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?

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Update 11/6/14: Delta.com is again displaying Alaska Airlines and Virgin Australia award space. The disappearance must have been a glitch. Bookmark this post in case the glitch recurs!

Delta.com is no longer displaying award space on Alaska Airlines or Virgin Australia. You can search for award space on both airlines on other websites and book it by phone with Delta.

Virgin Australia Business Class

Delta.com is pretty terrible. It shows very few Delta partners, requiring me to search for award space for clients of the MileValue Award Booking Service on airfrance.us, Expert Flyer, or by phone.

Even the partners Delta.com does show usually don’t show up on the calendar of results, so it looks like the month only has Standard and Peak award space when partner space exists that always prices at the Saver level. (What am I talking about? Read this post, and thank me later.)

In the last few days, Delta.com has stopped displaying Virgin Australia and Alaska Airlines award space. This is a big blow for the average member of SkyMiles.

  • Virgin Australia has the best award space of any airline to Australia in Business Class. It is bookable for 160,000 Delta miles roundtrip.
  • Alaska Airlines has solid award space to Hawaii and Mexico (not great uses of SkyMiles) and to West Coast gateway cities for international award flights.

The silver lining of making award space harder to search is that it becomes more plentiful for those of us who know where to search for it. You can join that group right now.

  • Where can you search Alaska Airlines award space?
  • Where can you search Virgin Australia award space?
  • How do you book the award space you find?

Award space is wide open in Virgin Australia Business Class between the United States and Australia during February and March 2015 for 160,000 Delta miles roundtrip.

Premium cabin award space between the United States and Australia on direct flights on United and Qantas is scarce, so this Virgin Australia award space is all the more valuable.

Since 2012, Delta has not collected fuel surcharges on Virgin Australia flights. Roundtrip Delta awards between the United States and Australia cost 100,000 miles in economy and 160,000 miles in Business Class. Virgin Australia Business Class features flat beds that get rave reviews.

  • Where does Virgin Australia fly?
  • How good is the award space?
  • How can you collect Delta miles quickly?

Update 11/6/14: Here is an Anatomy of an Award post in which we book the theoretical award below for an actual client!

Two of the most frequent destination requests we receive at our Award Booking Service are Bora Bora and Australia/New Zealand. These are the aspirational trips that families want to take after diligently saving their frequent flyer miles. Luckily, both trips can be accomplished in a single award. Even better–Delta SkyMiles are the mileage currency to use. We recently had a couple with a sizable SkyMiles balance who wanted to visit both places. It wasn’t easy, but we were able to put the award together for them.

SkyMiles have received a terrible reputation for their redemption potential, and rightly so. The award search tool is a broken mess that doesn’t even display proper availability. Scott wrote about this in his post, A Major Problem with Delta.com and The Only Solution. The itineraries you are presented often have ludicrous domestic layovers. The mileage costs are astronomical.

Even with all of this deserved bad press, you can still book that dream Tahiti/New Zealand vacation using SkyMiles.

Delta charges 100k/150k miles per person for an economy/business roundtrip award ticket from North America to the South Pacific. You aren’t able to redeem SkyMiles for international first class awards.

Delta charges the same 100k/150k in economy/business roundtrip for travel from North America to Australia and New Zealand. All of these locations are lumped into the same Southwest Pacific region and priced the same by Delta. That’s not a sweet spot, but it does potentially allow us to include both on a single award and not be punished for it with higher mileage costs.

As Scott detailed in his post, Master Thread: Free Oneways on Delta Awards, Delta allows both a stopover and an open jaw on their award tickets. This dream trip won’t have a free oneway because we will need both the stopover and open jaw to construct the itinerary.

Luckily, the couple in question’s home airport was LAX. Both Air France and Air Tahiti Nui partner with Delta and fly nonstops from LAX to Papeete, Tahiti (airport code: PPT), the primary jumping off point to Bora Bora. To find business class availability, we searched Expert Flyer. For more information, check out Scott’s post, Free First Class Next Month: Using Expert Flyer to Redeem Delta Miles.

This couple wanted business class availability, so we avoided searching Air France’s flights. Why? Air France has excellent economy space on this route, but I’ve never seen more than one business award seat to PPT. As suspected, our search didn’t find two business class seats on the same flight.

With Air France out of the equation, it was time to search Air Tahiti Nui. Luckily, we found two business class seats on the same flight. I highlighted the space in red, so you can see what to look for in your searches.

The drawback to using SkyNiles on Air Tahiti Nui awards is the fuel charges Delta imposes. They aren’t as bad as flying to London on British Airways, but it’s still not pleasant! Expect to pay around $250/person for flying to Papeete oneway. Scott wrote about this extensively in his comprehensive post, Getting to Tahiti with Delta Miles.

Below is a map of our trip as presently constructed:

As mentioned above, Delta allows a stopover on their award tickets. In this Anatomy of an Award, PPT is your stopover city. Spend a week (or more) lounging in an overwater bungalow–it’s up to you. You will just need to connect to Air Tahiti Nui’s thrice-weekly service to Auckland, New Zealand. They fly this route every Monday, Wednesday, and Saturday.

Business class space isn’t available every PPT-AKL flight, but you can usually find two seats if you plan far enough in advance. As luck would have it, we found two seats on the day our client wanted.

The trip now extends to New Zealand as you can see below. The green leg is the one we just included.

That’s a great outbound itinerary, but what about the inbound? We already used our stopover in PPT, but we can still utilize our open jaw. The inbound itinerary doesn’t have to originate in Auckland, it can start anywhere in New Zealand or Australia provided there is award space to connect you back to the United States.

Delta doesn’t fly anywhere intra-Oceania, and their premium availability on their Sydney -> Los Angeles nonstop is ridiculously scarce. We will need to use Delta’s partner, Virgin Australia to get our clients home.

Scott’s already written up how great Virgin Australia’s award space is relative to its peers in his post Sydney Harbor for New Year Fireworks.

Virgin Australia flies nonstop to Los Angeles from Sydney, Melbourne, and Brisbane. Their premium cabin availability is fantastic, even during peak travel times like Christmas and New Years. You just have to search day by day for award seats because the Delta award calendar doesn’t display dates with Virgin Australia space.

Virgin Australia flies from these airports to LAX.

I plugged in Brisbane -> Los Angeles in late February and found the exact flight I wanted: Virgin Australia’s nonstop priced at the low mileage level.

The full trip is mapped below with the final leg in green.

Los Angeles to Tahiti //Stopover// Tahiti to Auckland (destination) //Open Jaw// Brisbane to Los Angeles

How do I connect from Auckland to Brisbane?

Air New Zealand, Virgin Australia, Qantas, Air China, and Emirates all fly the route. You can get on any of these airlines with miles or cash. Scott flew from New Zealand to Australia in Emirates first class. That looks like the most fun way to go.

I just checked Kayak and see multiple AKL-BNE flights on Virgin Australia. Why can’t I book any of those?

Three of the four nonstops you see are codeshares with Air New Zealand, which isn’t a SkyTeam partner. You can’t use SkyMiles to book those flights because they are actually operated by Air New Zealand.

What if that single Virgin Australia flight is sold out of award space?

I would use United miles to book a cheap oneway on Star Alliance partner Air New Zealand (for 17,500 miles in economy) or American Airlines miles to book with oneworld partner Qantas for a mere 10,000 miles in economy.

Don’t forget about British Airways Avios, either. You can use them to book Qantas flights as well, though they sometimes don’t display Qantas space properly.

If all else fails, you can purchase a cash ticket, as this route is relatively inexpensive when booked far enough in advance.

I want to use my open jaw and fly out of Sydney or Melbourne instead of Brisbane. Is that possible?

Yes! Finding award availability between AKL-SYD should be even easier using American or United miles. Virgin Australia only operates codeshares with Air New Zealand on this route, unfortunately.

Note that I’ve found it much easier to find award space on the Virgin Australia nonstops between Sydney/Brisbane -> Los Angeles than from Melbourne -> Los Angeles.

How much are the total taxes and fees on an award like this?

The award we priced for our client had total fees of approximately $364 per person, the majority of which came from the fuel surcharges on the LAX-PPT and PPT-AKL legs.

How do I book this award?

Though you can search for Virgin Australia space online, you need to call Delta directly to book this award. Calling is the only way to book Air Tahiti Nui space.

I’ve heard horror stories about Delta agents. How do I ensure my call to book goes smoothly?

You need to write down the flight numbers, dates, and times of all the flights you want and feed them to the agent. If they are still confused (some don’t even know that Air Tahiti Nui is a Delta partner), tell them to look for business class award space in the “I” fare bucket. That usually does the trick.

If you are still experiencing trouble, politely hang up and call back to get a more competent agent.

This is a great itinerary! Can my family of four travel in business class on a similar itinerary?

Highly unlikely. I’ve never seen more than two business class award seats on the LAX-PPT or PPT-AKL legs on Air Tahiti Nui. Air France is even stingier with business class seats on their own LAX-PPT flights. This award is best flown by couples.

What if I don’t live in Los Angeles? Can I still book this award?

Delta is the worst of the legacy carriers in releasing low level domestic award space: economy or business. If you live elsewhere in the country (e.g. St. Louis), you may not be able to find low-miles-price award space to get to Los Angeles. In that case, you would have to purchase a separate ticket on another carrier to connect to Los Angeles.

Just make sure to leave yourself PLENTY of time before the LAX-PPT flight (at least four hours, more if you can swing it), as Delta is under no obligation to accommodate you if you miss the beginning of your award itinerary because your connecting flight was delayed or cancelled.

Recap

Delta SkyMiles are tough to redeem, but you can spend 150k per person and book an award ticket that includes stops in Papeete, Tahiti; Auckland, New Zealand; and Australia. These two locations are two of the toughest spots to find premium award space, and you can include both on the same itinerary with SkyMiles, an incredible deal.

This award is primarily for couples. I’ve never seen more than two business class seats on the two Air Tahiti Nui legs above.

If you don’t live in Los Angeles, you may need to buy a ticket to connect there. Delta is tightfisted with their low-level domestic award space, and you don’t want to miss out booking a dream vacation because you couldn’t link your home city to Los Angeles to start.

 

Virgin America might have the best award chart in the world. Last week I covered the amazing deals to, from, and within Hawaii on Hawaiian Airlines using Virgin America points. See 20k Points Roundtrip to Hawaii, 45k Roundtrip to Asia, 55k Roundtrip to Australia.

That discovery made me investigate Virgin America’s partner award charts more closely. Virgin America lists two other partners on which you can redeem: Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Australia.

Yes, the Virgin A’s are three separate airlines that have all licensed the Virgin brand name. Virgin America has hubs in San Francisco and Los Angeles; Virgin Atlantic has a hub in London; and Virgin Australia has hubs in Sydney, Melbourne, and Brisbane.

I’ve covered the foreign Virgin A’s before because both have fantastic business class products.

See How to Book Flat Beds to Australia at Peak Times without Surcharges on Virgin Australia with Delta SkyMiles.

See Hawaiian Devalues its Virgin Atlantic Chart.

But I’ve never seen a way to get on their premium products for anywhere near as cheap as Virgin America’s chart.

For only 35,000 Virgin America points, you can fly roundtrip from New York, Newark, Boston, Washington DC, and Chicago to London.

Miami is 40k roundtrip. Dallas and the west coast–Los Angeles, Seattle, San Francisco, San Diego, and Vancouver–cost 50k roundtrip.

Of course, the issue is the Taxes & Fees–namely the fuel surcharges. You will pay only 35,000 points for the award, but you will pay over $1,000 in cash.

Still this is a deal that I think is very worthy of consideration. Normally business class costs 100k roundtrip to Europe. You can get a nice business class like United, US Airways, or Austrian for under $300 out of pocket in government taxes if you are flying to London.

Virgin Atlantic Upper Class is better than those business class products from what I’ve read. Not to mention the Clubhouses look better than a standard business class lounge by a mile.

So is the extra $700-$800 out of pocket worth the better product and saving 65k points? That depends on how points rich and cash rich you are, but for many people the answer will be yes.

Or to look at it another way: if you valued a roundtrip Upper Class ticket at $2,000 (a fraction of its cost), and you had to pay 35,000 points and $1,000, you’d be getting about 3 cents per point in value–pretty fantastic!

You can take a look at all the possibilities to redeem Virgin America points on Virgin Atlantic flights here. You’ll generally find complete steals in points with annoying surcharges.

There is no chart, only dropdown boxes to choose a departure and arrival city.

From playing around a bit, I can tell that each segment adds to the total price, so LAX to Johannesburg equals LAX to London plus London to Johannesburg since the trip would route that way. Oneway awards are available for about 60% of the roundtrip points needed.

Virgin Australia

Virgin America points can also be redeemed on Virgin Australia flights. While not quite as spectacular as Virgin Atlantic Upper Class, Virgin Australia business class gets lots of praise too for its fully flat beds.

Virgin Australia is one of the few bright spots of the Delta SkyMiles program because award availability is spectacular, and Delta doesn’t charge surcharges on the awards making the out of pocket price 150k SkyMiles and $150.

Unfortunately Virgin America does collect surcharges, but the award price in miles is a steal compared to Delta’s price.

The US–Los Angeles or San Francisco–to Australia–Sydney, Melbourne, or Brisbane–is only 80k points and $850. That’s 70k fewer points than a SkyMiles redemption though it will cost though $700 more.

Saving 70k points at the cost of $700 extra is like paying one cent per point to buy points, something that I have advocated before. Again this deal may not be for everyone, but for some, the deal is too good to pass up.

Like the Virgin Atlantic awards, no chart is published. Instead the Virgin Australia page uses the same dropdown boxes. Oneway awards are available for about 60% of the roundtrip points needed.

How to Get Virgin America Points

There are three main ways to get Virgin America points to take advantage of its favorable chart for Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Australia redemptions.

Like all airlines, you can earn points by flying butt-in-seat miles. Virgin points are earned at a rate of 5 per $ on your base fare. They are not earned the way that legacy-carrier miles are earned–based on the distance of your paid flights’ routings.

Butt-in-seat is probably only viable for people who live near LAX and SFO–Virgin’s hubs.

The easiest way for most people is probably the Virgin America Visa Signature card from Barclay’s.

The card comes with 20k Elevate points on first purchase. That’s more than half the points needed for a roundtrip flight in Virgin Atlantic Upper Class from New York, Newark, Chicago, Washington DC, and Boston to London.

The card comes with a very low $49 annual fee, which is more than offset by the $150 annual companion ticket discount code. And unlike a lot of companion ticket discounts, this one is actually easy to use. It is valid on any roundtrip published airfare, purchased 14 days in advance as long as the cardholder is on the itinerary.

Finally, the card is issued by Barclay’s, which is great, since you can get it in addition to other offers from the other banks with more rewards cards. And it has no minimum spend to get the points, which is great if your spending is being spread thin by the ever-growing minimum spends on most cards.

I should also mention that 20k is the highest bonus I’ve ever seen on this card–the application page notes it is double the usual bonus–so I am not expecting a bigger bonus any time soon.

Application Link: 20k Virgin America Visa Signature Card

The last option to get Elevate points is through a transfer from Membership Rewards. AMEX points transfer at a 2:1 rate, meaning 2,000 Membership Rewards gets 1,000 Virgin America points.

That means you could get the card and 20k points, then transfer 30k Membership Rewards to 15k Elevate points to make 35k total Elevate points, enough for a roundtrip in Virgin Atlantic Upper Class.

In November, there was a 50% transfer bonus to from Membership Rewards to Virgin America, which made the transfer rate 4:3. At that rate, you could get in premium cabins for even fewer points.

Virgin America is not a transfer partner of SPG.

How to Book

Virgin America partner awards need to be booked by phone by calling 877.FLY.VIRGIN (877.359.8474). Researching Virgin Australia space can be done online at delta.com. I don’t know a place to research Virgin Atlantic space online.

Recap

Virgin America may have the world’s best award chart. In addition to its partnership with Hawaiian Airlines, Virgin America partners with Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Australia.

Unfortunately it collects surcharges on awards on the Virgins, but the point prices are so low that the awards can still be a great deal. Virgin Atlantic Upper Class starts at 35k roundtrip, and Virgin Australia business starts at 80k.

These awards would normally cost 100k and 150k respectively.

People with Virgin America miles have a new cheapest way to get into Upper Class. If you don’t have any miles, consider the Virgin America credit card or a Membership Rewards transfer.

Follow me on Twitter and Facebook to make all your wildest dreams come true.

This is based on a classic post from bengalimilesguru.com that Scott has edited, updated, and expanded, so it is current as of publication.

Reader Maya sent me an article from One Mile at A Time where Lucky broke the news that Delta is currently not charging high fuel surcharge fees for travel with Virgin Australia! Until the change was made in early September, a roundtrip business class ticket from the US to Australia on Virgin Australia would cost 150k SkyMiles and ~$900 in taxes, fees, and surcharges.

The good news is that Delta still isn’t collecting surcharges on Virgin Australia flights. This may be a permanent change. The former $900 outlay has now been cut to $129 per person on roundtrips.

What are you getting for that 150k miles and $129? Virgin Australia business class is a world-class fully flat bed. And they even have a bar on board–which I doubt is useful, but there’s definitely a “cool factor” to an onboard bar.

Here’s information from Virgin Australia’s page on international business class:

Seating

  • 1.88 metre (six-foot-two) long fully horizontal flat bed
  • 77 inches (1.95 metres) of legroom
  • 23 inch (58.4cm) seat width
  • Privacy screen between seats
  • Laptop power, USB slot and reading light
  • 12.1 inch (30.7cm) in-flight entertainment screen

 

Also, if you already have a booking on any of these flights, call Delta at 1-800-323-2323 and ask to be directly transferred to International Reissue Desk. Any other agent is unable to refund the difference in surcharges. Fuel surcharges are able to be refunded to the credit card you used, so there should also be no need for a travel voucher, and there should be no change fee as well!

What’s Virgin Australia’s Availability?

Virgin Australia flies:

Brisbane (BNE) <-> Los Angeles (LAX)

Sydney (SYD) <-> Los Angeles (LAX)

Melbourne (MEL) <-> Los Angeles (LAX)

Virgin Australia flies from all three of those airports to destinations throughout Australia. Theoretically you should be able to connect to LAX on any Delta or Alaska flights without increasing the award’s miles-price. But Delta has such putrid low-level domestic availability that a positioning flight may be necessary.

Searching for Virgin Australia space is more of a pain than it should be. It starts easily enough. Go to delta.com, and type in your search, which will automatically bring up Virgin Australia space where it exists.

Delta.com shows space on individual days, but if you want to see the month-long calendar, the colors will be determined by Delta metal availability and won’t include Virgin Australia.

For instance, delta.com says in April that there is no low-level availability from LAX to Sydney:

But if you click on April 24, you will see there is low-level space on Virgin Australia.

That means you have to search one day at a time on delta.com or call 800-323-2323 to have an agent perform the task for you. If you call, be sure to avoid the phone fee: How to Avoid the Phone Fee on Award Bookings.

By poking around, you’ll see that Virgin Australia’s availability is fantastic even over Christmas and New Year’s.

If you searched united.com right now, you’d see that there is not a single low-miles-price award seat in economy, business, or first class on its flights from LAX and SFO to Sydney in December or January. Trying to use your AA miles to book today on Qantas during those months would be equally futile.

But there is space on December 22, the Saturday before Christmas, for a flight to Australia on Virgin Australia with Delta miles and low taxes.

And how about coming back January 3?

Other Search Tips

Delta has three levels of miles prices to Australia–low, medium, and high. Below is the per-direction price from the US to Australia assuming you fly a roundtrip. The first three are the low, medium, high economy prices. The last three are the same for business.

So the roundtrip business class price is 150k/240k/370k for low/medium/high redemptions. But if you see Virgin Australia space, it will always price at the low-level price like all partner award space.

That means if you see a higher price than 150k that includes Virgin Australia space, the problem is your domestic flights. You can either search segment by segment for better domestic space or drop the domestic space and buy positioning flights to Los Angeles.

If you decide to search segment by segment for domestic space, keep in mind that all layovers can be up to 24 hours.

Virgin is pure on this one. The price is Delta’s domestic segments’ fault.

Finally keep in mind the standard Delta rules: one stopover AND one open jaw and no oneways for half the roundtrip price.

Recap

Last month, the breaking news was the disappearance of $800 surcharges on Virgin Australia flights booked with Delta miles. At the time, we didn’t know if it was a temporary glitch or a permanent change. We still can’t be sure, but we can be sure that Delta still isn’t collecting surcharges!

Virgin Australia features a fantastic fully flat business class seat. Award space is bookable on delta.com as long as you search one day at a time.

Amazingly space is still available over Christmas and New Year’s. That is one of the most popular requests we handle through our Award Booking Service, and it is a request almost impossible to fulfill with United, US Airways, or American miles.

Bonus

AMEX Membership Rewards transfer instantly to Delta at a 1:1 rate. You will be charged $7 per 10k for the transfer though. SPG Starpoints transfer at a 1:1 ratio, with a 5k SkyMiles bonus for every increment of 20k Starpoints transferred. This is not an instant transfer.

Can you join me and Scott for dinner in Los Angeles on Saturday, October 27? For more great posts like this, sign up for the MileValue RSS feed, like the MileValue facebook page, or follow Scott on Twitter @milevalue. Get your friends involved too, so you can have more companions for your Free First Class Next Month.

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