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Delta Gift Cards vs. Pay With Miles: Is One “Better” Than the Other to Pay for Flights?

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Rene’s Points For Better Travel, a division of Chatterbox Entertainment, Inc. has partnered with CardRatings for our coverage of credit card products. Rene’s Points For Better Travel and CardRatings may receive a commission from card issuers. Opinions, reviews, analyses & recommendations are the author’s alone, and have not been reviewed, endorsed or approved by any of these entities. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.


After Delta’s most recent SkyMiles devaluation, it seems the airline is inching closer toward points being worth about a cent each — at least when it comes to booking travel, award trips be damned.

I wrote the other day about Pay With Miles tickets being almost as appealing as some award bookings. Those are trips where SkyMiles can be redeemed for a penny each (in 5,000-point/$50 increments) toward the purchase of an eligible flight. Plus, they earn full MQM and MQS.

Reader Mike, though, opined something interesting. He said:

[The best] way to redeem Delta sky pesos is to redeem for Delta Gift cards at slightly less than 1 cent per mile. It is an inflation hedge against upcoming domestic devaluations. Gift cards do not devalue or expire.

Indeed, Delta is once again “selling” gift cards through the SkyMiles Marketplace. (Digital versions are available for fewer points than their physical counterparts.)

Delta Gift Card Amount Digital Card Price

Physical Card Price

$50 5,600 SkyMiles 6,150 SkyMiles
$100 11,150 SkyMiles 11,700 SkyMiles
$250 27,800 SkyMiles 28,350 SkyMiles
$500 55,600 SkyMiles 56,160 SkyMiles

If we value SkyMiles at a cent each (which is a pretty fair valuation, especially these days), you’re “overpaying” when redeeming points for gift cards. For example, a $100 gift card costs you pretty much the equivalent of $111.50. At least, upfront. (More on that in a minute.)

But here’s where an interesting twist comes in: Delta gift cards actually offer more flexibility and elite status perks than Pay With Miles. So is “overpaying” actually worth it?

Loyal readers know that I stress everyone’s travel needs, preferences, and budgets are different. What works for you may sound absurd to someone else (and vice versa, of course). Some people might save their SkyMiles strictly for awards flight. You decide how you use your miles/points to use — do whatever you want.

But for those who are interested in the comparison, let’s take a look.

Los Angeles, California - April 18, 2014: A Delta Air Lines Boeing 757-200 with the registration N655DL takes off from Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) in California. Delta Air Lines is the world's largest airline with 733 planes and some 160 million passengers in 2012. It is headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia.
(©iStock.com/Boarding1Now)

Delta Gift Cards vs. Pay With Miles

Here are the main similarities and differences between using Delta gift cards and Pay With Miles to book your flights.

Delta Gift Cards Pay With Miles
Redeemer must hold a Delta American Express card
Redeem SkyMiles at a rate of one cent each Slightly more than a penny each
Earns MQM when redeemed for flights
Earns MQD when redeemed for flights Only on any remaining cash balance of the base fare and carrier-imposed surcharges
Earns MQS when redeemed for flights
Earns SkyMiles when redeemed for flights Only on any remaining cash balance of the base fare and carrier-imposed surcharges
Redeemable on any scheduled Delta, Delta Connection, and Delta-marketed codeshare partner flights. Also valid for Delta Vacations reservations. Only select Delta and Delta Connection flights; Delta Vacations reservations are eligible, too.
Itineraries bookable at delta.com, at the airport, or  by calling Delta reservations Bookable at Delta.com only (YMMV)
Subject to loyalty program devaluation

See where the gift cards may be appealing to some folks?

Let’s break down some of the differences.

Initial Ease of Use

The nice thing about Pay With Miles is that you don’t have to spend time buying a gift card, retrieve the number and PIN, worry about losing it, etc. It’s a benefit automatically applied to your SkyMiles account if you have a Delta American Express Card.

However, be careful not to overpay on your reservation. You don’t want to blow thousands of miles for an $18 cash balance that you’re much better off paying out of pocket.

Warsaw, Poland. 28 May 2018. Passenger airplane F-GRHV - Airbus A319-111 - Air France is flying from the runway of Warsaw Chopin Airport
(©iStock.com/Bartek71)

Plus, if you purchase an eGift card using SkyMiles, you have to wait seven days to receive it. That’s kind of lame.

Redeeming for Flights

Pay With Miles is valid only for select Delta itineraries. So you won’t necessarily be able to pick an itinerary you want (though I rarely have a problem). However, you’re limited only to flights marketed and operated by Delta and Delta Connection. (Delta Vacations trips may also be paid for with SkyMiles.) You also can only book Pay With Miles reservations by using Delta.com. But some people have told me they booked Pay With Miles tickets through Delta phone reps. So I guess your mileage may vary.

Gift cards, however, can be used for any Delta marketed itinerary — even if it’s operated by a partner airline (Air France, KLM, etc.).

Plus, you can use your Delta gift card to book reservations online or over the phone. Or at the airport, I guess (Does anyone do that anymore? Serious question.)

Earning Delta Elite Status Qualifications

Using our example from above, let’s say we redeem 11,150 SkyMiles for a $100 digital Delta gift card.

We use our brand new gift card to book a $100 roundtrip that has two total flights. We’ll say this is all-in (base fare, taxes, surcharges, etc.) for math’s sake.

We’ll earn:

  • ~$85 MQD (Base fare and carrier-imposed surcharges. Play along.)
  • Full MQM
  • Two MQS
  • SkyMiles based on our elite status level

Let’s say that we’re Platinum Medallions. We’ll earn nine (9) SkyMiles per dollar spent on the base fare and carrier-imposed surcharges. In our example, that’s about $85-ish. We get 765 SkyMiles.

Our net cost of the trip is 10,385 SkyMiles. (11,150 points to buy the gift card minus 765 points earned).

If we used Pay With Miles, that same trip would’ve cost us 10,000 SkyMiles — which is 385 points cheaper than what we netted with our gift card. Consider, though, that the Pay with Miles trip would earn us only:

  • Full MQM
  • Two MQS

Compared to Pay With Miles, we’ve overpaid by the equivalent of about $3.85. Obviously, the higher the redemption, the more SkyMiles you’ll pay. But if you really care about MQD, buying gift cards with SkyMiles might be worth it.

Gift Cards are Devaluation-Proof

People refer to SkyMiles as “SkyPesos” and “SkyRubles.” Those aren’t affectionate nicknames. (No offense to the good people of Mexico or the Russian Federation. In fact, that’s actually giving SkyMiles more credit than they deserve!) Their valuation is subject to whatever Delta decides they’re worth, for better or worse. (And lately…)

But a $100 gift card is worth $100.

So there’s also that to take into consideration.

Final Approach

Again, this comes down to personal preference. Some people might be willing to burn extra SkyMiles so they can get the MQD credit. Pay With Miles might be a better option for people who earn the Delta Amex MQD waiver or don’t care about status — as long as they’re fine being limited to Delta and regional partner metal.

 

Rene’s Points For Better Travel, a division of Chatterbox Entertainment, Inc. has partnered with CardRatings for our coverage of credit card products. Rene’s Points For Better Travel and CardRatings may receive a commission from card issuers. Opinions, reviews, analyses & recommendations are the author’s alone, and have not been reviewed, endorsed or approved by any of these entities. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.


Responses are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

14 Comments

  1. Kelly Loeffler Reply

    Do you have a full rss feed available for this site? It would make it significantly easier to check this site from time to time. Thanks, if you can point me in the right direction.

  2. Frankie Morgan Reply

    I had a nasty problem using PWM when covid started last year and DL cut their flights to Canada. DL had a major schedule change and the only viable alternative was a connection on WestJet through LGA (which would normally be a simple even exchange) but because I had used PWM to book the original ticket the WestJet option was not available to me so I had to take a credit for future travel on DL only and then buy a much more expensive ticket. Had I used an award ticket or gift card this would have been a simple even exchange.

  3. great article Chris, thank you. What about this consideration: upgrade priority. Does paying with a gift card (considered cash) have any form of upgrade priority over paying with miles?

  4. The gift card option is looking better all the time. At about 95/100 of a cent per mile for a non-status flyer (who can’t get an award flight he wants), it’s a small sacrifice for the added flexibility and hedge against “inflation.”
    Thanks for the analysis, Chris!

  5. Chris,

    I bought Delta Gift Cards last year (Before Covid), at a significant discount to Face Value from both Costco and BJ’s , ending up with a 5-9% discount to face value when combined with Costco’s % back from both their Executive Membership and Visa Card discounts. Not a bad way to go!

  6. This is why I follow your blog, very thorough and timely issue I had not considered!! We are in and coming to a new normal!
    I hate change and really dont like to,play games but I can see your points…..pay with miles sure has the benefits minus the devaluation issue! Thanks I enjoyed that refresher course!

  7. BRIAN ATHENS Reply

    Hello Chris,
    That’s a great idea that I never knew about! I’ve aways been leery about using my miles because in order to achieve status you can’t use award tickets. As a Diamond I want to always maximize my miles so I usually never do award tickets.

    I do have a couple of questions though. When purchasing gift cards with miles do the rates change or are they always the same? If it does change how do you keep your eyes open to make sure you’re getting the best value for your miles when you’re buying gift cards?

    Thanks,
    A

    • You’re generally going to pay at least a little more than a 1.0 points per cent. Best way to see if prices fluctuate is to check back on the Marketplace website from time to time.

  8. Another positive is if you book a hybrid DL GC / CC with annual airline “incidental” fee credit (pay for most of the ticket with a GC and an amount in the range of $100 or so on the CC) it typically triggers the statement credit. No such luck with Pay With Miles.

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