Today I’m wrapping up my series on upgrade policies for domestic carriers in the United States. I’ve had fun and learned a lot as I poke around through the fine print. It’s not that I didn’t know all the answers before, just as I’m sure all of you had some familiarity with upgrade rules, but when comparing these policies at different airlines at the same time, the differences become more stark. Delta offers one of the more unique upgrade experiences because of how many different paths it offers and also the complicated way these are ranked and processed.
- Ultimate Guide to Alaska Airlines Upgrade Rules
- Ultimate Guide to United Airlines Upgrade Rules
- Ultimate Guide to American Airlines Upgrade Rules
- Ultimate Guide to Delta Air Lines Upgrade Rules
It’s ironic, then, that no kind of upgrade — elite status, upgrade instruments, or miles — is possible if you purchase one of Delta’s Basic Economy fares (in the E fare class). Keep this in mind when you book your tickets.
Searching for Upgrade Inventory
Delta does not make it possible to search for upgrades on its own website or on third-party sites like ExpertFlyer. Instead you’ll have two different options. First, you could call Delta and ask which flights have upgrade availability. You can do this with any airline, it’s just annoying.
The second option is to search for an award ticket. Delta does not publish an award chart anymore, although there are plenty of saved screenshots and other reverse-engineered tables that people have created on their own. (My award chart search tool relies on one to display Delta award levels.) Delta also enables you to search for the cheapest saver awards on ExpertFlyer.
The R fare class used for first class awards generally matches the RU and RP buckets used for first class upgrades. These two buckets provide separate inventory for using miles or instruments (RP) and complimentary upgrades (RU). International flights and other domestic routes that have a DeltaOne business class cabin use the O fare class, and they have OP and OU upgrade buckets to match. In theory, the availability of this award space should reflect the amount of upgrade space available.
So let’s see what award availability looks like if we want to visit Hawaii. Notice that I’ve specified non-stop travel in first/business class. You can use the calendar to see one week or five weeks at a time.
After selecting February 21, I can confirm that this is, in fact, a first class award in the R class. Other first class awards on other days cost more miles and are in a different booking class.
It makes sense that on domestic flights RP should equal RU, and on international flights OP should equal OU. They’re both upgrades albeit supported by different mechanisms. However, different inventory means there’s a possibility that they won’t match. If RU inventory is available on a flight from Seattle to Maui, but RP inventory is not, then complimentary elite upgrades may clear before mileage upgrade awards — even though the mileage upgrades are supposed to have priority.
My advice is to not worry about it. I do recommend you call and ask about upgrade availability before you book a flight if you’re planning to redeem miles or an instrument, especially if you hope to travel in DeltaOne on a longer itinerary. That makes sense. But don’t worry about tracking complimentary elite upgrades or how their availability might be different. You can’t see them, you can’t confirm them in advance, and you can’t do anything about it.
Upgrades for Full Fare Tickets
Elite members with any Medallion status can upgrade in advance when they purchase a full fare ticket in the Y fare class. All full fare tickets, even those purchased by members with lower status, will be cleared before discounted fare classes.
Upgrades with Instruments or Coupons
Customers with Platinum and Diamond Medallion status receive various upgrade instruments when they qualify for status. Upgrades are only one choice among several, so you might turn them down. If you take them, however, Platinum members receive four Regional Upgrade Certificates (RUC), and Diamond members receive a choice of earning an additional eight RUCs or four Global Upgrade Certificates (GUC).
Global Upgrade Certificates and Regional Upgrade Certificates can be used for any economy class fare on Delta except those booked as Basic Economy fares in the E class. Here’s a handy guide that summarizes the regional restrictions for all upgrade types.
GUCs — but not RUCs — can also be used for travel on two partners: KLM and Air France. You can upgrade KLM economy travel booked in the Y, B, or M fare classes to business class. Air France has a premium economy class (“Premium Voyageur”) that makes things complicated. Y, B, and M fares in economy class can be upgraded to premium economy. The better deal is to book a premium economy fare in the S or W and upgrade it to business class.
Upgrades with Miles
Mileage upgrade awards follow similar rules as upgrades using instruments with the exception that they don’t carry over to the upgrade waitlist if they fail to clear before check-in. In addition, the rules will be changing to permit more eligible fare classes for travel on or after June 1, 2016.
Travel before June 1 permits using miles to upgrade economy travel in the Y, B, M, S, H, Q, or K fare class when traveling within the U.S. or Canada. Travel to other destinations must be booked as a Y, B, or M fare. These rules explain why upgrade awards do not require a co-pay — you’ve already purchased a more expensive ticket.
Travel on or after June 1 permits using miles to upgrade a larger selection of fares — Y, B, M, S, H, Q, K, L, U or T fares — and to a broader range of destinations, including the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean, and what Delta defines as Northern South America (Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, and Venezuela). Upgrades to other destinations will also be available with Y, B, M, S, H, Q, or K fares. Finally, upgrades may be available on Air France or KLM flights booked as Y, B, or M fares.
The new list of eligible fares excludes only X, V, and E fares in the main cabin. Remember that X and V fares can still be upgraded using Global and Regional Upgrade Certificates.
Upgrade award prices are not published, similar to the regular award travel chart. You’ll need to call Delta to get a quote and to request the upgrade. However, FlyerTalk members have assembled a list of the new upgrade prices by fare and route.
Finally, Delta offers something called “Upgrade with Miles,” which is different from an upgrade award. It lets you use the miles in your account to pay the difference between an economy and first class fare and secure it immediately. You’ll only see this option if you are logged into your account and you have sufficient miles. (I used the same heading “Upgrades with Miles” on all my reviews of mileage upgrade awards for United, Delta, American, and Alaska airlines. My apologies for the confusion.)
Complimentary Elite Upgrades
Complimentary elite upgrades for all Medallion members are ranked by elite status, fare class, and time of request. Remember that full fare tickets for all elite members clear before any discounted fares, regardless of status. Delta also provides upgrades to Diamond, Platinum, and Gold members who book award travel and “Pay with Miles” tickets — these are ranked below paid fares.
Delta permits complimentary upgrades on all routes within the 50 U.S. states, Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Upgrades to South America are excluded if the aircraft operates with a DeltaOne cabin, and upgrades on certain flights to New York and Hawaii are also excluded.
- Complimentary upgrades are not possible on non-stop flights between LAX or SFO and JFK.
- Complimentary upgrades to Hawaii are only possible on non-stop flights from western states (SEA, SFO, LAX, or SLC).
Companion upgrades are provided, but they do not clear until after all elite members. In fact, its possible that a companion could hurt your upgrade chances. Keeping the companion on the same ticket will pull down both travelers to the lowest level. If you call to split your ticket, your companion will still be eligible for an upgrade, but you can be processed separately, giving higher priority to the Medallion member.
After all Delta elite members and their companions are upgraded, Delta also provides complimentary upgrades to traveler who have elite status on a partner. These include Alaska Airlines, Air France, KLM, Virgin Atlantic, and Starwood Preferred Guest (Platinum only).
Priority for Each Upgrade Type
If your upgrade doesn’t clear in advance, it will move over to the upgrade waitlist at the gate. As we learned with American and United, it’s not uncommon for the waitlist to evolve somewhat as some advance upgrades using miles or instruments are mixed in with complimentary upgrades closer to departure. Since Alaska doesn’t have any waitlist for such advance upgrades, their airport waitlist consists entirely of complimentary upgrades. Delta is more of a mix. They will carry over upgrades using instruments but not those using miles. If your mileage upgrade award doesn’t clear before check-in, then you’re out of luck.
Here’s the upgrade priority for all upgrade types. Remember that complimentary upgrades and upgrades using miles or certificates pull from different inventory, so they may not clear in this order. I listed mileage upgrade awards but emphasized that they do not carry over to the airport standby list if they haven’t cleared 24 hours before departure. Note that Silver Medallion members are not eligible to upgrade award tickets.
- Upgrades using Global Upgrade Certificates
- Upgrades using Regional Upgrade Certificates, ranked by status
- Upgrades using miles (must clear before check-in window)
- All Medallion members with full fare tickets, ranked by status
- Diamond Medallion members with paid fares
- Diamond Medallion members with award travel
- Diamond Medallion members who “Pay with Miles”
- Platinum Medallion members with paid fares
- Platinum Medallion members with award travel
- Platinum Medallion members who “Pay with Miles”
- Gold Medallion members with paid fares
- Gold Medallion members with award travel
- Gold Medallion members who “Pay with Miles”
- Silver Medallion members with paid fares
- Silver Medallion members who “Pay with Miles”
- Companion upgrades, ranked by elite status of primary traveler
- Elites members with partner airlines (Alaska, KLM, Air France, and Virgin Atlantic) and partner hotels (SPG Platinum only)
To my knowledge Delta is the only domestic carrier that provides complimentary upgrades to travelers with status on a foreign partner; normally status with an airline alliance doesn’t mean much. However, the companion upgrade policy is definitely more strict, as most carriers (United, American, and Alaska) raise the priority of the companion. Delta will either lower the priority of the elite member or force travelers to upgrade separately, which can be seen as a positive if you often travel alone.