Why the SkyMiles Changes Don’t Bother Me

Why the SkyMiles Changes Don’t Bother Me
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Image courtesy: InSapphoWeTrust
 

Since late Tuesday evening, Flyertalk‘s been imploding, the blogosphere‘s been moaning and just about everyone’s been acting like Delta’s announced changes to SkyMiles herald the end of frequent flyer programs as we know it.

Nah.

Depending on how you play the miles and points game, these changes are either no good, awful, terrible news, or actually pretty positive. I fall solidly into the second camp, and I bet most of you do, as well.

What’s Happening?

In case you haven’t heard yet, Delta’s moving to a revenue-based loyalty program beginning on January 1st, 2015. Rather than earning miles based on distance flown, you’ll now earn miles based on how much you spend.

This is in line with how Southwest, JetBlue, Virgin America and several other airlines operate their programs, but is a deviation from the longstanding formulas used by legacy carriers like Delta, American and United. Instead of earning between 1 and 1.5 miles per mile flown, based on which fare you purchase, earnings will now be based on spending following this rate scheme:

  • Non-Elites will earn 5 miles per $1
  • Silver Medallions will earn 7 miles per $1
  • Gold Medallions will earn 8 miles per $1
  • Platinum Medallions will earn 9 miles per $1
  • Diamond Medallions will earn 11 miles per $1

That means flyers on comparatively expensive, short-haul tickets are liable to earn more miles than they do right now. The biggest losers are mileage runners, those passengers who purposely book routes that are as long as possible for the lowest price they can find in order to rack up miles on the cheap.

An interesting facet to these changes is that Delta is not switching up their elite qualifications, which will continue to be based on a combination of miles flown, fare class and dollars spent. We’re not going to get too far into the weeds on that as this piece is targeted toward more casual Delta flyers.

The Woes of SkyMiles

I like flying with Delta, but their award program is one of the main reasons I don’t fly with them more regularly.

Though my first award trip ever booked was with Delta, I learned even then how poor availability on most routes can be at their Saver rates. It’s much harder right now to find a good award ticket on Delta than it is with American or United.

That’s in part because their online award booking engine is, flatly, broken, requiring all manner of workarounds and leaps of faith in order to arrive at a valid, affordable ticket. It’s also due to the fact that Delta simply makes fewer Saver award seats available than its peers. That means you should expect to pay their “Standard” rate for at least one leg of your journey, bumping a domestic roundtrip to 30,000 or 40,000 miles.

Speaking of roundtrips, Delta’s requirement that awards be booked as roundtrips is the other reason I normally avoid their program. Most of my itineraries are multi-city in nature, as I visit several places before heading home. That means segment-by-segment programs like BA’s Avios, Southwest’s Rapid Rewards and even American and United’s own programs tend to make much more sense for me.

These complaints are precisely the reasons why I’m actually optimistic about the changes coming to SkyMiles.

Why These Changes Might Be Good For You & Me

Delta is going to allow one-way award tickets beginning on January 1st, 2015.

They’re also going to replace their broken booking engine with something that appears like it will be far easier for the typical passenger to use.

Award seat availability will be expanded, with a particular focus on the low end of the spectrum. There will be five tiers of award seats moving forward, including a new Off-Peak Saver rate. While I’m not holding my breath that these awards will be anywhere near as generous or available as, say, American’s off-peak flights to Europe, even an expansion of regular Saver availability would be excellent.

Finally, they’re going to roll out a new Miles + Cash option allowing for hybrid award flights that may make sense in some cases. The value of such redemptions remains to be seen until there are live fares available for comparison.

Delta hasn’t shown us their new award chart yet, so this could all be a trap, with greater seat availability offset by even higher award redemption levels. However, I don’t think that will be the case. By changing how flyers earn miles, the strategic necessity to inflate award redemption costs subsides, and as unfriendly as changes to Delta’s program have been in recent years, I’d still be at least somewhat surprised if they devalue their award chart alongside such a huge shakeup to how miles are earned.

If you make your miles on cheap, long-haul tickets, you’re in trouble, but if you earn them through card sign-up bonuses, spending, transfers from Membership Rewards or SPG, shopping through the SkyMiles Mall or eating out with the SkyMiles Dining program, you appear to be in good shape, and may even find Delta’s program more useful than before.

An Important Reminder

Furthermore, this is a good reminder of why versatile programs like Membership Rewards, Ultimate Rewards and SPG are a great route to earning miles and points: if any one program suddenly makes changes you don’t like, you can still use your points with a variety of other airlines and hotels.

If you’re locked into Delta’s program with hundreds of thousands of miles and a high level of elite status, the process of switching can be traumatic. That’s why it’s best to remain a free agent, taking advantage of whatever programs work best for you for specific itineraries and earning points in programs that offer the greatest flexibility and least uncertainty.

I still don’t plan to put much effort into Delta’s program, given how volatile it’s been over the past few years, but am glad to know that the changes they’re making inadvertently help those who earn most of their points and miles without setting foot on a plane.

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Casey Ayers is a consultant and entrepreneur with a passion for travel. After amassing enough miles and points to travel anywhere in the world for almost free in less than six months, he developed PointsAway as a way to help others make travel dreams big and small come true.
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