Most readers who earn elite status are interested in obtaining complimentary elite upgrades. They are becoming more difficult, especially for Silver and Gold tier members. However, sometimes people are tripped up just for not knowing the rules of how upgrades are requested and processed.
There are many different kinds of upgrades available to passengers. This post focuses exclusively on complimentary upgrades rather than upgrades using miles, systemwide credits, or full-fare tickets.
You’ll need to be familiar with the term “fare class,” which is the letter Y, B, L, K, etc. that usually reflects the amount paid for your ticket and is displayed in your confirmation email. It’s possible for passengers on the same flight to have the same fare class yet pay different amounts — the fare class is just an inventory tool that matches with the fare, which is what actually determines the price paid.
Some carriers enable you to improve your upgrade priority by purchasing a higher fare class. Most reservation systems default to provide both the cheapest fare class and a fully flexible fare. United and Alaska’s websites provide an option to compromise in between, or you can call an agent.
Finally, some carriers require that you make a manual upgrade request. This means that reservations made through a third party such as Expedia or Concur will not automatically be eligible for upgrade. You must get the airline’s confirmation number and log into your account to view and modify the reservation. View this as a great opportunity to confirm your seat selection and enter the correct frequent flyer number. These details are sometimes “requested” by third parties but in my experience are not always well executed. (I’ve missed more than one complimentary upgrade on American Airlines, and I’ve heard of Alaska MVP Golds who lose status because the agent kept crediting flights to Delta.)
Complimentary Upgrades on American Airlines
You’ll need to manually request a complimentary upgrade during the booking process, in a box at the bottom of the last page before the payment screen. Executive Platinum members will see that their upgrade is free on domestic flights, or for an international flight they’ll need to call in so they can apply a systemwide upgrade. Other elite members will see the number of 500-mile upgrades they need to redeem; these will be deducted on the day of departure so don’t worry about buying them before you make your request.
American prioritizes upgrades first on the basis of status and then looks at the fare class. However, it doesn’t rank fares. Instead, full fare passengers are processed before ranking all the remaining fares by time of request. Companion upgrades share the same rank as the primary traveler.
Complimentary Upgrades on Alaska Airlines
You’ll need to manually request a complimentary upgrade after payment. If you want to use an instant elite upgrade for more expensive fares or apply a MVP Gold Guest Upgrade, then you need to do that before you put your name on the complimentary upgrade waitlist. If you screw this up, you’ll have to call an agent to take you off the list before applying an instant upgrade.
All upgrades are processed in the order the request was made, with priority given to elite passengers with higher status. No priority is given to fare class — someone who buys a discounted ticket and requests an upgrade three months in advance will clear before someone who buys a full fare ticket a week before departure. Companions are provided the same priority as the primary traveler.
Alaska Airlines makes it easy for MVP Gold members to change and cancel tickets. You also have the ability to book travel speculatively and get a full credit if you change your mind, so book ASAP to secure a spot at the top of the list. Be aware that any changes will remove you from the upgrade waitlist and require a new request with a different timestamp.
Complimentary Upgrades on Delta Air Lines
You’ll need to manually request a complimentary upgrade if traveling with Delta. Upgrade priority is given to people redeeming upgrade certificates or with full-price Y fares. After that, complimentary upgrades are provided primarily on the basis of elite status, and within each elite tier on the basis of fare class.
Remember that Delta does not offer upgrades if you purchase Basic Economy (E fares). However, Gold, Platinum, and Diamond Medallion members are eligible for upgrades on award tickets, so these award travelers will clear before proceeding to the next tier. That means a Platinum Medallion on an award will clear before a Gold Medallion with a paid ticket — as long as that paid ticket isn’t a full Y fare.
Unlike some carriers, Delta processes companion upgrades separately at the bottom of the list. If you each have elite status, you might find it easier to split your reservation and face the competition in your respective tiers.
Complimentary Upgrades on United Airlines
Complimentary upgrade requests are made automatically during the reservation process. There is nothing to do on your end, although there are a few tricks that you can perform to increase your success rate. One of the most important applies to travel with a companion: If you and a companion stay on the same reservation, then there must be two upgrades available or else the system may skip over you to the next single passenger. Splitting your reservation (after booking) maintains the companion’s upgrade eligibility but allows the system to upgrade each person separately. Keep in mind that this also means its possible that one person can be upgraded but not the other.
Whether traveling alone or with a companion, remember to check back frequently for upgrade availability. One process will release upgrade space, and a different process fulfills the upgrades at regular intervals. Some people have had success jumping the queue by calling an agent during this window.
Upgrades are prioritized by fare class and time of booking, with priority given to elite passengers. Those who book full fare tickets eligible for instant upgrades, or who request a systemwide upgrade or mileage upgrade, will be processed first if they didn’t already clear. After that, complimentary upgrades will be processed. Within each tier the more expensive fare classes will be cleared first followed by discounted fare classes.