Travel to the End of the World for Free*: Patagonia and Back on Airline Miles, pt. 2

In part 1, I showed you how we’ll be getting from Los Angeles to the South American hub city of Santiago, Chile. We managed to save nearly $4,000 on those tickets! In part 2, I’ll examine how we used Delta Skymiles to get from Santiago to several spots in Patagonia, including the lake district beauty of Bariloche and the wilds of El Calafate and Southern Patagonia.

First off, if I’m going to write a post about redeeming Delta Skymiles, I have to bring up the fact that many people regard them as almost entirely worthless. The common industry joke is the United States is that they are Skypesos, alluding to the fact that pesos are usually worth cents to the USD. There’s no denying that, on average, Skymiles have less value than other airline mileage programs. They are difficult to use at the lowest redemption rate and until yesterday’s announcement of program changes, booking a one-way ticket with Skymiles cost the same as a round-trip, cutting their value in half for that situation. However, in every award travel program there is a sweet spot, and often the key to unlocking value is looking at partner airline redemptions, as is the case with Delta Skymiles.

While researching our Patagonia trip, I learned that Delta was partnered with Aerolineas Argentinas as part of the SkyTeam Alliance (the third largest alliance in the world, behind One-World and Star Alliance). According to Delta’s partner award chart, we could fly round-trip in Southern South America for 12,500 miles each way.

Based upon this chart, I put together an itinerary that created what I consider to be a round-trip schedule from Santiago, Chile to El Calafate, Argentina and back. Six hours of phone calls with Delta booking agents (and a healthy dose of elevator music while on hold) I emerged with two sets of tickets for 37,500 Skymiles each. Why 37,500 per round-trip instead of the expected 25,000 miles? The truth is, we’ll never know. I spoke to several agents, all of which were surprised that my flights had priced out that  but gave contradictory answers as to why the redemption rate wasn’t even lower. Let’s examine:

My route was Santiago>Buenos Aires>El Calafate on the way there and El Calafate>Bariloche>Buenos Aires>Santiago on the way back. I knew that we wanted to go to Bariloche on the way back, so I was happy when the first agent I spoke with told me that was pretty much the only way with award space for my dates to get back to Santiago from El Calafate. Since Delta’s own website says all round-trip bookings are allowed one stopover (a period of more than 24 hours at an intermediate city on the way to or from either the start or destination city), I explained that we’d like to stopover there for 4 days before continuing back to Santiago.

The short story is that four different Delta agents gave me four different reasons for this costing extra, all of which I countered with evidence directly quoted from Delta.com and Delta’s International Contract of Carriage. In the end, six hours was all I was willing to spend on this and we just paid the extra 12,500 miles each for this stopover, despite the clear violation of Delta’s stopover policy. I believe that part of most airlines game plan for award redemption is to intentionally make award travel difficult to book in order to discourage travelers from getting the most out of their miles. This six-hour saga is a perfect example, as is the fact that the Aerolineas Argentinas flights were not visible to those booking online so most people wouldn’t even realize they were an option. Delta also tried to charge me $50 in booking fees for making the booking over the phone, until I explained that the booking was impossible through their online booking site (they knew this all along). It’s a shady way to run a business, but that’s what the award travel industry is like.

So how did we get 75,000 Delta Skymiles to make these award bookings and how much money did we save?

Well, Delta has a co-branded American Express card that often nets between 30,000-35,000 miles with about $750 in spend on the card in the first three months. Those miles plus the miles earned from actually using the card make the 75,000 number pretty easily attainable for two people with good credit. Given the difficulty I’ve experienced in redeeming these miles, though, I doubt I’ll be using the card anymore.

Savings-wise, I used Google Flights to price out the flights and it was priced as a round-trip (no surprise there) from Santiago to El Calafate at $704 per person, meaning we saved over $1400, although we did still have to pay $95 each in taxes and fees. This works out to a redemption value of about 1.9 cents-per-mile. Since most experts in the field of award travel value Skymiles at 1-1.5cpm, I see this as a better-than-average redemption value, although the true value should have been $1400 / 50,000 = 2.8cpm.