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10 Delta Medallion Upgrade Tips

by on December 5, 2010 · 24 comments

in Delta

I’ve been a Delta Medallion for several years now – starting with Silver, achieving Platinum last year and after next weekend’s mileage run to Dublin, Ireland, I’ll be Diamond for the first time. Throughout my years, I’ve picked up some tips that have kept my upgrade percentage high. With all of the Delta MQM promos, I hope a lot of my readers become Medallion and enjoy the benefits that I’ve come to be accustomed to, especially the upgrades.

1) Try to book flights that business travelers wouldn’t want. As a NYC based flyer, flights that get into the city early AM and leave after 5pm are generally chock full of business flyers. Mid afternoon and Tues/Wed/Saturday have been good to me. While the day before Thanksgiving and the Sunday after are heavy travel days, in my experience they’ve been easy upgrade days because its mostly leisure travelers flying.
2) If your upgrade hasn’t cleared at the gate, don’t board. I know you will want to board early and get overhead space, but the second you board, you get taken off the upgrade list. Is putting your overhead in a bin more important than a first class upgrade? It isn’t for me. Just today I was #5 on the upgrade list for 1 seat. The screen said “All upgrades have been cleared, please board in your zone” however I knew that probably likely be at least 1 person who wouldn’t show up for the flight. I waited until everyone boarded and let the Gate Agent know that I was waiting to see if first class boarded full. Lo and behold, there were 2 seats left and I got one of them. The Medallions who boarded in Zone 1 sure enough were taken off the upgrade list and are currently cramped in coach as I am stretched out  drink my Heinekin.
3) Same Day Confirm is your friend. For $50 (or free for Gold/Platinum/Diamond) you can switch to any flight on your day of departure within 3 hours of that flight. You don’t even need the fare class of your original ticket to be available- just Y availability (expertflyer.com is your friend in finding that space-see the next tip). If you don’t get your upgrade in advance (1 day for Silver, 3 days for Gold, 5days for Platinum and 6 days for Diamond) then try to switch flights on your day of departure. Delta usually holds first class seats for sale, so switch to flights with lots of first class seats. Get creative with routing. Do research and see what routes are extra tough for upgrades. These are usually hub-hub flights and most transcontinental flights. I can tell you that you probably won’t get an upgrade on JFK-LAX as a silver medallion, but LAX-SLC-JFK will be much easier to get the free upgrade
4) Subscribe to expertflyer.com. I use their “Flight Availability” feature religiously. That gives me an accurate picture of how many seats are available for sale in coach and first. This enables me to decide whether I want to Same Day Confirm to other flights. Also, if your flight is oversold and you take a bump, you can work out your own routing options and present them to the Gate Agent. For example, a JFK-LAX flight was oversold and I took $400 in Delta Dollars for giving up my seat. Instead of waiting several hours, I flew JFK-SLC-LAX that left at the same time  and had the gate agent confirm me in first because I knew there was space available. This tool will also show if any advance Medallion upgrades are available on a flight. So if you have flexibility you can choose flights that still have the most upgrade space available.
5) Split your reservations. If you are traveling with a non-status passenger on the same itinerary, your upgrade status will be dragged down and you will only get upgraded if there is space after all Medallions without companions. Simply call customer service and ask them to split the PNR (split it after you choose premium seats together). This way your upgrade will process at its normal window instead of at the gate. If you want your companion to get upgraded as well, wait until you get yours and then call Delta and have them listed for a companion upgrade. Works like a charm and it takes the risk out of you not getting your upgrade.
6) If you are booking within your upgrade window, look for flights that say Upgrade Available. This means your upgrade will process right after you book the ticket. This also works for Gold, Platinum and Diamond Medallions when booking award tickets.
7) If you really want an upgrade, book an upgradeable fare at time of purchase (Domestic Y,B,M,H,Q,K or International Y,B,M) and use miles or system-wide upgrades to upgrade. Those fare classes are sometimes in a similar price range than the lowest fare available, so it may be worth it to splurge a little bit more and have the peace of mind knowing the upgrade is processed at time of booking.
8 ) Book before your upgrade window clears. Delta has an automated system that processes Medallion upgrades up to 7 days before a flight. In my experience, even though they say the Platinum window is only 5 days, when I get the advance upgrade, its always at 6 days prior to departure, around 5pm EST. If you are a Diamond medallion and book your flight 2 days before departure, all Diamonds, Platinums and Golds will have already been upgraded and you may have to wait until the day of departure to get upgraded. The problem with day of departure upgrades are that often times F is sold out or filled with people who have misconnected or Same Day Confirmed, so its often down to the wire and somewhat stressful.
9) Strive to get top tier elite status. Delta is known for running tons of MQM promotions- take advantage of them! As a Platinum flyer, my upgrade percentage has been about 90%, but if I was Diamond it would probably be 100%. Evaluate your MQM balance at year end and if you are only a couple thousand miles from reaching the next elite tier, then do a mileage run (a flight for the sole purpose of getting MQMs) or participate in another activity that gets you MQMs like opening up a Delta Reserve or Platinum Amex, transferring American Express Membership Rewards Points or Donating to Charities. There are also frequent partner promotions to earn MQMs, like the Hilton one this past year.
10) BE NICE. This is my golden rule. If you are an ass to a gate agent, your chances of scoring the upgrade will diminish. Stay out of their hair until absolutely necessary and always end every request with THANK YOU. This approach consistently works wonders and I can understand why- the traveling public is generally rude to airline workers, especially gate agents. Understand that gate agents are not necessarily paid/promoted/graded on processing upgrades- their main responsibility is getting the flight out on time. Always be brief and clear with what you want and thank them for their help. A light joke usually don’t hurt either.

Do you have any upgrade tips for fellow Delta Medallions?

Disclaimer: This content is not provided or commissioned by the credit card issuer. Opinions expressed here are author.s alone, not those of the credit card issuer, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the credit card issuer. This site may be compensated through the credit card issuer Affiliate Program.

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  • Ali

    Awesome tips, definitely useful. I’ll have to try the ones I’m not already doing. Just did a mileage run yesterday because I was only 800 miles short of gold. Totally worth it.

  • The Points Guy

    Smart move Ali! Enjoy the 100% mileage bonus, increased upgrades, free award ticket upgrades, free same day confirmed and soon to be free Sky Team Elite Plus (international lounge access) for achieving gold status. Its a pretty good list of benefits, if you ask me!

  • http://coloradophotogroup.com Andrew Fielding

    Check flights on-time percentage and aim to fly earlier than you need to get there. You may just miss your connection and get bumped to the next flight. You get significantly higher on the upgrade list for that and will also get Delta coupons and sometimes a hotel. I do this all the time when flying LAX-DEN via SLC, 50% of the time I just take the first flight out the next day and get upgraded automatically to a Y Fare which means increased MQM and always gets me a first class upgrade despite just being gold. This may not work for everyone but it works well for me.

  • April Thompson

    Your site is awesome! I’m working on getting my mileage game back on track. Looks like I will have to do a mileage run or two to confirm Gold by end of the year…

    ADT

  • The Points Guy

    Good advice Andrew- getting rebooked in a higher fare class is a nice benefit. However, I’ve noticed Delta has corrected their MQM bonus on rebooked Y fares. Even if you are rebooked in Y and get the priority on the upgrade list, the Delta system knows what fare class you booked and will only award MQMs based on that. However, there are always outliers and nice surprises along the way.

  • Walt

    Lots of great tips here, but I do want to add one wrinkle. You are *not* necessarily pulled off the upgrade list when you board. I have been upgraded twice right out of coach after the door closed and have seen a few others upgraded that were just ahead of me on the list (argh!). Now, would someone lower than me on the list get the seat if they sat out in the lobby until the very end? Probably. But really, it’s not worth it to me to have to gate check my bag, which is all but certain if I’m the last one on the plane, just to have a chance of being that person.

    Anyway, just something to keep in mind!

    PS: Glad to see that I’m not the only one that’s done a mileage run or added an extra leg to a flight just to make Platinum. ;)

  • The Points Guy

    Hi Walt-
    Good point. On-board upgrades do happen, but in my experience they are rare. Most of the time, the flight will leave with empty first class seats or they will pull up a non-rev friend. It takes time to upgrade someone who is already seated in coach (and will want to bring their bags up to first). Plus other passengrs get jealous and you have the possibility of another elite causing a fight wanting to know why they weren’t upgraded. I actually agree with the policy of no-onboard upgrades, because I think they do slow down pushback and distract the Flight Attendants from preparing the cabin for departure.
    I guess we will have to disagree about boarding to get overhead space. My butt is much more deserving of a first class seat than my luggage of a cold, hard overhead bin! :-)

  • Tom

    Hi.

    Looking at tip 5. If I split the reservation and I clear 3 days out as a gold and I call Delta to add my companion will they upgrade before Silver or other higher companions?

    Hope this makes sense.

    Going to Cali with my wife but don’t want to risk not sitting together as I know I won’t be able to sit up front with her in the back…..or vice versa.

    Thanks for the tips.

  • ED

    Great tips TPG!!

    I started travelling again after a 1.5 year hiatus so I lost all my status :-(

    I have made cross country mileage runs in the past and I have done many of your tips in the past except for the one about waiting to board. I am starting that on my next trip. I am 8K miles from gold right now, I hope to make at least platinum this year.

    Thanks for the tips!!

  • Brian

    Hi TPG,
    Been checking out your site lately as I have been in the game now for about a year. I made it to Platinum last year and only started flying in May of 2o10! I got some pretty sweet deals with my Platinum Delta that got me about 20,000 MQM’s and helped the status. I ended the year with 95,000 MQM’s, so 20,000 got rolled over which was a nice start to this year. I just hit Gold Today, and I just Signed up for the AMEX Transfer (50,000 reward points) and should be getting the 25,000 MQM’s, putting me at Platinum and well on my way to Diamond.

    I have been getting upgrades about 70% of the time, which kind of sucks. I fly to Seattle, Portland, San Fran, Detroit, Chicago, NY and ST. Louis: Chicago and STL are little planes and they usually do not have 1st class, Detroit I always get bumped to 1st class, Seattle and Portland most of the time, but San Francisco and NY hardly ever.

    Do you have something that tells the best time to get an upgrade, something that lists the flights wehre most business travelers don’t fly?

  • Jim

    I love your blog. Thank you for all the tips that have made my travel so much nicer this year. Quick question: If I book a flight just after my (Gold Medallion) upgrade window has passed (as I have apparently just done if your observation, which I have experienced too, i.e., that Golds tend to clear 4 days in advance, not 3 as Delta says), will I still be upgraded before Silvers are when their window opens or was I passed over now until the day of travel?

  • Bob

    You need the Pro version of expertflyer.com to get flight availability. The Pro version is free ONLY for a five-day trial period. After that, you pay $4.99 a month. You can get the same “Flight Availability” feature for free without any time limit from flightstats.com. I am surprised you didn’t mention this free alternative website.

  • Thomas

    One question about companion upgrades: I followed your tip about splitting the reservation, got my upgrade then asked them to add my wife to upgrade list. This is on the onward journey.

    What happens on the return journey? It looks like she was added to the upgrade list for both onward and return journey. Does her non-status drag my upgrade down on the return journey? If so, what can I do to prevent it? Because our PNRs are already separate.

  • thepointsguy

    If your pnr’s are split you shouldn’t worry about her dragging you down

  • Alison

    Any hope for us Silver Medallion members? I will be traveling a whole lot in the upcoming year and will be SM by April. I don’t see very many benefits for SM’s, no Sky Priority, no lounge access (although I have an annual membership), slim upgrade chances.. help a girl out!

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  • Slee

    Silver is marginally better than having an AmEx Delta Card. Upgrades are possible, but you have to be traveling on the most unpopular routes at the most unpopular times. I suggest dumping the lounge membership, and either getting an Amex Platinum (non-Delta,) or Amex Delta Reserve (if you want/need the extra MQM) for about the same cost as a stand alone lounge membership ($450/yr). The AmEx Plat will get you into Delta, AA, and USAir lounges as a bonus. Then get Global Entry ($100 / 5 yr) which will qualify you for TSA precheck. Then you can use the elite security line.

  • zgscl

    What type of upgrade success have you all found as gold medallion? I will qualify by the end of the year. Is it worth buying a slightly higher fare class to increase your chances?

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  • theotherRJH

    #2 is “not” completely true. I have been moved to 1st class after boarding. It’s only happened once, but it did happen. Best of luck to the rest of you guys in your 1st class chances.

  • Thor

    Used your #2 yesterday on Jfk-Atl. Noticed 2 unassigned seats on 1st and only 2 left on the upgrade list (i was #1 on it) I asked the Gate Agent if she could upgrade me, but she said no – she would have to upgrade the customers who already boarded before me. I was a bit confused and started walking down the ramp – then another Delta Gate Agent ran after me and told me to come back to Gate and get a new 1st class ticket :D. Thanks for a great site!

  • Frank

    I am a longtime Delta Platinum and will be Diamond a week or two for the first time. I agree with almost everything above, except that SLC is one of the hardest airports from which to get upgrades, even for Diamond and Platinum (although Diamonds have the best shot). The other really tough one is Milwaukee.

  • 1kenthomas

    This has happened a few times to me in the past year– but there have been multiple times, when waiting patiently at the gate, resulted in a First seat. In particular, a number of flights when I waited until First had an open seat, flew with another First seat open, despite a deep upgrade list…
    at least once, I was also left in EC, on a flight that flew with a First seat open, despite a GA telling me that they’d come and put me in First if a seat was not filled.
    FWIW.

  • theotherRJH

    I was on a Delta flight to MCO on a Embreir 190 (or whatever that puddle jumper is with first class on it). I and an elderly couple were the only ones in first class. Rest of the plane was packed. It was small. Like FC five seats open. It was kinda nice but not sure why they didn’t move people to first.

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