If you want to travel in first class but aren’t sure your upgrade will clear, one trick is to buy a more expensive fare that follows different rules. American Airlines, United Airlines, Alaska Airlines, and — until recently — Delta Air Lines, all provide customers who buy flexible economy class fares the option to upgrade at the time of booking if upgrade inventory is available.
“Upgrade inventory” is similar to other award inventory in that these are the seats the airline is willing to provide to customers to upgrade using miles, a certificate, or just by virtue of purchasing a more expensive fare. However, Delta just decided to eliminate the option.
Travel Skills reports that a new policy effective May 1 removes the chance for Delta customers on Y fares to upgrade at the time of booking. The only options to upgrade will be to buy a first class fare outright or hope that your elite status and other factors improve your chances on the waitlist closer to departure.
New Upgrade Hierarchy
Delta has provided a page with detailed information on how upgrades will be processed under the new system.
- Members are ranked first by their Medallion elite status.
- Within each Medallion tier, upgrades are ranked by booking class, so a Y fare will still place you on the top of the list here. Award tickets and Pay with Miles tickets clear after paid fares within the same Medallion tier.
- Assuming two Medallion members reserve the same booking class, a Delta Reserve credit card or earning an MQD waiver by spending $25,000 on a Delta credit card will offer priority.
- Date and time of the upgrade request (i.e., when you booked the ticket) are the tie breaker.
- Partner elite members and SPG Platinum members clear last.
How Other Airlines Upgrade Expensive Fares
If you’re thinking of switching, the grass isn’t always greener. Only two of the other three largest carriers offer instant upgrades at the time of booking, space permitting, when you purchase a more expensive fare.
United Airlines — Any elite member can upgrade Y or B fares, while Premier 1K members can also upgrade M fares.
American Airlines — No instant upgrades for expensive fares. However, Y and B fares are ranked ahead of other fares (within the same elite tier) for complimentary upgrades close to departure. Other booking classes are not ranked.
Alaska Airlines — MVP members can upgrade Y, B, and S fares, while MVP Gold and 75K members can upgrade Y, B, S, M, and H fares.
I’ve written detailed posts on the upgrade policies at each airline, and apparently now I need to go back and edit the one on Delta.
- 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
Strangely, This Makes Sense for Delta
Upgrading at the time of reservation saves you from waiting in suspense until a few days before departure to learn if your upgrade will clear, and on some carriers it even lets you jump ahead of those with higher elite status. While it doesn’t apply to most international routes, I personally love using this trick for longer domestic routes because it’s cheaper than paying for first class outright. If there’s no upgrade inventory immediately available I can go back and check again any time before departure.
Why would Delta eliminate an option than encouraged customers to buy more expensive economy class fares? Perhaps because they weren’t expensive enough. An upgrade is still an upgrade, and Delta seems to prefer that its members pay for first class rather than find cheaper or complimentary options.