3 reasons Delta SkyMiles is the worst large airline mileage program


This is going to be a controversial post.  I know there are some die-hard Delta SkyMiles fans out there.  And while I hope they are extracting value from Delta’s program, I’m going to lay out three key reasons why SkyMiles is inferior to the programs run by Alaska, American, United and US Airways.

Issue 1: SkyMiles offers very few saver level award tickets

Most frequent flyer programs offer two levels of awards.  While names for these levels vary by airline, we’ll call them “saver” and “double miles” in this post.  Saver awards refer to normal frequent flyer awards – 25,000 miles for a domestic roundtrip in economy, for example.  Double miles awards are when airlines will let you book (just about) any seat for sale on the plane using miles.  But you have to use twice the miles (or more) to do this.

SkyMiles offers three levels – low, medium and high.  And what Delta has done is to release far more award space into the medium and high categories than into the low category.  This is devaluation (raising award prices) by stealth.  After all, if you can’t find availability in the low category, you’re going to have to pay the medium price, or else not use your miles at all.

Issue 2: International upgrades are very expensive

Delta’s upgrade regime within North American is fairly generous, and comparable to the programs run by Alaska, United and US Airways.  But if you want to upgrade internationally, be prepared to pay a hefty price for airfare if you want even the chance to upgrade.  Only Y, B and M classes qualify for international upgrades on Delta, whether using miles or a systemwide upgrade provided to elite Platinum and Diamond members.  What does this look like in practice?  Here’s an example from a recent trip I booked for a client:

United States to Buenos Aires:

  • $1,749 roundtrip in the least expensive economy class
  • $3,501 roundtrip in the lowest upgrade-eligible class (M)

And it wasn’t as if there was confirmable upgrade space on these flights.  In order to even try to upgrade, my client would have had to pay double the least expensive airfare on the gamble that he would eventually clear from the upgrade waitlist into business class.

American and United have imposed cash “co-pays” as part of their international upgrade regimes.  This means that you pay a flat fee in addition to your miles to upgrade.  While unpleasant, these at least are consistent, predictable, and would never double a $1,700 airfare.

Issue 3: You can’t book a one-way award using SkyMiles

Actually, you can book a one-way award using SkyMiles, but you’ll be paying the roundtrip price for it.  This is something I just don’t understand.  One-way awards are one of the most popular features of American’s and United’s programs.  People love the increased flexibility.  And aside from changing some programming and updating award redemption charts, this wouldn’t cost Delta anything to implement.  But they’re happy to book you one-way at the roundtrip price.


There is no perfect frequent flyer program, but after seeing so many clients frustrated by Delta’s award and upgrade policies, I’m declaring it the worst of the bunch, and only a step above points-based programs like Southwest’s Rapid Rewards and Virgin America’s Elevate.

Here’s an expert tip in closing: If you want to redeem your SkyMiles, focus on trying to use them for Delta’s international partners, such as airlines in the SkyTeam alliance.  In this case, the award space will either be available or not – there won’t be any low, medium, high shenanigans.  There are several tools you can use to quickly and easily check award availability.

What has your experience with SkyMiles been?  Do you find these issues to be deal breakers, or are there other aspects of Delta’s program that make these restrictions bearable?


About the Author

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Ryan has been a travel expert for more than ten years. His journeys have taken him to all six inhabited continents, including living in the Middle East and backpacking across Australia, Asia and Europe.

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