utilizing Skyteam to book expensive flights to less-travelled areas. When you can side step taxes, fees and surcharges, international flights will get you the most mile value. It may be tempting to spend miles on any flight, but patience and diligence can mean the difference between wasting 30,000 miles on a short, inexpensive flight, or the best flying experience of your life, off to an exotic adventure.

Yowana is a former product analyst at ValuePenguin, specializing in credit cards, rewards programs and travel. He previously covered mortgages, banking and insurance for the website. Yowana graduated from Columbia University with a B.A. in Political Science.

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How We Calculate Rewards: ValuePenguin calculates the value of rewards by estimating the dollar value of any points, miles or bonuses earned using the card less any associated annual fees. These estimates here are ValuePenguin's alone, not those of the card issuer, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the credit card issuer.

Example of how we calculate the rewards rates: When redeemed for travel through Ultimate Rewards, Chase Sapphire Preferred points are worth $0.0125 each. The card awards 2 points on travel and dining and 1 point on everything else. Therefore, we say the card has a 2.5% rewards rate on dining and travel (2 x $0.0125) and a 1.25% rewards rate on everything else (1 x $0.0125).