How to Fly Delta Air Lines

After merging with Northwest a decade ago, Delta became the largest airline in the world. That title has since been claimed by United (after merging with Continental) and more recently by American (after merging with US Airways). Still one of the world’s largest airlines, Delta’s product varies greatly depending on what route you’re flying and what class of service you choose. 

Tips for Traveling on Delta Air Lines

To help you decide which type of ticket you may want to buy, which booking sites exclude Delta’s fares, and how to know if you’ll actually be flying on a Delta plane, follow this step-by-step guide on what to expect when flying with Delta.

What to Know Before You Book with Delta 

Delta is a member of the SkyTeam alliance, which includes airlines such as Aeromexico, Air France, KLM, China Eastern, and Korean Air. Delta also has codeshare partners with airlines such as GOL, Virgin Atlantic, Virgin Australia, and WestJet, which allow Delta to sell tickets virtually all over the world. It’s not always so clear which airline you’ll actually be flying.

A flight can be marketed and sold as a Delta flight, but the operating airline may be one of Delta’s partners. If you’d like to ensure you are flying on a Delta plane on routes where both Delta and partner airlines operate, make sure to read the flight details closely to see if it’s “operated by another airline”. Of course, Delta sells tickets to many places where they don’t actually fly. In these cases, you’ll likely be on Delta for one leg of your flight and connect on a partner airline.

Delta's main hubs include Atlanta, Detroit, Minneapolis, New York, and Salt Lake City. A few other focus cities include Cincinnati, Seattle, and Los Angeles. If you’re flying from a small city, you’ll often fly on a Delta branded plane, but the flight may actually be operated by a smaller regional airline. Many different regional airlines operate short and medium-haul flights under the Delta Connection banner. Although everything appears to be Delta to the consumer, the staff are technically not Delta employees and certain procedures may vary slightly.

Basic Economy vs Main Cabin

Delta was the first major US carrier to introduce a Basic Economy (E booking class) fare. This fare was introduced to compete with ultra-low-cost-carriers like Spirit and Frontier. Basic Economy passengers are still seated in the same cabin as those who purchase a Standard Economy (Main Cabin) ticket, but there are a few differences. The good news is that Delta’s Basic Economy fare still allows you to bring a standard sized carry-on bag plus one personal item, unlike United.

The main differences between Delta’s Basic Economy and Standard Economy (Main Cabin) are that Basic Economy does not get a seat assignment until check-in, ticket changes or upgrades are not allowed, and you will be in the last boarding group. This means that you may not be able to sit next to your travel companions. Essentially, it is a use it or lose it ticket. And since you’re last to board, there may not be space for your bag in the overhead bin, but you’ll be able to gate check for free.

For all domestic flights and most international flights, checked bag fees are the same for Basic Economy and Main Cabin. Recently, Delta adjusted this slightly to compete with transatlantic low-cost carriers such as Norwegian and WOW Air. On flights to/from Europe and North Africa, Delta now charges $60 each way for your first checked bag on Basic Economy fares. Main Cabin fares include one checked bag on these routes.

The lowest fare you see for Delta is usually going to be a Basic Economy Fare. The upgrade to a Main Cabin fare varies depending on the route and specific travel dates. It can sometimes be very minimal and worth the extra few bucks. Other times, it can be a drastic difference and you’ll have to decide for yourself which fare is best for you.

How to Book a Flight with Delta

Delta flights are sold on the majority of third party booking engines, but not all of them. The notable exceptions are CheapAir, Hipmunk, and the popular app Hopper. If you only use these sites, you’ll miss out on comparing Delta fares. Our partners at BookingBuddy allow you to search multiple sites to compare and get the best price. Sign up for alerts to know when fares drop.

When it comes time to book, Delta will try to steer you away from the Basic Economy fare. Its main purpose is to compete on price with other airlines and get you to upgrade to the higher Main Cabin fare during booking. Be prepared for pop-ups asking if you’d like to move to Main Cabin or accept the restrictions of Basic Economy. 

Delta will offer a few extras while booking, such as priority boarding and In-Flight Wi-Fi, but you will reach the payment screen in just a few steps. Standard seat selection is free for Main Cabin and above. Preferred seating is available for a fee. Checked bag fees are not charged during booking on Delta. You will have the option to pay (if the fee applies) for any checked bags upon check-in. 

After booking, you’ll have 24-hours to think it over as Delta offers a generous risk-free cancellation policy. Simply request to cancel by midnight the day after the ticket was purchased. There is no advance purchase requirement to be eligible for a full refund within 24-hours of booking directly with Delta.

Check-In for a Delta Flight

You can check-in for your Delta flight online within 24 hours of departure. Print your boarding pass or go paperless with an eBoarding Pass at certain airports. Delta also has automatic check-in available via the Fly Delta App, where you’ll get an alert 24-hours prior to departure and just have to acknowledge the federal mandate for restricted items. You’ll then get a mobile boarding pass on your device.

You may also check-in at an airport kiosk. Most check-in desks at the airport will be for bag drop only for those who have checked-in online or at the kiosk prior to getting in line. Make sure to check-in first before entering these lines to check your bags. You’ll pay any necessary bag fees upon check-in. If you require special assistance, you’ll have to wait in the Special Services line.

You may sometimes notice your boarding pass will say “Seat assigned at Gate” after checking-in. Don’t worry too much if this happens. As long as you have a confirmed ticket, you will most likely get a seat on the plane. This will occur for Basic Economy passengers primarily and the reason is the flight may be overbooked or a final weight and balance must be calculated before a total number of passengers allowed can be determined.

Delta’s flights are almost always full and the last few seats are often assigned at the gate. There are often plenty of no-shows, missed connections, and/or re-bookings from passengers on refundable tickets so you’ll most likely get a seat assignment even if the flight is overbooked.

Boarding and the Delta Inflight Experience

As with all major airlines, Delta will board elite customers first followed by families with small children and anyone needing special assistance. Planes are often full so if you’re on a Basic Economy ticket and last to board, there is a chance you’ll have to gate check your bag.

If you’re flying on a mainline Delta flight (larger aircraft), your bag will be checked to your final destination. If you’re on a Delta Connection flight (small regional aircraft), your bag will be “pink tagged” and claimed at the gate upon arrival at the next airport. Many smaller regional jets can’t accommodate normal carry-on bags in the overhead bins, so expect to gate check on these types of aircraft.

Inflight services vary widely depending on what route you’re flying. Short flights under 45 min. may not have any beverage service except on request, but most domestic flights will offer free snacks and soft drinks. Light meals and adult beverages are available for purchase. On long-haul international flights and certain transcontinental domestic flights, you’ll receive an in-flight meal as well.

For your entertainment, some aircraft are equipped with seatback entertainment screens with live TV and many pre-recorded movies and shows to keep you busy. You can also connect to the Delta Studio on your personal device to access many of the same entertainment options.

Delta also has Wi-Fi available for purchase on nearly every flight. If you have a Wi-Fi equipped mobile device, Delta offers free inflight texting via Apple iMessage, Facebook Messenger, and WhatsApp. If you’re a T-Mobile customer, you can text for free as if you were on the ground.

The seat pitch varies depending on the aircraft, but is usually around 30-32” in Economy seating. I actually prefer the smaller regional aircraft over the older Boeing 757s. It feels more like a private flying experience and seating is often only two per side. Of course, you’ll need to be on a larger plane for any long-haul flights and the more comfortable ones are the wide body (two aisle) aircraft. Check out SeatGuru for a look at the best seating options on Delta’s aircraft.

For a little more legroom and dedicated overhead bin space, you can purchase a Comfort+ seat. You’ll get up to 3 more inches of legroom on domestic flights and up to 4 more inches on international. You’ll also get priority boarding, free adult beverages, and a complimentary pillow/blanket. On long-haul international flights, you’ll also receive an amenity kit. The Comfort+ seat can be purchased during booking or as an add-on after booking.

Premium Service on Delta Air Lines

If you’re lucky enough to fly premium, Delta has varying options depending on the route you’re flying. These seats are usually exponentially higher in price than economy so most leisure travelers will only enjoy these seats using frequent flyer miles, credit card points, or an upgrade due to frequent flyer status. On occasion, Delta offers discounted upgrades at check-in.

First Class on domestic flights, which is the same as Business Class on short-haul international flights, gives you up to 8 inches more legroom and a wider seat. You’ll also get up to a 5.4 inch recline and a wider seatback screen on many routes. The service is more personal and includes premium snacks, meals, and alcoholic beverages.

Delta’s Premium Select service is only available on few international flights. These seats are similar to premium economy on international carriers and similar to Delta’s domestic First Class product. So far, only Delta’s A350 and a few 757s are outfitted with these seats. More planes may be reconfigured in the future.

Delta One is Delta’s premier product for long-haul international flights and select transcontinental domestic markets. The most appealing aspect is the lie flat seat allowing you to get the rest you need on a long flight. You’ll be wined and dined with chef-curated meals, which are better than what is served in economy, but it’s still airplane food. Between the service you receive, sleeping, and entertainment, the time goes by quickly in this cabin. Before you know it, you’ve crossed an ocean and are ready to explore another culture.

Header image by Leonard Zhukovsky via Shutterstock.

Here's a list of current fares on Delta to locations throughout the U.S. and abroad.

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