How to Book Low Level Delta Awards (without going crazy)

Today we’ll use some of the tools we’ve been covering in our back to basics series.  What follows is a real booking I’ve made, from LAX-CUN and back with Delta miles. I’ll go over how I handled the search, and tips to book low level Delta awards and get them to price out correctly.

My wife and I are looking to leave in the next week, and want to fly to Cancun, ideally nonstop from LAX. Fortunately Delta flies a nonstop service from LAX, as does United, and Virgin America.

In this post I’ll go over why I’ve chosen to use my Delta miles for this booking, how to search for the flights, and finally how to book them. Booking low level Delta awards can be a nightmare, and I’ll show you some examples of the issues I came across in this relatively straightforward booking.

Know Your Pricing

With any program, before you book it is imperative that you know how much your award ticket should cost.  This is especially true with Delta, as Delta’s current search engine is broken. Identical searches return different results, and wildly different prices. Seats which are there show as unavailable sometimes. Adding just one wrong segment can greatly increase the price of your award.  Know what the price of your award should be, and stick with that price until you receive it.

To figure out the price the award ticket should cost you’ll want to consult your award chart, in this case Delta publishes their current charts here.  For flights to/from Mexico and the US the pricing in miles is:

Pricing is the same after the June 1 devaluation.
Pricing is the same after the June 1 devaluation and also for the 2015 skymiles program. We should pay 37,500 miles in coach, or 60,000 in Business/First. Don’t forget to calculate the taxes/fees, especially on international travel like this.

Remember that every booking costs miles and money. We discussed this a few weeks ago when we talked about how much awards cost.  Knowing the cash portion of any award ticket is important, because it plays into the total out of pocket, and the value you receive from each mile.

The best way to estimate the out of pocket for an award ticket with Delta is to price the exact ticket out on the ITAMatrix website. Doing so brings up a fare breakdown:


Most of these passenger fees will be passed along to you.  The above fees come out to around $114 per person. So we’re now looking at:

35,000 miles & approximately $114 per person.

In certain circumstances the cost of a paid ticket (which automatically includes these fees) may make more sense than the cost of an award ticket. We should consult the paid cost of a ticket to ensure we’re getting enough value out of our miles.

Ask and Answer:Is This a Good Use of Miles?

Your initial reaction to this question might be, “Are you kidding? this is a steal, $114 for a round trip ticket to Cancun!” But we need to stop and remember we’re using miles we invested time, travel and money into. Comparing what we spend on our miles versus the cash price of a ticket is important to do.

In this case I’ve invested about $240 in my 37,500 miles ($.0064 per DL mile, most of this my time). Add to this the $114 in fees, and I’m looking at “spending” $354 on each round trip ticket. My cost for the ticket is less than the cash price–so I’m good to book and know I’ve extracted $25/hr for my time (At my T-Rate) and am getting a good value for my flight.

Using this same Milenomics techniques we can see why using UA miles would not be as good an idea. My cost for each UA mile is just over 1.1 cents right now. Again, this is largely my time, but also a factor of not being able to earn UA miles as cheaply as DL miles.

UA charges the same 35,000 miles for the trip, and only charges $74 or so in fees per person (UA is not charging the US departure/arrival tax). However, they’re tacking on $75 for close in booking fees for this last minute trip. Out of pocket for the United flights would then be:

35,000 x $0.011 = $385 in miles + $74 in fees + $75 in UA Fees = $534

Compare this to buying the nonstop flights above for $554 and I’d pass on using UA miles in this situation.

For more on this key Milenomics strategy see the post, “When less is more.” In addition, by using my Delta miles I’m able to avoid close in ticket fees.

Now that we’ve looked into what this flight should cost, lets find award seats.

Booking Delta Awards, Always start at

I’ve mentioned this here on Milenomics before, but using Delta’s award search engine is a surefire way to drive yourself crazy. Instead of trying to search on I always start out at and do the initial award search there.  The reason this works is because Delta and Alaska are partners, even though Alaska is not a member of Skyteam. This was illustrated in our discussion last week on Alliance and partners with this image:


Knowing that partners have access to low level award inventory we’ll use the Alaska Airlines search engine to only show us low level Delta awards. Sure enough a quick search from LAX-CUN and back show these flights:

Disregard all of the pricing here–these are the costs to book with Alaska Miles. Booking costs (in miles and money) are based on your host program, not the site you search for awards on.

Consulting our Skyteam/Delta partner list above we see that Aeromexico is also a Delta partner, so those flights should be bookable with Delta Miles as well.

The 12th/13th to the 20th are the ideal dates for my wife and I, and the only options available are in Business/First.  Returns on Aeromexico are only available in Business/First as well:

CUN-LAX 5-20
Remember to disregard these prices–they are the amount Alaska would charge you for these flights. The price you pay is always dictated by your Host Program, not the partners.

I decided to book Business/First there and back. International quality the flights surely won’t be–but I have zero date flexibility, so I need to be flexible in destination, class, or carrier.

I’ve already verified that I’m not carrier flexible, and not destination or date flexible, so stepping up in Class is the only way to make this trip happen on my dates. Later in this post I’ll analyize the value per mile of this First Class booking.

Next, let’s book these flights:

Case Study in Delta’s Broken Award Search Engine.

You would think that the following search would yield a successful booking:

LAX-CUN search

And it certainly should–all the correct information is there, to/from, dates, class of service, and no other restrictions. In theory we should be presented with flights, and those should price out at 60,000 + $114 in fees.  What returned for the above search was much different:

Results LAX-CUn

I’m sure if I proceed they’d gladly take my 100,000 miles for these flights. I’ve sorted these results by “Miles Per Passenger” which should give us the lowest cost flights first yet as you can see it is not doing so.  No flights on Aeromexico are showing in the above search results. Only Delta’s flights, which are pricing out higher, and wanting to take me on a cross country tour of Airports all around America.

The solution is to feed the Delta search engine our preferred flights one at a time, leg by leg. This is super annoying, and we can only hope that next year’s big changes to the program mean this no longer is an issue.

The correct search for these flights is:

LAX-CUN Multi City
You’ll notice I threw in a flight to Seattle as a free One-Way. LAX is my stopover city.

Clicking each flight as it appears will build the itinerary. Along the way glitches are likely to still arise. A combination of trying to search by Schedule instead of Price, another browser, incognito/in-private mode, and/or limiting your search to nonstop flights only might help.

Interesting to note, I wanted to book the 12:20 flight from CUN to MEX. About half of the time I did the above search it would show as bookable the other half of the time it wouldn’t. And, to make things even more strange, when the 12:20 was bookable, the 11:30 flight was not available:


These types of issues are why trying to book low level Delta awards can be extremely frustrating.  A little patience, knowing the flight numbers and knowing what the award should price at are your best bet for finding and booking successfully. After a bit of trial and error the flights came out correctly, and my booking was complete:

In the end I booked two tickets and a free one way to Seattle for Labor Day. I'll return either with Avios or as part of a Hybrid System booking.
In the end I booked two tickets to Cancun and a free one way to Seattle for Labor Day weekend. I’ll return either with Avios or as part of a Hybrid System booking. Total was 60,000 miles and $116.99 in fees each.

Calculating Value Per Mile

Because we initially priced the award as a coach ticket I want to verify that this is still a valid use of my miles at the Business/First class booking level. I’ve used significantly more miles than the 70,000 I had expected the two tickets to cost (in coach), and so I should re-evaluate the award value before booking.

I also want to use this booking as an example of how I now calculate the Value Per Mile of a “First Class” award booking. I’ve recently changed how I calculate vales for premium cabin awards.  Many people take the price of a premium award and divide by the number of miles needed to book it:

Matrix LAX-CUN First
The lowest priced comparable options for our dates of travel.

The standard thinking is to take the total of $1205.75 per person, subtract our $116.99 in fees and dividing by the 60,000 Skymiles. This gives me a value of 1.8 Cents per mile.

This doesn’t work for one simple reason:

I would never pay $1205 for these flights.

We’ve discussed value here on Milenomcis before–and the value of something in the Milenomics Universe is only what you’re willing to pay for it.  If you’re like me, and do not see $1205 in value in flights to Cancun/Seattle in a mediocre first class cabin, then the price above is not “your” price.

In my case before paying $1205 for these flights I’d instead fly the above nonstop coach ticket for $558, and add $100 for the LAX-SEA flight.  I’m now looking at flights I’d pay $658 for.

To be clear: there is some value in flying Business/First (to me), just not $547 worth of Value ($1205-$658).  Lounge Access is worth about $40 per person to me, because that is what I can buy lounge access for.  In addition, getting off of an international flight first might save me 30 minutes in baggage claim, and customs, so $25 there. The food which will be served and the drinks might be worth $25. For me, really, that’s it. If this were a long haul flight, with a flat bed seat I would probably add the number of hours x my T-Rate to the total value. These seats aren’t much more comfortable than a coach seat (to me) so I won’t be adding anything for “comfort” to my valuation of these flights.

Again, this is the value I place on these flights.  You might value them differently, but I’m asking you to consider a true valuation when you calculate the value you’re earning when you book with your miles.

Taking my value into consideration I’ve now got a Value of:

  • $658 – Flights
  • $40 – Lounges
  • $25 – Baggage & Customs 
  • $25 – Food & Beverages
  • $748 – Total Value to S. Simon. 

At this $748 value, subtracting the $116.99 in fees and dividing by 60,000 miles gives me $0.011 per Skymile in value.  Well above my $0.0064 cost to acquire, and still a valid award for me.


Note: An excellent piece on the above thinking of value per mile is this post by Jeff @ CanadianKms, which should be mandatory reading for anyone getting into this game. Is Awful

I can’t state this fact enough. Delta’s search engine is horrible. The solution to a buggy search engine is usually to call in–but Delta’s phone agents can be worse than their search engine. Some gems I’ve heard from DL booking agents:

“Sir, Virgin Atlantic is not a valid airline to use Skymiles on.”

“Only KLM and Air France are our Partners.”

“You can only book Delta Flights with Delta Miles. You’ll need KLM miles to book KLM flights”

Needless to say, if you find yourself on the phone with one of these robo-agents, hang up, and call again.  Just last week I had two excellent phone agents, who not only greeted me by name, but were able to handle everything I asked the first time, and correctly.

When it comes to award bookings remember the old saying, “If at first you don’t succeed…try, try again.”

I’m available for help on Twitter, Facebook, and via email:

About the author

- Written by Sam Simon. All ideas are my own, but I encourage you to see my point of view and I promise I'll try to do the same. Connect with me on Twitter @Milenomics.


  1. Great post! I’ve experienced many of the same issues when booking, and your valuation of First class matches how I do it, so you’re smart there too! 😉

    Here are a couple of Qs for you though: why Cancun? And why is this last minute? (If you had planned more in advance, maybe you would have had many more options, and less fees…) Also, if you are booking in Cancun, there are often packages thought companies like AppleVacations that you could consider to cut your *overall* vacation costs.

    1. Blue: Great minds think alike 😉

      Why Cancun: My wife has wanted to go for a while, and I was going to book something in the next few months.

      Why last minute: She graduates on the 12th and has just accepted a job (too good to pass up) which starts in late May. This has been a bit of a surprise, and had me scrambling for a graduation present/trip to surprise her with. Her birthday is also today–so that’s a triple whammy!

      We’re actually getting out of Cancun and heading to Tulum/Playa Del Carmen. I’ve Booked the Viceroy Riveria Maya, and looking to do just 2 nights in Cancun, possibly on the 18th & 19th so we can catch the flight home without waking up too early. Not going to rent a car after my fiasco with Alamo in Costa Rica. :\ Any tips for Cancun/Playa Del Carmen are greatly appreciated!

      1. Two suggestions (as I see you are hitting Tulum already): (1) budget a half day for Akumal if you like snorkeling. Great place to learn too. (2) Hit a cenote. We did a smallish, local one: Cenote Azul, I think it was called. Cenotes have a color of blue that is indescribably fantastic—just got to experience it.

          1. Absolutely do Akumal, its my favorite secret place in Mexico. If you want to feel like a baller you can rent a golf cart to drive down to the protected lagoon, then stop at La Vida Buena on the way back to eat lunch on rope swings. Love that place.

      2. Regarding “why Cancun” and your reason for going there: it seems it was not a hard requirement for you to go to Cancun, so that, in theory, could’ve opened you up to other spots. It’s not a bad choice, of choice and everyone should do the south of Cancun area once, but, if you’ve already been, then Belize or Panama could’ve been a great substitute.

        I agree with not renting a car. I looked into it once and it was a nightmare…probably would’ve made Costa Rica look like a cakewalk—I’ll never know because I wound up not going. (If you do taxis, be prepared for some hassles…nothing terrible, just a PITA)

  2. A decent stay is westin Regina if you’re spg plat. Quiet & not at all like Cancun. Close to airport for o/n. I flew the AM flight on CUN-MEX route late last year in biz & was pleasantly surprised. New 737-800 plane, very decent wide black leather seats with retractable foot rests. Meal was very good! Served on china w/decent selection of cheeses, nice wine, prompt service, tasty meal. Compare this to the Delta metal flight in J going to CUN- broken toilet, crappy nothing snack for approx same flight time, a plastic cup w/water & duct tape on my broken ‘business’ seat. Seriously?!
    In MEX, centurion lounge is nice if you have amex plat- I like the private cabanas. Otherwise, the AM lounge was OK- comfortable wide brown leather chairs, but very crowded. Wine, finger sandwiches, good cappuccino. Fairly slim pickings on food due to crowds unless you ask for a fresh plate to be brought out. But then they do comply.

    1. M: All great tips. I’ll look at the Westin, not platinum, but I am my own elite 😉

      I tend to find the service on non American Carriers so much better than on American carriers. Good to hear positive things about the Aeromexico flight. doesn’t mention meals on either AM flight, and I was concerned the MEX-LAX would not have a meal–the CUN-MEX having one is a welcome surprise indeed.

    2. Booked the Westin, upgraded to the Beach Club Rooms for breakfast. Thanks again for all the great tips M!

  3. Good post but your solution for delta.dumb is to use alaska & I agree for domestic or Americas. But what about other itineraries? I think it would be helpful to have a post on delta workarounds for other types. And ps- the issues on delta.dumb are horrible for displaying most AM flights, & particularly intra-mex flights. You’re lucky you got that leg to show. Usually you have to call. And then they don’t know how to book AM. The issue usually involves AM loading inventory with different class letters from Delta’s- especially for business. So they can’t ‘see’ it until you tell them the letter. They will long sell these though.

    1. M: Good tip about the issue with fare letters and Delta. I don’t fly AM much so your insight into these delta/AM issues hopefully will help other readers to get the flights they deserve.

      I’ll have to take you up on that and do a post with each airline and the best way to search for their awards. For anyone reading this and wanting a quick cheat-sheet for Skyteam I suggest the following:

      Delta: Alaska
      Korean: Alaska
      KLM: Alaska/Flying Blue
      Air France: Alaska/Flying Blue (free)

      Many other Skyteam partners can be searched here (Free) and on Flying Blue.

      Flying Blue is limited to 10 months out–which is a significant limitation.

      *Soapbox* I’ve spoken with numerous people who’ve priced out and paid the ridiculous amounts asks for certain flights. For the average skymiles member there’s just too steep a learning curve to figure all of this out…and I think delta takes advantage of that to overprice and make members overpay. Continuing to have such an obviously awful search engine really is criminal. 🙁

  4. Well I flew CUN-LAS for the open jaw return (how about a post as well on the weird delta routings that can only go through hubs)– late evening. Can’t remember the meal or if there was one! But you can fill up in the AM lounge if you ask for a new platter right when you get there before everyone has swooped in on it! The crowds are so large even though the lounge is quite large already &very comfortable otherwise. You will find a seat though no problem. Large liquor selection, limited food.

  5. PS but one tool you’re missing from your belt here- & I would pounce on it if LAX is your home airport. Virgin Atlantic miles used on Virgin America. 20k rt econ direct lax-cun, 40k rt 1st. Virg atl miles from UR or MR. I think this is great value. 7 days notice to book (supposedly), must call. But if it shows on virg america as available for award (rev-based), you should be able to snag it. Unbeatable value for last minute-ish & good hard product. Try your dates & tell us what you find so everyone can learn.

    1. M: Upon your advice I just called Virgin Atlantic. I asked for flights on may 13 & 14th to CUN, and returns on May 20/21. The agent wasn’t able to see any award seats on any of these dates in main cabin, only one return day in First. :\ Both dates show available for points on, and interestingly enough would only cost 20k Virgin r/t, so the same 40k MR/UR.

    2. @m – great tip and thanks for sharing! Even better than the avios option, IMO. How is VA with fuel surcharges and the like?

      1. Nada ;). But typically only a better option than avios if you fly from lax or SFO. If yes, then yes 🙂

  6. Well we’ve solved the problem of the upcoming wedding flight. Only I used my Alaska miles instead. Thanks for the post.

  7. I cringe at your valuation methodology (which is the current fad in bloggerdom). What you’d like to pay for flight has no bearing on what it will cost. If you want an international F seat, you have to pay for it. No amount of rationalization/wishful thinking changes that. So “conventional wisdom” has it right. Take total cost of paid ticket and divide by miles necessary and you get the value of those miles.

    1. So, Paul, I have a total budget for a trip of $5000. That is what I can spend, no more. So if I pay $2000 for some tickets to Neverland and $3000 on the ground there, I’m good to go. Or if I use miles to fly in a seat that Orbitz says will sell for $20,000 (it wont) and $5000 on the ground, I’m also good to go and might get to have experiences I value more.

      But in no case, IMO, can that ticket give me a realized value of greater than $5000 since that is all I could have possibly spent. Of course if money is truly no object the argument changes.

  8. Im trying to find a good way to use 100k delta miles plus 100k membership reward points to fly my wife and infant somewhere. id love to fly lie-flat. I was thinking of doing hawaii from DC, but the only lie-flat flight i could find from the east coast to hawaii with delta or partners is from atlanta, and i cant find a single day with saver availability (even 361 days out!). can you offer me a tip or offer an alternative way to use the points? i was thinking of doing international but the prices for having a lap child would be almost $1000 which seems a bit ridiculous.

    1. Jonathan,

      Some quick “top-of-my head” ideas for Lie Flat (or near lie-flat products):

      VS IAD-LHR upper class, you’d be looking at the same tax issue.
      AF IAD-CDG on the A380
      KL IAD-AMS on A330? (not sure about that one).

      Each of these would be 125k per person r/t. It isn’t clear to me from your comment if you’re going to go with your wife and child, if so you’d need 250k, and these won’t work.

      Ideas to make the above work (and save lap taxes): You could run for husband of the year, and put your wife up front, and fly yourself and the baby in coach. 😉 This would save on the taxes and you’d have enough miles for the above destinations. I realize that sort of defeats the purpose of a trip in Business, but it preserves the destinations, which should be the ultimate goal of any good trip. You’ll remember your trip to Paris or London long after you forget which type of lie-flat seat you did or didn’t fly across the pond in.

      Another idea is to fly there in Coach and back in Business. Cost would be 92,500 per person. Benefits of this: The above flights are relatively short. You can fly IAD-CDG in 8 hours. That’s too short of a flight to get any real sleep on. They’re all night-ish flights, but you leave at about 6 or 7PM and get in at what would be 2am to you. So you’ll be up for the first 3-4 hours of the flights anyway. You’ll also be much more excited to fly *to* a destination than back home, so coach there should be more bearable. You’ll somewhat cut the fees for the lap child, and also you can both fly together in the same class on all flights.

      You could fly into LHR and home from CDG to avoid LHR’s departure taxes, and see both London and Paris as part of the same trip. You could book this on if you find the seats to fly IAD-LHR on VS and CDG-IAD on AF for the return (in business).

      General advice I’ll offer: You want to fly nonstop or at most one stop. Flying IAD-ATL-LAX-OGG with a baby will make for a pretty awful long trip to get to your destination, lie flat or no lie flat. The above 3 nonstops to Europe would be my first choices, even in coach, over a mediocre first class experience on Delta criss-crossing the USA and possibly spending an entire day in airports on layovers.

      Some closer options would be the Caribbean, Flying through JFK or ATL. You could stop in New York City for a while, and continue on to St. Maarten, Aruba, Grenada or many others including Mexico. You’d have enough miles for each of you to fly in Business/First, although the hard and soft services will be domestic style Delta.

      All I can think of right now, but let me know what you do decide to go with! Sounds like it’ll be a great trip.

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