The Basics: Delta SkyMiles

When you travel, register for loyalty programs.  Even if you think you may not travel on a specific airline frequently or stay at a specific hotel brand, it's good to sign up.  I've been a member of American Airlines AAdvantage program for years as well as US Airway's Divdend Miles.  However, in recent years I've focused much of my travel on Delta and I've come to know the SkyMiles program fairly well.

I find if you do your homework and understand how frequent flier programs work you can take best advantage of their amenities.  Remember, airlines offer these programs to keep you loyal and most airlines reward that loyalty in a variety of ways.  This article will focus on SkyMiles.  If you are not already a SkyMiles member you can sign up here.

Delta Hubs

It's always a good idea to know where an airline has a strong presence and where they can take you.  Below is a list of Delta's main hubs:

Delta also has a large presence at LAX in Los Angeles, CA and SEA in Seattle, WA.  If you don't live in one of these city you will likely have to connect, but this isn't always a bad thing.  

SkyMiles 101

When you sign up for SkyMiles you will have access to your account online at Delta's website.  This will give you access to flights you've booked and your account status.  SkyMiles is a mileage accural program, meaning you earn SkyMiles that you can then turn in for award flights.  If you are going to be flying Delta frequently, I recommend looking at the Delta SkyMiles credit card from American Express.  The cards offer sign up bonuses that will load your account with miles just for signing up.

Once you have your account here's how it works.  You will earn one mile for every mile you fly.  If your flight is 2500 miles, you will earn 2500 SkyMiles.  You can also earn SkyMiles by making qualified purchases on a Delta SkyMiles Credit Card.  Delta AMEX cards give you two miles for every dollar spent on Delta tickets.  You can also earn bonus SkyMiles if you are a Medallion member.  I'll explain this in just a bit.

When you accumulate enough SkyMiles you can shop for award tickets.  Notice I'm not calling these free tickets.  While the airfare is free, even award tickets have some fees associated with them.  On domestic tickets these fees are nominal in the $5 to $10 range.  On international legs these fees can be higher.  

Award tickets are available at three tier levels Low, Medium and High.  Delta does not use blackout dates, but getting a ticket on a choice flight may be difficult.  Only a certain number of award tickets are available on each flight.  Popular flights and times may require more miles than traveling at less desireable times.  Delta's online award calendar is a good, albeit flawed, tool for finding the best deals.  Many frequent fliers consider the award redemption part of the SkyMiles program to be weak and at times I agree.  However, if you look well in advance I have found some great tickets at the low tier award level.  Low tier domestic coach tickets start at 25,000 miles roundtrip.  Low tier domestic first class tickets start at 45,000 miles roundtrip.  If you want to see how far your miles can take you, Delta's award chart is available online.  

One good thing about SkyMiles and many frequent flier programs, you don't have to be the one traveling to use an award ticket.  You can book an award ticket for a friend or family member.  I often use my miles in this manner.  This is mainly because I like to accumulate Medallion Qualification Miles (MQM's) when I travel.

Medallion Program

The medallion program is a tiered loyalty program within SkyMiles.  For every mile you fly you also earn Medallion Qualification Miles or MQMs.  (See Big Changes for SkyMiles)  There are a handful of other ways to earn MQMs including buying higher fare class tickets as well as Delta SkyMiles credit card bonuses, but generally speaking MQMs are much more difficult to earn than normal SkyMiles.

Here's the part that always seems to confuse new frequent fliers.  SkyMiles get you award tickets, MQM'ss only count towards status.  You cannot turn in MQMs for flights or anything else for that matter.  

In addition to earning MQMs, you will also earn Medallion Qualification Segments or MQSs.  You earn one segment for each segment you fly.  For example, lets say you fly DCA to DTW to LAX you would earn two segments.  The advange to segments is that it rewards you for not flying non-stop.  With that said I have never qualified for my status level on MQSs, but always on MQMs.  Segment fliers are often travelers who fly often, but only a short distance.  For example, DC to New York.  They may fly 60 segments, but not reach 50,000 MQMs for Gold Medallion Status.  Instead they would qualify on their segments.

There are four tiers to the current Medallion Program.

  • 25,000 MQMs or 30 MQSs earns Silver Medallion*
  • 50,000 MQMs or 60 MQSs earns Gold Medallion*
  • 75,000 MQMs or 100 MQS earns Platinum Medallion*
  • 125,000 MQMs or 140 MQS earns Diamond Medallion*

Starting in 2014 you will also need to spend Medallion Qualification Dollars at $2500, $5000, $7500 and $12,500 respectively in addition to either MQMs or MDSs to qualify.  (See Big Changes for SkyMiles)

So why should you care about these levels?  Each tier comes with different benefits.  These benefits get you things like free checked bags, priority boarding, priority security line access, priority seats at the time of booking and upgrades among many others.  There are many benefits and I'm going to touch on some of the key ones below.  

Lets start with Silver.  This is the lowest tier, but does come with some good benefits.  Silver gets you free checked bag up to 70-pounds (20 pounds over the standard limit).  You also get access to preferred seats at the time of booking.  If you don't like sitting in the middle or in the back of the plane this is a great benefit.  Silver also gets discounted Economy Comfort seats, which are the coach seats near the front of the cabin which have more legroom and increased recline.  Great idea for long flights.  You will also earn a 25% SkyMiles bonus for every mile you fly.  For example, if you fly 1000 miles you will earn 1250 SkyMiles.  Silver will also get you Zone 1 boarding, so no waiting until the overhead bins are full to board.  Silver is also eligible for unlimited free upgrades on domestic flights, although they will be upgraded at the lowest priority after other Medallion members.

The Gold tier is where some of the big changes start.  Instead of one free bag you get two 70 pound bags on all domestic flights.  Gold also gives you SkyTeam Elite Plus status.  This gives you free SkyTeam lounge access when you travel internationally.  Gold Medallion is also the first tier with SkyPriority access.  This is the accelerated security line in many airports as well as boarding right behind first class.  Sky actually boards before Zone 1.  Upgrades for Gold Medallions clear before Silver and Gold is eligible for upgrades on award and pay with miles tickets.  With Gold you get discounted international economy comfort and free domestic economy comfort seating.  Another big benefit is Same-Day Confirmed (SDC).  This allows you to change your flight the same day you're traveling to another available flight at no cost.  Lets say you're on the 10am from Atlanta to Los Angeles, but you're running late.  You can call the Medallion phone line and change to a later flight if there's space.  I've used this benefit many times and love it.  The trick is you can't call until three hours before the new flight you want to take.  Gold Medallion members will also receive a 100% bonus on miles.  This is a quick way to rack up SkyMiles.

Platinum steps it up even more.  You get unlimited free domestic upgrades and you upgrade before Gold and Silver members.  You get the same bag benefits as Gold and SkyPriority.  Platinum also gives you waived award ticket cancellation and re-deposit fees.  This means you can book an award ticket and then later cancel and get your miles back!  A great benefit if your plans change.  Just remember you can't cancel within 72 hours of the flight.  Platinum and members also get to chose a choice benefit.  Think of this as a gift from Delta.  Choice benefits include SkyMiles, System Wide Upgrades, Gift Cards, SkyClub Passes or you can even gift a friend of family member status.  Platinum members can gift someone Silver Medallion.  Economy Comfort is free both domestically and internationally.  

Diamond is the top of the heap.  You get all of the benefits of Gold and Platinum, your upgrades clear first and you get two choice benefits.  Diamond members can gift Gold status as a choice benefit.  Diamond also includes free SkyClub membership.  

If you reach one of these Medallion tiers many of your benefits will be availble to up to eight other people on your reservation.  For example, if you travel with a spouse they will get your priority boarding, baggage and potential upgrade benefit.  As always, check Delta's website for changing rules and benefits.  These benefits are current as of the date of this article.

Upgrades

Here's a secret, many of those people sitting in first class paid to sit in coach.  On domestic flights many of the people up front are Medallion members riding on an upgrade.  Upgrades are processed on a formula that takes into account tier level, fare code and a few other items.  Upgrades are processed as "V" fare inventory on domestic flights.  They will process in the following order if inventory is available: 

  • Diamond 6 Days Before Departure
  • Platinum 6 Days Before Departure, but after Diamond
  • Gold 4 Days Before Departure
  • Silver 2 Days Before Departue

By the way, if you are a Medallion member upgrades clear at approximately 5pm EST 6, 4, 2 days before departure.  Delta's computers are in Atlanta and their upgrade system does its sweep right around 5pm.  You may not get the upgrade confirmation e-mail for hours, but usually by 6pm EST you can log in and see if you got the upgrade.  I do this so I can quickly pick my seat.

If you don't clear at your window that doesn't mean you won't be upgraded, but it's likely you will need to wait until the gate to get the upgrade.  On the day of your flight gate agents are the ones who give out upgrades.  This is likely done right before boarding.  Many Delta gates have monitors that will show the upgrade list.  Look for your name and see where you rank.  It will also show you how many seats are still available.  If you have the Delta App, you can look up the upgrade list after you check in.  It is not uncommon to see 20, 30, 40 people on the upgrade list for popular routes.  For example, if you are a Silver or Gold getting a weekday upgrade from Atlanta to LA is tough.  But if you are a Gold flying Detroit to Baltimore on a Saturday morning your chances are probably pretty good.

Delta is probably one of the worst US airlines to pick if you want international upgrades.  These are few and far between.  First, Delta does not have international First Class, they have what's called Business Elite.  On Delta's Boeing 777 aircraft, many Boeing 767 and 747 aircraft Business Elite including full lie flat bed seats.  I'll be reviewing Business Elite on the 777 coming up next week so stay tuned!  There are two ways to upgrade without buying a BE ticket.  You can use System Wide Upgrades.  These are only available to Platinum and Diamond members as a choice benefit.  The other option is to upgrade with miles.  With either option you must purchase a Y, B, M coach fare and there must be upgrade inventory available.  Delta does sometimes do what's called an Op-Up.  This is an operational upgrade, usually if coach is oversold.  These are free upgrades and often start at the top of the Medallion ranks.

SkyTeam Alliance

Delta is a founding member of SkyTeam.  The alliance includes 19 members and provides travelers with an internatinal network of airlines around the world.  SkyTeam airlines fly to 1000 destinations in more than 180 countries.  

The alliance allows SkyMiles members to book tickets on SkyTeam partners but still earn SkyMiles points.  You can also book flights through Delta that may actually be operated by a SkyTeam member.  Always pay attention to the airline that will be operating your flight, especially if you are booking international travel.  This will be important when it comes to things like upgrades, seat preferences, baggage, etc. 

Wrap Up

There are obviously some details I've left out, but I didn't want to make this too long.  In summary, if you are going to travel on Delta join SkyMiles.  If you travel internationally more often than domestic look at American or United for the best international upgrades.  

I personally like the Medallion program.  I use both MQMs from flying and from my Delta American Express credit card to earn my status each year.  The key to enjoying any loyalty program is know the rules.  Also understand the limits of the program.  If you're a Silver or Gold medallion think of upgrades as icing on the cake.  If you want more upgrades travel at off times and avoid the major hubs.  

Stay tuned for more Delta reviews including different seats, aircraft and SkyClubs.