By Eric Rosen
February 11, 2020
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Courtesy of Delta Air Lines

According to a recent study by independent research site NextAdvisor, 54 percent of Americans find airline frequent-flier programs confusing. It’s no wonder, given the complexities of earning airline miles on flights versus other means, the plethora of credit cards that promise outsize benefits, and award tickets that can fluctuate in price by hundreds of thousands of miles.

To help you cut through some of that extraneous information and maximize your miles, here are the basics of Delta’s SkyMiles program and how you can make the most of its rules to get the travel rewards you want.

Delta SkyMiles Program Overview

Delta launched its first frequent-flier program, dubbed Frequent Flyer, back in 1981. It was renamed SkyMiles in 1995, and that name has endured. The program has undergone dramatic changes in recent years, including an overhaul to how fliers earn miles, new spending requirements for elite status, and award prices that have gone through the roof – all of which might have left some customers in a tailspin.

How to Earn Delta SkyMiles

Thanks to Delta’s various partnerships, SkyMiles members can earn miles in a number of different ways. The two quickest ones, however, are by flying and by getting a co-branded credit card. Before we jump in, just note that SkyMiles refers to the award miles you can rack up and then redeem for award travel. Medallion Qualification Miles (MQMs) are those earned toward elite status, and are different. But we’ll get into that below.

In the past, Delta customers would earn SkyMiles based on the distance of their flights and the class of service in which they purchased their ticket. That changed in 2015, however, when the SkyMiles program transitioned to a revenue-based model in which fliers earn miles based on how much they pay for a ticket, rather than how far they fly.

Passengers now earn between five and 11 SkyMiles per dollar spent on Delta airfare, excluding taxes. This is the case whether you purchase a ticket directly from Delta or through an online travel agency like Orbitz. Fliers without any elite status earn five SkyMiles per dollar. Silver Medallion elites earn seven miles per dollar. Gold Medallion members earn eight miles per dollar, while those with Platinum Medallion status earn nine miles per dollar. With top-tier Diamond Medallion status, fliers earn 11 miles per dollar. The most SkyMiles you can earn on any one ticket is 75,000 miles. Granted, that would require purchasing a ticket that costs between $6,818 and $15,000, depending on your elite status, but it’s not unheard of.

One bright point is that SkyMiles never expire, so you don't have to worry about continuing to earn or redeem every 18 to 24 months in order to keep your miles active.

Earning SkyMiles on flights with Delta’s various airline partners, including Aeromexico, KLM, Korean Air, Virgin Atlantic, and Virgin Australia, among others, is more complicated. The rates vary from carrier to carrier and are based both on the distance flown and the fare code of the ticket purchased. For instance, tickets on Air France earn between 25 and 300 percent, ranging from deeply discounted economy seats all the way up to first class. If you book a partner flight and intend to credit it to your SkyMiles account, be sure to check the specific airline’s partner earning page to see how many miles you can expect to collect.

Because earning SkyMiles on Delta flights is now based how much you spend, meaning you can’t rack up lots of miles on cheap airfares, the most lucrative way to earn a lot of miles quickly is to get a Delta co-branded credit card. Luckily, there are several choices.

The relatively new Delta SkyMiles Blue American Express Card is a good option for those just starting out with credit, since it has no annual fee. The sign-up bonus is usually around 10,000 to 15,000 SkyMiles after spending $500 to $1,000 in purchases in the first three months. It earns two miles per dollar on Delta purchases and at U.S. restaurants, and one mile per dollar on everything else.

The Delta SkyMiles Gold American Express Card carries a $99 annual fee that is waived in the first year. It earns two miles per dollar on Delta purchases as well as at restaurants and U.S. supermarkets, and one mile per dollar on everything else. Cardholders can also take advantage of free checked bags and priority boarding, as they do with Delta’s higher-end cards. The standard welcome bonus is usually 30,000 SkyMiles after hitting $1,000 in purchases in the first three months, in addition to a $50 statement credit for making a Delta purchase in that same time. However, this sometimes goes up to 60,000 SkyMiles, so be on the lookout for higher offers.

The Delta SkyMiles Platinum American Express Card has a $250 annual fee, but for that, you get a few more perks. That includes a companion ticket for one round-trip domestic economy itinerary each year you renew the card. Cardholders can also earn 10,000 MQMs by spending over $25,000 on the card in a calendar year, plus an additional 10,000 MQMs for spending over $50,000. It also earns three SkyMiles per dollar on Delta purchases and at hotels, and two per dollar at restaurants and U.S. supermarkets.

The card’s welcome offer is usually around 35,000 SkyMiles and 5,000 MQMs after spending $1,000 in the first three months, in addition to a $100 statement credit toward a Delta purchase. However, the card is currently offering a limited-time bonus of 100,000 SkyMiles — 80,000 after you spend $3,000 in the first three months, and an additional 20,000 miles on your first anniversary.

The airline’s top-shelf card is the Delta SkyMiles Reserve American Express Card. Its welcome bonus is usually around 40,000 SkyMiles plus 10,000 MQMs after spending $3,000 in the first three months, though at the time of writing, it was 80,000 bonus miles and 20,000 MQMs after spending $5,000 in the first three months, plus 20,000 more bonus miles on your first anniversary.

For its $550 annual fee, cardholders can access Delta Sky Clubs and American Express Centurion Lounges when traveling on Delta, take advantage of a Global Entry or TSA PreCheck application fee waiver, and enjoy an annual companion certificate for a round-trip domestic itinerary in the main cabin, Comfort+, or first class. This card earns three SkyMiles per dollar on Delta purchases, one on everything else, and confers travel privileges like free checked bags and priority boarding. Cardholders can also earn 15,000 MQMs for hitting $30,000, $60,000, $90,000, and $120,000 in spending each calendar year for a total potential haul of 60,000 MQMs (enough for mid-range Gold Medallion status).

There are also business versions of the last three cards, in case you are interested in a product you can use for office and professional expenses, instead of a personal card.

Courtesy of Delta Air Lines

How to Redeem Delta SkyMiles

Just as Delta has shifted the earning formula to a revenue-based model in which fliers rack up a set amount of SkyMiles per dollar spent on airfare, the airline is also transitioning its award redemption system to one where SkyMiles are worth a set value. This is similar to the way Southwest and JetBlue do things, but it means several downsides for fliers.

First, the airline has stopped publishing award charts with set pricing for flights within and between specific regions. That means you won’t know how many miles you will have to redeem for a specific itinerary until you actually search for it on Delta's website. At the same time, Delta has raised award prices repeatedly and without warning over the past several years, which has led to some wild fluctuations in mileage values.

For instance, an award ticket from the U.S. to Europe in business class on Delta and its partners used to cost 100,000 SkyMiles round-trip. Today, a comparable itinerary is pricing out at 210,000 to 465,000 SkyMiles.

On the flip side, the change to a value-based model seems to have brought award prices down in some cases – notably for inexpensive economy fares, both on Delta’s own domestic route network and on some international itineraries.

For example, in July, Delta posted flight deals with awards as low as 20,000 to 30,000 SkyMiles round-trip in economy from various U.S. cities, including New York, Boston, Los Angeles, and Seattle, to several European destinations, like Amsterdam, Madrid, Paris, Rome, and Zurich. That’s cheaper than some domestic awards price out.

For now, you will simply have to search on Delta's website to see how much an award flight costs. Luckily, the airline has vastly improved its search engine, so that you can look for awards by cabin class, on non-stop versus connecting itineraries, on Delta flights as well as those on partner carriers, and over the course of five weeks at a time. All of those things can help you quickly narrow down your search to the best redemption deals.

In general, the best SkyMiles redemptions will be for economy tickets, or on partner airlines for which Delta’s award pricing has not changed as drastically as for its own flights.

Aside from tickets, Delta SkyMiles can be redeemed for seat upgrades, to purchase or renew Sky Club membership (and premium drinks in the lounges), or for various gift cards, car rentals, hotel bookings, magazine subscriptions, experiences like concerts and chef-led dinners, merchandise such as Beats by Dre headphones and Apple products, and charitable donations. However, most of these tend to yield a low value for your miles, so avoid them if possible.

Courtesy of Delta Air Lines

Delta Air Lines Partners

The SkyMiles program has forged fantastic partnerships that allow members to earn frequent-flier miles on other carriers as well as through purchases with a myriad of other merchants.

Delta is a member of SkyTeam and has over 20 alliance and non-alliance airline partners, including:

  • Aeroflot
  • Aerolíneas Argentinas
  • Aeromexico
  • Air Europa
  • Air France/KLM
  • Alitalia
  • China Airlines
  • China Eastern Airlines
  • China Southern Airlines
  • Czech Airlines
  • Garuda Indonesia
  • GOL
  • Hawaiian Airlines
  • Kenya Airways
  • Korean Air
  • Latam Airlines (starting soon)
  • Middle East Airlines (MEA)
  • Saudia
  • Tarom
  • Vietnam Airlines
  • Virgin Atlantic
  • Virgin Australia
  • WestJet
  • Xiamen Air

Before you book your flight, check the partner page of the specific carrier you plan to fly to verify the mileage earning rates on it.

Apart from other airlines, SkyMiles members can earn up to 7,500 bonus miles on travel reservations booked through Delta Vacations, and between 1,500 and 30,000 miles on cruises booked through SkyMiles Cruises. They can also enjoy various discounts and mileage bonuses on car rentals booked through partners like Hertz, Dollar, Alamo, and Enterprise. After linking their SkyMiles and Lyft accounts, members will earn at least one mile per dollar spent on rides in the U.S.

Members can also earn one mile per dollar spent on qualifying Airbnb stays booked here, bonus miles on hotel bookings made here, and varying bonuses at specific chains, such as one to two miles per dollar at Marriott Bonvoy properties or 500 miles per eligible stay at Hyatt hotels.

One of the program’s newest partnerships is with Ticketmaster. Members earn one mile per dollar spent on tickets for concerts, games, or theatrical events in the U.S. and Canada purchased here.

Delta hosts an online shopping portal called SkyMiles Shopping through which members can earn thousands of bonus points. To do so, log into SkyMiles Shopping using your account credentials. From there, browse various merchants that are offering bonus miles per dollar spent, including retailers like Barneys New York, Bed Bath & Beyond, FedEx, Lego, Ralph Lauren, and more. Then, click through to the retailer’s homepage and shop as usual.

Through SkyMiles Dining, members can register their account along with a credit card and earn between three and five miles per dollar at thousands of participating restaurants.

Finally, Delta SkyMiles is a transfer partner of American Express Membership Rewards. So, if you earn points with an American Express Platium, Gold, or EveryDay Preferred credit card, among others, you can convert your points to Delta SkyMiles instantly at a ratio of one to one.

Delta SkyMiles Benefits and Elite Status

Delta customers who fly and spend a lot each year can earn elite (or Medallion) status and enjoy benefits like upgrades, free checked bags, priority boarding, and more. Here are the basics of Medallion status, including how you earn it and what to expect.

The SkyMiles program is split into four tiers of elite status. In order to reach any of them, you must hit certain flight and spending thresholds within a calendar year. If you do, you can enjoy elite benefits for the remainder of the year in which you earn status, as well as through the following year, until the elite tiers reset each Feb. 1.

The flight requirements are based on either the number of flight segments or the distances you fly and whether you buy economy tickets or seats in the premium sections. Members must also hit certain spending levels to reach each subsequent Medallion level. Earning MQMs and Medallion Qualification Dollars (MQDs) can fluctuate to the extreme, depending on whether you fly Delta or its partners, too. With that in mind, let’s limit our conversation to how you can earn status based on flying Delta mainly.

Economy and Comfort+ tickets earn one MQM per mile flown. Full-fare economy, Premium Select (international premium economy), and discounted first and business class earn one and a half MQMs per mile flown. Full-fare first and business class tickets earn two MQMs per mile flown.

Medallion Silver status is earned by flying 25,000 MQMs or 30 Medallion Qualification Segments (MQSs) plus earning $3,000 in MQDs (basically spending this much on airfare) in a calendar year. Benefits at this level include earning seven SkyMiles per dollar on airfare (instead of the five per dollar non-elite members get), complimentary upgrades and Comfort+ seat assignments up to 24 hours out, access to preferred seating assignments, priority boarding, and free checked bags.

In addition to those benefits, Gold Medallion members earn eight miles per dollar, have a shot at upgrades and Comfort+ seats up to 72 hours before flights, and enjoy some waived same-day change fees. To hit this level, you will need to fly 50,000 MQMs or 60 MQSs and spend $6,000 MQDs.

The next level, Platinum Medallion, is reached at 75,000 MQMs or 90 MQSs plus $9,000 MQDs. Expect a better chance at upgrades, two free checked bags, and earning nine miles per dollar. When you reach Platinum status, you get a choice of additional benefits, like four regional upgrade certificates, 20,000 bonus SkyMiles, or the ability to gift Silver Medallion status to someone else. Upgrades clear up to 120 hours out, and change fees for award travel are waived, among other benefits.

Delta’s top-tier status is Diamond Medallion. To reach it, you must fly 125,000 MQMs or 140 MQSs and spend $15,000 MQDs. At this level, your choice of benefits includes a Delta SkyClub membership, global or regional upgrade certificates, Gold Medallion status for someone else, or 25,000 bonus miles. You will also have the highest upgrade priority, be among the first to board, and be eligible for complimentary CLEAR membership, among other perks.

Folks who spend $25,000 or more in a calendar year with their Delta SkyMiles Platinum, Platinum Business, Reserve, or Reserve Business card can waive the MQD requirements for all but Diamond status. For that top level, you’ll have to spend $250,000 on your credit card instead. Also remember that the personal and business Platinum and Reserve cards present the opportunity to earn additional MQMs simply through spending, so that could be a good way to boost your qualification earning at the same time.

One standout feature of the Medallion status program is the fact that Delta will let you roll over any miles above and beyond the last elite tier for which you qualified in the current year into your activity for the following year. So, if you flew 40,000 MQMs and spent $3,000 MQDs, you’d only qualify for Silver Medallion status. However, you’d start the following year with 15,000 MQMs already credited to your account — the difference between the 25,000 MQMs required for Silver status and the 40,000 you earned.

The other unique facet is that Delta will let you put your elite status on hold after any major life changes such as becoming a parent, sustaining an injury, changing jobs, and recovering from a serious illness, among other situations. To recover your status, you will need to submit a request. If approved, you can enjoy your renewed status for three months during which you will also have to complete certain flight requirements in order to maintain that status past the reclaim period.

Pros and Cons of Delta SkyMiles

There are plenty of reasons to join Delta SkyMiles. It’s free and easy to do, the formula for earning miles is simple, and the airline fields several great credit cards in partnership with American Express.

Those interested in earning Medallion status should be able to take advantage of the useful rollover feature, while more occasional fliers should appreciate the fact that SkyMiles never expire.

As for disadvantages, the main one is that mileage earning on Delta is now directly based on the price of airfare rather than on distance flown, so you cannot count on racking up a ton of miles on cheap flights. Equally disappointing, the airline’s system for opening up award seats seems to be shifting quickly toward a formula where each SkyMile has an exact value. This means that members can expect to shell out tens of thousands of more miles for once-affordable premium award seats. That being said, at least some economy redemptions should become cheaper.

How to Sign Up for Delta SkyMiles

You can enroll in Delta SkyMiles here for free. You only need to include a few basic details and set your email preferences in order to start earning.