Last week a reader, Ray, wrote me to ask for help. He wanted to take his sons on a trip this upcoming holiday with Delta miles, but didn’t care where they went. He’s got total flexibility in destination, but not much as far as dates. Knowing that frequent flyer miles are really “flexible flyer miles” Reader Ray wanted to know if there was a site that allowed him to put his dates in and see any/all Delta destinations available at low levels.
My advice to Ray was that no such flexible destination search exists for Delta. Until this past weekend there wasn’t even a good way to use Delta.com to search for flexible dates.
All of the advice I gave Ray was based on the current Delta search engine’s failures. However, over the weekend, Delta made a significant upgrade to their search engine, and I’d like to use that update and Ray’s question to step through solving the problem of wanting to go anywhere but not knowing how to search for these flights.
Today we’ll use the new Delta.com, along with my personal favorite alaskaair.com to try to put together a trip for Ray and his kids.
Step 1: Routes
Step 1 is always going to be a route search for your given airline/alliance. We’ve covered routes pretty extensively here on Milenomics, going over them here, here, and most recently, here. For a search like Ray’s where there isn’t really a destination to choose, we still need to do a route search. Without a destination in mind it is actually more important to do a route search. If, for example, Ray wanted to go to LAX there are a few possible routes–but at the end of the day he’s likely going to be plugging a MSP-LAX search into either delta.com or alaskaair.com.
Without a destination he could blindly pick destinations, and seach for them, but I’d rather we focus in our searches and limit the number we have to make. To do so we want to look at all our options and find the ones we’re most interested in first. Loading up www.flightconnections.com I’ll plug in Ray’s home airport, MSP, and show all possible destinations:
A logical first step is to write down these destinations into a list. I’ve mentioned on the blog how much I like to use pencil and paper for searches, but a spreadsheet would also work. Compliling a list of the places would give you a list similar to this one:
From here I’d suggest picking some of the larger hubs you’d be interested in visiting. The reason for that is twofold; first, you’re more likely to catch a low level flight flying hub to hub. With many daily nonstops you just have more chances than you with a smaller city serviced with just once daily, or even once a week flights. Second, and more importantly, if your destination is a smaller citiy that you must connect to in a major hub, without low level flights to the hub, there will be no low level flights at all.
As an example, if you wanted to go to TLH from MSP you would HAVE to connect in ATL. If there are no low level flights MSP-ATL then you’d be out of luck. Don’t waste time searching for final destinations, instead pick some large hubs and nonstops you’d be interested in visiting.
I’ll take the above list and whittle it down to the following: SEA, SFO, LAX, MCO, ATL, PHL, BOS JFK, EWR and LGA. This isn’t a small number of cities, but it gives us plenty of options. I’ve tried to pick a good mix of warm weather options, as well as cities with rich history that two kids could really enjoy even if they are cold in the winter (BOS & PHL).
Step 2: Grind it Out
Prior to this weekend I would never suggest using the Detla award search engine for these searches. I’m still not convinced it is the best search engine for all low level Delta searches, but for Ray it will help save him time if he does these searches on Delta.com. The reason is that Delta.com now shows 5 weeks worth of availability if you pick a trip length, or a 7×7 day matrix if you select dates and are a little flexible.
An example search for Ray would be the following:
As you can see I selected “Flexible Days,” because while Ray’s destination isn’t fixed, he probably only has a few days of flexibility based on school and work schedules.
Results for MSP-SEA are shown in a 7 day matrix, the chosen date and then +/- 3 days from there both outgoing and return:
Our very first search, and we have two dates of travel that work for Ray! MSP-SEA Leaving Dec 22, and returning either Dec 31 or Jan 1. From here it is just grinding out the above list of searches. I apoligize in advance for the large images, but I want to include all the searches for you to see here:
One thing I’d like to stress is that this search can be done very quickly. I did the above searches in less than 10 minutes total, and that included screenshots and pasting them into this blog post. You could go through all possible city pairs from MSP in about an hour by my estimation.
We’ve got Ray some good options–Seattle Boston and NYC are the three with rock bottom, 25k award pricing. But all the cities above have some 32.5k seats available. In addition you would want to search for one seat on each of these routes and see if there is in fact one, or even two seats at 25k. Delta loves to overcharge, so if there were two seats at 25k and one at 32.5k they’d charge you 32.5k for all three if booked together. By splitting the booking you could save 15k skymiles if lowest level seats are available in lower quantities.
Its now up to Ray, pick one of these cities, and do a 1 and 2 seat search–or look further for destinations beyond these. Take ATL for example, if Ray is ok with paying at least 32.5k miles Ray could look at destinations beyond ATL:
Because the flight to ATL would cost 32.5k there won’t be any chance for flights beyond ATL to be any cheaper than this price, but there may be options at this same price level. This is why I suggest searching hubs first, and then working out to smaller cities.
Push it to the Limit: The Hybrid System
Becuse Ray lives in MSP he should consider a Hybrid System booking. Especially because Ray might book 32.5k award space he should consider lightening the hit to his mileage balance with a hybrid system booking. As an example I’ll use the Seattle trip for Ray’s choice, and then add on a one way to NYC in the summer to see the 4th of July fireworks in NYC:
The search for this is as follows:
One really nice part about the new multi-city search is that it now shows the segment prices. This allows you to piece together your trip without knowing flight numbers.
And once done you can see that the trip is pricing correctly, 25,000 miles per person, 75,000 total:
Update: Reader Lisa commented about stopovers no longer being part of the program in January. While these Hybrid bookings may continue to work even after Jan 1, nothing is guaranteed. Book now or forever hold your peace.
Thanks to the new Delta.com award search, and flexible Destinations Ray has plenty of options for this upcoming holiday. By adding on a hybrid system booking he’s also able to extract even more value from this trip:
Extracting 2.4 cents or so from this 25,000 mile Delta booking is great, but most importantly Ray gets to take his kids on a holiday vacation.
Try the new Delta.com and burn those miles you’ve been hoarding!