Let’s get something out of the way first: I hate Delta SkyMiles. No, wait, that’s not right. I meant I loathe SkyMiles. I detest them. I abhor them. I… (quickly checking an online thesaurus) abominate them. (Wait, is “abominate” really a word? It is? OK, good, then I abominate them.)
Anyone who is actively collecting Delta SkyMiles is either uninformed or out of their mind. Not only are SkyMiles far and away the least valuable of the major airline loyalty currencies, but Delta has changed the program without notice so many times that there is absolutely zero faith or trust left.
In fact, forget notice — Delta doesn’t even tell you about changes after they’ve made them, preferring instead to let people have fun figuring out for themselves why they suddenly can’t book the same award that was perfectly permissible yesterday.
This is one topic in which I 100% concur with the Conventional Wisdom. You are better off collecting Enron stock than you are Delta SkyMiles. At least Enron was a more honest company than Delta.
Just because I despise SkyMiles (thanks, online thesaurus) doesn’t mean they don’t occasionally have value. Or to put it in cliché form, even a broken clock is right twice a day.
This week I experienced a situation where SkyMiles actually ended up being the best booking choice of all the available options, including cash. And while I am in no way suggesting that SkyMiles have earned a newfound place in my heart as a result (see the preceding 5 paragraphs), it does demonstrate that you should always check all the possibilities for every trip, even if you doubt you’ll find anything.
Sometimes you’ll be surprised.
Albany to Maui. Yes, Maui. On New Year’s.
My friend Kim e-mailed me a few days ago with a question. She wanted to get flights to Hawaii for her two nephews (who live in Albany, NY) on specific dates over the New Year’s holiday, but she had somehow neglected to buy the tickets yet. And what with it now being early December and all, the flights were unsurprisingly pricing out at over $1,600 a person.
Kim wanted to know if. instead of paying such an enormous price, she could use some of her miles instead. Of course I was incredibly helpful by immediately blurting out “Are you nuts? You want to book a mileage ticket to Hawaii during a holiday period on less than a month’s notice? Do you honestly have no clue how this works?”
No, no, I’m kidding, I didn’t say that. Well… actually I did say that, but only because I’ve been friends with Kim for a long time and that’s how she and I talk to each other.
But I honestly do like to be helpful to people who don’t know how to play the points and miles game, so I explained that while it was unlikely we could find any decent award availability to a premium destination during such a busy holiday period at this late date, I would check it out for her.
The good news was Kim had over 200,000 Amex Membership Rewards points, which meant I could theoretically book any of the 3 major U.S. carriers via alliance partners. The bad news was I could only do that if I could find low level “saver” space on either American or United.
Otherwise, we’d be stuck looking at (gulp) Delta.
Pricing the possibilities.
I started with American. I knew I could transfer MR points to British Airways Avios at a 250:200 ratio (or at 1:1 via Iberia with the current transfer bonus) and book American flights that way. But that would only work if there was saver space available, and even then I’d be subject to the Avios distance-based chart, which would cost 50,000 miles per person each way for a total of 100,000 miles. An expensive redemption.
But it didn’t matter, because this was American’s availability…
Only standard award space, which meant I couldn’t book it with Membership Rewards. Plus it was 140,000 points roundtrip even if I could book it, which would mean a redemption of only slightly more than 1 cent per point. Blah. Strike one.
Onto United, which I knew I could book via a transfer to Aeroplan since they offer roundtrip partner awards to Hawaii for 45,000 miles per person. Much more reasonable. But it still meant I needed open saver space on United…
No luck. Only standard space available in both directions, though if I could have booked that standard space it would cost 90,000 miles roundtrip. While that’s still an expensive redemption, it’s not crazy when you remember that cash tickets were running $1,600 apiece. At that price, 90,000 miles is equal to 1.77 cents per mile, which isn’t terrible.
But it’s not bookable with Membership Rewards. Strike two.
So now it was time for the dreaded SkyMiles price. Of course since Delta no longer has award charts, there’s theoretically no “saver” price for a Hawaii trip. But for those of us who “remember” what the charts used to look like, we know the lowest price for a Delta economy roundtrip to Hawaii is 45,000 miles.
Now I surely did not expect to find a 45,000 mile award for a holiday Hawaii trip. But I did have the advantage of being able to transfer directly to Delta from Membership Rewards, which meant I could book a Delta award at any price. But would Delta have a price that made sense?
Well, that’s definitely not 45,000 miles. But hang on a minute. While 82,500 roundtrip certainly ain’t cheap, it’s actually a pretty decent redemption given the cash price — almost 2 cents a point. For a Delta SkyMiles ticket. Huh.
Yes, it’s 165,000 miles for 2 people, but it’s also $3,200 not coming out of Kim’s wallet. For a lot of people (including Kim) that’s a very good deal.
So should you collect Delta SkyMiles?
No! Good lord, no! Absolutely not. Because in the end, Kim could have done just as well with a 2% cash back card. She also could have used her Amex Membership Rewards points for an aspirational redemption such as Singapore Suites or Lufthansa First Class (albeit it with fuel surcharges via Aeroplan, Singapore, or ANA) and gotten even more value.
But Kim doesn’t want to go to any of those places. She wants to send her nephews to Hawaii and doesn’t want to pay $1,600 a person to do it. And if she had spent on a 2% cash back card instead, she wouldn’t have gotten the category bonuses she gets with her American Express Premier Rewards Gold card, such as 3x airfare and 2x gas, groceries, and dining. Meaning that with a normal daily spend pattern it would have taken longer to get the identical redemption (see my post “Why Are Points and Miles Better Than Cashback?“).
Finally, by collecting Membership Rewards points instead of cashback, Kim leaves open the possibility of making one of those aspirational redemptions sometime in the future. Note that this is an important distinction between SkyMiles and Membership Rewards. Even if you think you might have some use for SkyMiles in your future, collect them whenever possible in the form of Membership Rewards points. That way you can always turn them into SkyMiles as needed, but still maintain the flexibility to use them for other types of redemptions.
The Devil’s Advocate admits Delta won this round.
Don’t get me wrong. I still can’t stand SkyMiles (and I’m equally annoyed that I ran out of synonyms). But I have to admit this was an instance where Delta had the cheapest award ticket available, and it was even a relatively decent redemption. Getting 2 cents a mile for SkyMiles is practically unheard of nowadays. So I’ll give credit where it’s due.
But I won’t be putting any Delta SkyMiles in my inventory anytime soon. I’ve currently got 1,620 SkyMiles to my name and with any luck I’ll never have a single SkyMile more than that. In fact, thanks to Delta’s “no expiration” policy, I’ll probably die stuck with 1,620 SkyMiles. See, Delta gets you every time.Devil’s Advocate is a bi-weekly series that deliberately argues a contrarian view on travel and loyalty programs. Sometimes the Devil’s Advocate truly believes in the counterargument. Other times he takes the opposing position just to see if the original argument holds water. But his main objective is to engage in friendly debate with the miles and points community to determine if today’s conventional wisdom is valid. You can suggest future topics by following him on Twitter @dvlsadvcate or sending an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Recent Posts by the Devil’s Advocate:
- Elite Ranks Won’t Swell & Other Misconceptions about the AA Devaluation
- The Devil’s Advocate and the Case of the Terribly Troublesome Toilet
- Yeah, I Was Completely Wrong About That Hyatt Visa Deal
Find the entire collection of Devil’s Advocate posts here.