I asked longtime award booker and occasional blog contributor JB to write about a very interesting Delta award he just booked.

A lot of people think Delta miles are worthless, but there are no other miles that could book a single convenient award with long stops in Tahiti and Sydney plus an overnight in Auckland.

A client contacted the MileValue Award Booking Service requesting a slightly modified version a MileValue classic: Tahiti, New Zealand & Australia on One Trip Using Delta Skymiles.

delta award ATL-SYD map

She had tried another award booking service that failed to convince Delta to book the award. Despite this ominous sign, I took it on.

Her routing is all one award. It is properly viewed as a round trip to Sydney (SYD) with a stopover in Papeete (PPT). There is an overnight in Auckland (AKL), but the time between flights is less than 24 hours, and on an international award ticket, that is a “layover” not a “stopover.” That means we are following the rule that you get one stopover plus one destination on a Delta award.

I’m sure you educated readers already know that. But, guess who didn’t. That’s right… the Delta agent.

  • How did I search for award space?
  • How did I out-maneuver the agent to get the award ticketed?
  • What is the go-to lie Delta agents are telling to try to shut down your award and how you do you beat it?

Part 1: The Search

When booking an award, I always search for the hardest segments first. From prior experience I knew it would be the Los Angeles to Tahiti and Tahiti to Auckland legs. Delta has two award partners the fly Los Angeles to Tahiti, Air France (AF) and Air Tahiti Nui (TN). Air France is preferred as they charge lower fuel surcharges, but Air Tahiti Nui has better availability and better seats.

atn seats
Air Tahiti Nui Business Class

Neither airlines offer a flatbed in business class.

Booking early is the best plan, as Air Tahiti Nui releases award space when the calendar opens then does not replenish award inventory once it is booked. Air Tahiti Nui award space can be searched for free on www.flightstats.com, but I have an account with a service called Expert Flyer, and it is the fastest way. Scott explains how to use Expert Flyer here.

I searched Expert Flyer for Air France space (which also appears on delta.com) and Air Tahiti Nui space, and found two business seats on Air Tahiti Nui from Los Angeles to Tahiti and Tahiti to Auckland. I copied the date, airline, flight number, and departure time to my notes.

The next leg to find was Sydney to Los Angeles. The best way to get from Sydney to Los Angeles in business class is on Virgin Australia (VA). Virgin Australia award space availability to the United States is good–Delta’s is awful–and it is searchable on delta.com again after disappearing for a week.

Virgin australia biz
Virgin Australia Business Class

I quickly found award space from Auckland to Sydney in economy, and the long haul Sydney to Los Angeles in business.

I left the domestic segments in the United States for last, but not necessarily because they are the easiest to find. In fact, Delta has always been notorious for their stinginess in releasing domestic award space. My client was aware of this issue and was willing to pay cash for the “positioning flights” from Atlanta (ATL) to Los Angeles (LAX). Fortunately, I was able to find space Atlanta to Los Angeles and Los Angeles to Atlanta in coach to complete the award.

delta award ATL-SYD map

Part 2: Putting the Award Together with (or despite) the Agent

I set aside about 2 hours to call Delta and ticket this award. That is an absurd amount of time, but you have to be prepared for anything, including Hang Up Call Again (HUCA), even after you have spent 45 minutes putting the award together. Knowing when, and how to question, prompt, argue, escalate, and then hang up is a huge part of booking an award, and is a lot of the reason people pay us to book their awards.

I used every trick in the book on this call and came close to hanging up many times.

I called Delta, and I told the agent we are booking 2 round trip business class tickets at the SAVER LEVEL to Australia, which is 160,000 miles each. I explained that we only have enough miles to book a Saver level award so if she only finds segments at the ‘standard’ or ‘peak’ level to tell me immediately and not include them in the award.

I can’t tell you how many times I have put together a Delta award that would not price at the correct number of miles, only to find out later that the agent added a single segment at the ‘standard’ or ‘peak’ award level.

I feed her each segment one at a time. For the Los Angeles to Tahiti segment, she insists there is no award availability on that day. She insists. She tries to offer me something the next day, she sweetly consoles me for not understanding how airline awards work, and she uses her assertiveness training, “Sir, you are just going to have to find another day to travel.”

I ask her to ‘do me a favor’ and check to see if the flight number I gave her, ‘TN 101’, is flying that day. I know that to do this, she has to go to another screen and check. (short hold) Rather unapologetically she informs me that she has magically found the flight, and there is indeed space. I feed her the Tahiti to Auckland flight, also on TN.

Then I tell her we are switching to Virgin Australia “airline code VA.” I feed her AKL-SYD and SYD-LAX. Finally, I give her the ATL-LAX/LAX-ATL legs. She’s happy, I’m happy.

She prices the award… and it comes back as 205,000 miles per ticket. Uh oh!

Part 3: Educating the Agent, Standing my Ground

I remind her we only have 160,000 miles. I let her know that Delta has recently had a problem with their system where stopovers on international award tickets are pricing incorrectly and suggest, “This is going to take a manual reprice to correct it.”

The agent flatly tells me, “If the computer won’t price it, then the routing is not valid.” But, my battle is not with the phone agent, it is with the ‘rate desk agent’, who I will never (ever) talk to on the phone. This phone agent will be my only intermediary in this battle, so there is no point in fighting with her. I formally request she contact the rate desk, and ask them to manually price the ticket. (looooooooooong hold where I watch half an episode of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver)

The phone agent apologizes for the long hold and lets me know that now she knows why the ticket will not price. I have exceeded the Maximum Permitted Mileage (MPM). In the award booking world there are few things you cannot overcome: MPM, MPS (Maximum Permitted Segments), and the airline routing rules.

The good news is, this is a valid routing and a legal number of segments (Delta allows 8 segments).

The bad news is, Delta does not publish MPM or routing rules, and so it can be very difficult to push back when they give you those reasons. I ask the agent for the allowed MPM. She tells me it is 8,400 miles. I quickly calculate the mileage of my itinerary by going to Great Circle Mapper and entering ATL-LAX-PPT-AKL-SYD.

ATL-AKL miles

The total mileage is 9,931 miles – way over. But, when I calculate the actual DISTANCE from SYD-ATL (alas, there is no actual ATL-SYD flight) it is 9,285 miles – still over the MPM. I point out to the agent that the allowed MPM is actually shorter than the distance between the two cities. In other words, that cannot possibly be the correct MPM. Something is very wrong on Delta’s end.

The agent then says, “The way you are routing to AKL is not the normal way we do this. Normally you would route through Sydney.” This is the height of absurdity. Flying ATL-LAX-SYD-AKL is 10,779 miles. The agent doesn’t totally get it, but I have planted the seed of doubt, so she asks me to hold. (looooooong hold)

The agent lets me know that the problem is that I have 2 stopovers, and only 1 is allowed. Remember that ‘layover’ in AKL? It is a 16 hour pause in the itinerary between PPT-AKL and AKL-SYD, and she says it counts as a ‘stopover’ because it is overnight. I explain to her that a wait time less than 24 hours is officially a ‘layover’. Finally, I tell her again, the only way this is going to work is if she asks the rate desk to manually price the whole ticket. (long hold)

She lets me know she is waiting for more information. (long hold) She lets me know she is still waiting for more information. (long hold) She lets me know that “for some reason the rate desk has decided to honor the routing and try to manually price the ticket.” (long hold)

She lets me know that “they think they may have a way to ticket this” (long hold) She lets me know that “they just can’t find a way to save the ticket in the system!” (long hold) She asks me for a credit card so they can “try and store this ticket” (long hold)

She lets me know “they are going to have to start over and try to rebook the ticket with the LAX-PPT-AKL segments removed and then add them in after it is ticketed” (loooooooooooooooooong hold)

She lets me know that the award is ticketed. I ask if she charged a phone booking fee (so I can get it waived). She says, “We never charge a phone booking fee.” I roll my eyes. This call lasted for an hour and forty-five minutes.

Total cost: 160,000 Delta miles and $440 per ticket.

Most of the cash component is the fuel surcharges of about $300 for flying Los Angeles to Tahiti to Auckland on Air Tahiti Nui. Some people wouldn’t want to pay that, but some people see combining Tahiti, Auckland, and Sydney onto one amazing trip as worth paying a little extra. We leave it up to our clients, and, of course, we avoid fuel surcharges whenever possible.

Part 4: Conclusion

Delta has made it difficult-to-impossible to go online and book international awards with stopovers, or flights on many partners like Air Tahiti Nui. Plus delta.com is generally broken and should not be trusted. You are going to have to do your own research to find your own space, and then call a phone agent to ticket what you’ve found.

And you are going to have to question, prompt, argue, escalate, and maybe even HUCA.

Before you call, know the rules regarding stopovers, open jaws, and maximum segments. See the basics of SkyMiles awards here.

If you saw award space online – the agent should be able to see it too. Feed them the airline code (Air Tahiti Nui is ‘TN’.) Push them to confirm that they looked at the exact flight number on the exact day you gave them. To double check, ask them if they were able to see any availability on that flight, even in economy. When you call, question everything.

Increasingly, Delta agents are using MPM as an the default excuse – dig into their logic, ask for the numbers, verify them yourself. Don’t take “no” for an answer. Remember that the phone agent has almost no authority to override the system – the person you have to convince is the rate desk agent, who you will only be able to communicate with via the phone agent. It’s like playing “whisper down the lane.” [Scott: Never heard of this game. It’s like playing “telephone.”]

Don’t alienate the phone agent. If you are a completist, there is a solid Flyertalk thread with more info here about Delta award booking. As a final note, I suspect that Delta is going to shut the door on stopovers starting in 2015, when they start to allow one-way awards. If you have Delta miles, and want to book an international award with a stopover, I would book them before the end of the year. Let us know if you need some help at the MileValue Award Booking Service.

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