If Lewis Carroll created a frequent flyer program — one full of logical inconsistencies, nonsense rules, and a seemingly sadistic sense of humor — it would be Delta’s SkyMiles.

“How much is a one-way domestic ticket?” Alice asked.

“Oh that’s simple. It’s the price of a one-way ticket.” Delta replied.

“Yes, but … but can you tell me how many miles it will cost?”

“Of course I can.”

“Will you?”

“Hmm …” Delta puffed meditatively at its pipe. “No.”

Delta is the only airline that does not publish an award chart. That means there’s no way to know how much a ticket from one place to another should cost without searching. And even then it’s impossible to tell which rules — if any —govern the prices.

Deterred? Cowed? That’s exactly what Delta wants. But if you follow us down this rabbit hole, we’ll explain the basics of this mad system in 3 simple parts.

1. Earning Redeemable Miles

“Redeemable Miles” are those that can be used to book flights and to upgrade existing flights. They differ from “Medallian Qualifying Miles,” explained later.

When flying on Delta, you’ll earn Redeemable Miles based on the amount you spend, not the amount you fly.  Specifically, you’ll earn 5 miles per every dollar spent. So if you book a $100 ticket you’ll earn 500 miles, regardless of whether you’re flying to Minneapolis or Malta.

When flying on partner airlines, you’ll earn Redeemable Miles based on the distance flown. For cheap economy tickets this usually only amounts to 25% of the distance flown. So if you fly 4,400 miles on KLM from Atlanta to Amsterdam in economy, you’ll usually earn 25%, or 1,100 miles.

This is the exact same system used by American and United, so Delta isn’t doing anything weird … yet.

2. Using Redeemable Miles

Like other airlines, you can use the Redeemable Miles you earn to book award flights with Delta and its partners. To book, use Delta’s normal travel tool and select “miles” instead of “money”:

But unlike other airlines:

  •  Delta does not publish an award chart, so there’s no way to know how much an award ticket “should” cost.
  • Last-minute award tickets cost way more Redeemable Miles. Usually this is a good use of miles, but not with Delta.
  • Award flights out of Delta hubs require considerably more Redeemable Miles. So if you live in Salt Lake City, Minneapolis, Detroit, Atlanta, or another hub, you’re actually penalized for being loyal to Delta. Unfortunately, since they have a near-monopoly in those cities, you don’t have much choice 😔

Nerd Note: Flying out of airports near Delta hubs can cost half as many Redeemable Miles as those out of the hubs themselves.

3. Earning Medallion Status

You know those jerks who get upgraded to first class, board early, and feel so goddamn smug about themselves? You could be one of those jerks.

Delta has four tiers of Medallion status, which are earned by flying a bunch and spending a bunch. For the lowest tier — Silver Medallion — you’ll need to earn 25,000 Medallion Qualification Miles and spend $3,000 in a calendar year.

OK, what’s a “Medallion Qualification Mile” and how do you get them? Unlike Redeemable Miles, Medallion Qualification Miles are earned based on the distance flown for both Delta and partner flights. So if you fly 5,000 miles roundtrip on Delta, you’ll earn 5,000 Medallion Qualification Miles.

Nerd Note: In theory you’d only have to fly 5 times across the country (5 x 5,000) to earn Silver Medallion status, but keep that minimum spend requirement in mind. Unless you’re flying business class, you probably won’t spend $3,000 on 5 tickets.

You can also earn Medallion Qualification Miles using some of their credit cards. This is a feature unique to Delta; other airlines don’t count credit card miles towards status. The Platinum SkyMiles and Delta Amex Reserve cards both earn Medallion Qualifying Miles, but it is (naturally) complicated. You’ll get 10,000 Elite Qualifying Miles for opening either card and spending the minimum in the first 3 months, then 10,000 more for each $25,000 spent, up to $50,000. So it’s possible to earn Silver status through spending alone — but only with a lot of spending.

Phew! That’s it. We usually try to keep these “Beginner’s Guides” short and sweet, but Delta’s byzantine system discourages such brevity.

TL;DR: Delta’s SkyMiles program is complicated and … how to say … not good. If you are a frequent flyer looking to pledge your loyalty, we recommend Alaska or American. If you’re stuck in a Delta hub, we’re sorry.

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