Why I Can’t Fully Quit Delta: My Positive Experience Upgrading With SkyMiles

by on May 15, 2014 · 43 comments

in American, American Express, Delta, JetBlue, United, Virgin America

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If you’re a regular TPG reader, you already know that I dumped Delta in a blaze of glory…but just last week I found myself slinking back for a one-way flight from Seattle to New York’s JFK, lured by the thought of an upgrade to the carrier’s hard-to-beat BusinessElite on its 757-200s. Even though it didn’t have the new lie-flat seats, it was still the best product on that route, which I’ll explain more about.

Let’s just call this transcontinental transgression my “flight of shame.”

Oh, Delta...I wish.

Oh, Delta…

It’s not as though I didn’t have other choices 

There are a few other carriers who could have ferried me home in (relative) comfort from Seattle to New York, but their products aren’t especially sexy, and in some cases would have required a stop. 

American has one daily SEA-JFK flight on its newly retrofitted 737-800

American has one daily SEA-JFK flight on its newly retrofitted 737-800

American. On its 737-800, the carrier flies one daily route between SEA-JFK (7am-3:40pm), but without a business class – only First, Main Cabin Extra and Economy. Main Cabin Seats have the same 17.5-inch width as Economy, but offer 4-6 more inches of legroom (35-37 inches total). (AAdvantage Executive Platinum and Platinum members, as well as anyone purchasing a full-fare Economy Class ticket, have complimentary access to Main Cabin Extra seats based on availability – otherwise, they start at $8.) The plane’s 16 First Class recliner seats, set in a 2 x 2 configuration, are 21 inches wide with a 40-inch pitch, and feature 110V AC power ports, shared access to 20-inch LCD monitors and WiFi access starting at $4.95.  I’d call the experience comfortable, but certainly not premium – it’s the plane I normally fly between Miami and LaGuardia.

JetBlue offers two daily SEA-JFK flights, but neither offers the carrier's new Mint business class

JetBlue offers two daily SEA-JFK flights, but neither offers the carrier’s new Mint business class

JetBlue. The carrier operates two direct flights daily from Seattle to JFK, both aboard an A320 with two types of reclining, 17.8-inch-wide seats: Coach (34-inch pitch) or Even More Space (38-inch pitch). However, without JetBlue’s new reasonably-priced business class product Mint, this didn’t seem like a viable option for me, especially with the lack of elite qualifying miles or even miles that can be easily used for international premium travel (which is how I usually use my miles). 

United flies to Newark on an A319 twice daily (6am and 4pm) and I lost my status matched Platinum status this year, so I had no chance of a complimentary upgrade and their domestic first class on the A319 isn’t much to write home about, plus the 6am flight was just a wee too early for me.


BusinessElite on a 757-200ER

My justification for Delta – Business Elite

Since Delta announced the upcoming changes to the SkyMiles program, I’ve not only lost interest in earning miles, but also struggled to find uses for the SkyMiles I still have in the bank- especially after their two 2014 devaluations. I’m still Platinum on Delta, but as of March 1, 2014, Delta now requires miles or Diamond-member upgrade certificates to fly on their premium transcontinental routes. Upgrades are one of the few remaining redemption options that offer good value; for 12,500 SkyMiles you can upgrade from select discount economy fares (K+) to First Class/BusinessElite within the USA and Canada (excluding Hawaii).

I had to leave Seattle in the morning after a whirlwind trip to Los Angeles and one night in Seattle, so I wanted to be able to work (read: have reliable WiFi) and snooze a little bit. Delta’s 757 recliner style business elite isn’t as sexy as what BusinessElite will be someday (Delta has just started to retrofit its transcon 757-200ERs with new 180-degree, lie-flat seats), but it’s certainly comfortable for 5+ hour flights!

The plane’s BusinessElite cabin has 16 seats arranged in a staggered, 2 x 2 configuration. Each seat (21 inches wide with 54-55 inches of pitch) is slightly angled toward the windows to maximize personal space. Add strong WiFi, a 110V AC power plug at every seat and an individual screen with on-demand entertainment, as well as a Westin Heavenly duvet, a big pillow and a Tumi amenity kit packed with Malin + Goetz products to boot, it is truly the best product, by far, on the Seattle to NYC route.

Delta's new BusinessElite amenity kit from Tumi and Malin + Goetz

Delta’s Tumi amenity kit was introduced last year

The idea of heading home in this seat and enjoying Delta’s solid in-flight food and service was enough to make me swallow my pride and go back for one more fling.

 A seamless upgrade

Delta used to hold all premium transcontinental upgrades to the gate and the competition was always fierce. I remember many flights flying between JFK and LAX as a Diamond in coach- even before they had Economy Comfort – but now that they no longer upgrade Medallions, I wondered if their mileage upgrades would become more available. In my case, I was in luck.

I booked the ticket within a week of departure and the cheapest flight on any airline was Delta at $375 one-way for a K class fare. BusinessElite fares were over $1,800, which obviously wasn’t going to happen, so I called Delta to see if mileage upgrades were available, and lo and behold, the agent said, “Absolutely, Mr. Kelly – I can confirm you in BusinessElite for $375 and 12,500 SkyMiles.” Done.

On my day of travel, I woke up at 5am and couldn’t go back to sleep, so I figured I’d rather just get back to NYC in the mid-afternoon and called to Same Day Confirm on the 7am flight. Unfortunately, no upgrades were available, but there were four seats for sale and the agent said I’d be the only person on the upgrade list. I decided to roll the dice and confirm in Economy and hope that four Seattle high rollers didn’t decide to book a last minute 7am flight to NYC and steal my chance of an upgrade!

A big comfy seat was hanging in the balance

A big comfy BusinessElite seat was hanging in the balance

I Ubered to the airport, flew through security in 30 seconds with TSA PreCheck, hopped on Sea-Tac’s inter-terminal tram system, hoofed it about a quarter of a mile, and made my now-sweaty way to the gate – only to find that I wasn’t actually on the waiting list. This wasn’t too surprising since everyone I talked to at Delta seemed a little confused about the new upgrade process, especially for someone using miles and Same Day Confirming.

The agent at the check-in desk called a Redcoat (supervisor) who informed her that she had to “activate” me on the list and with about a hundred key strokes she was able to do so and print my boarding pass in 4D. Score.

The onboard experience

The flight took off on time, and mimosas were served upon boarding. (At 7am, and with a Cinco de Mayo celebration still awaiting me, I chose to pass on these.) Breakfast was served soon after, with three options: a cheddar omelet with a side of sausage, granola with fruit and yogurt, or sugary crepes.

I had my eye on the granola, but I was seated in 4D and service was FEBO (front even/back odd) – so by the time the flight attendant got to me, my only option was the unhealthy crepe dish. I’ve been trying to eat healthy lately, so I told that to the flight attendant, who immediately offered to snag some options from coach, which I decided to try instead of carbloading on crepes doused in syrup.

I got two snack kits from Economy (including a bran muffin and some fruit), so I can happily say that I enjoyed my breakfast. Throughout my flight I experienced exceptional service from my steward, who checked back several times to see if I needed anything. By the time the snack basket came around  (which included fruit ) and warm cookies were served, I was in a happy haze, boosted by great WiFi and plenty of legroom.

Enough legroom for me? Why, don't mind if I do, Delta

Enough legroom for me? Don’t mind if I do, Delta!

Conceding a point

Basically,  I’m not ashamed to say that even though Delta has devalued their frequent flyer program, they still offer a great product on many routes. Though still, that’s not enough for me to completely forget about all the bad stuff like the elite-status policies, the new changes to its SkyClub lounge policies, and the relatively low worth of SkyMiles. In terms of convenience, comfort, service and in-flight amenities, I have to admit that Delta still has a piece of my heart.

Anyone else out there having a hard time completely breaking up with Delta – or any other airline, for that matter?

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

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  • Ed

    I don’t see the problem. You still can continue to fly Delta but credit to Alaska. At least that is what I am doing.

  • RB

    So the difference from AA is the amenity kit, a pillow and a slightly more comfortable seat? Just trying to list the actual differences from the post. AA miles upgrade would have been 15k miles + $75. So, one still overpays by $300 (-2.5k miles) on DL. You could have paid a bit more on AA, and still upgraded for free as EXP or use miles to confirm for less.

    I would still find it very easy to quit. I suppose you really found the service much better, but it seems a hit or miss on all airlines nowadays… so I usually don’t place much value between legacy US carriers.

  • newbie

    I have recently started following your blog and am very interested in learning more about the world of travel and travel with points. Do you have any columns on your blog written about how to earn miles? I would like to one day have enough miles to use them to fly and/or upgrade on flights like you ;) Thank you !

  • DS

    You say your seat was “22.2. inches wide with 76 inches of pitch”… This seems like a typo (56 inches of pitch perhaps!)

  • dee seiffer

    Hi, Newbie. I’m not Brian, but a long-time reader. I suggest you go to the “Beginner’s Guide” in the navigation bar at the top. Stick around. Keep reading daily. Eventually, it will all make sense.

  • Molly

    I relocated to Boston from Minneapolis last year. While I’ve tried my darnedest to break up with Delta, they offer the most flights from BOS to MSP–and usually at one of the better price points. My father flies Delta for work so he’s amassed a pile of SkyMiles that are often used to book me flights home. And the Delta Terminal A extension at BOS is one of the better parts of the airport. I felt triumphant trading my Delta Reserve Amex for a Platinum Amex earlier this year, but the card still grants me access to Sky Clubs… which always seem to be in the airports and terminals in which I’m traveling. As much as I want to tell them to take a flying leap, I keep going back with my tail between my legs.

  • Matt

    His total ticket cost was $375. It wasn’t an additional $375 like you’re alluding too.

  • newbie

    Thank you ! I am trying to take it all in, but lots of the lingo doesn’t quite makes sense just yet :)

  • dee seiffer

    I also suggest reading every article, even if it seems like it doesn’t apply to you. It will help put the pieces of the puzzle together faster. Welcome aboard!

  • mwilson77

    I’ve been saying from the beginning, that if they start offering more mileage/old SWU space on these routes for K+ fares, it’s actually not a bad tradeoff for them taking the comp upgrades away in the first place. Trust me, like you, I have sat in the back on my fair share of JFK/LAX-SFO-SEA flights as a Diamond and being able to confirm a seat at booking is mostly worth the extra $$ and miles *to me*. Add in the new flexibility on SDC’ing within BE and you end up with actually a ton more options than you had before. (i.e. the strategy, as I see it, is just book whatever flight has confirmable R or O space, then SDC to whichever flight best suits your schedule…i’m doing this next month when I booked a redeye i’m fairly certain i’m not going to have to take).

    The only ppl this hurts are low-spend Diamond/Plat medallions who don’t know how to find these seats in the first place or don’t want to part with the extra $$/miles (and were used to free upgrades on these routes in the past.) You can argue that, in fact, this helps lower status medallions who know how to do the right research , because it actually gives them a decent shot at sitting up front on these routes.

  • atltravel

    Yes, because I live in ATL and really have no choice. But I did sign up for KLM’s FFY program, since every time I go to Europe I go thru AMS and connect to KLM flights, is this a smart move? I dumped all my DL points last year on a B-class flight to AMS.

  • thepointsguy

    The only issue is that to SDC to business on a different flight there needs to be upgrade space available- not just available business seats- that’s what they told me at least (and I called several reps who all confirmed the same)

  • Christopher

    I have tried to break up with American many times, but for the opposite reasons you have done so with Delta! Their rewards are some of the best, but their product is terrible! I always end up flying them from Rio to Boston because it is the best price and for every 3 flights I buy, I earn enough for a 4th…,

  • mwilson77

    Hmmm, not according to this link, or the rep I spoke to on the phone yesterday (who I asked specifically about this new change to the SDC benefits). My understanding from that convo and the link below is that there just needs to be a seat in the cabin. Basically, if you’re ticketed in BE (through miles or a SWU, or booked a BE seat on miles, there just needs to be an open seat, not any specific UG inventory. Of course, I could be wrong, but I explicitly asked about this.

  • Lee

    That’s good to hear. Anyone been able to use 12,500 to upgrade JFK-LAX or LAX-JFK? That could keep me at Delta next year when I no longer can get 10 SWUs as a DM. I have also had the “activation” issue with an SWU. The SkyClub reps are usualy good at doing the “100 keystroke” thing to get it activated, but the gate agents are not.

  • Fred

    That is possible indeed, but he would lose the Starpoints earning from Crossover Rewards. Don’t forget Brian is a big SPG fan.

  • M. Williams

    Just arrived in Cancun from DTW. I am Silver medallion. I bought a coach seat in Nov for less than last year the same time. Got and email 24 hours before check in, that I had been assigned a first class seat along with hubby. Yea! Hoping for the same on return. Delta is hub from DTW so hard to give up if I wanted to.

  • Joe

    So did you not consider your new crush, Alaska, for their flight to Newark? They have two a day, too. Overall, if I had a pile of skypesos to burn, I’d do what you did and go with Delta. Just interesting that you didn’t mention Alaska after the post last week about the flight from LAX to SEA.

  • Ed

    Not impressed with Starwood. Their credit card doesn’t have any benefits: no free Wifi nor free breakfast like Hyatt or Hilton. Not even measly gold status!

  • joeypore

    It doesn’t give free Gold status, but the points themselves are the most valuable by far. If you have the Amex Plat, you get Gold status. That’s my favorite combo Plat + Starwood. Spend on Starwood, Plat for benefits. Both for AMEX offers which save a bunch of $$ if you take advantage of them.

  • HAF1

    No problem whatsoever dumping Delta after flying 500,000 miles with them over the past 6 years. In too many ways, they have made it clear they do not want my business. They have far too much competition to be treating their customers this way. I am all to happy to oblige.

  • umeshunni

    Although with AA, you can upgrade from any fare, not just mid level coach.

  • TheyCallMeEllis

    I’ve broken up with Delta, and it was less painful than I thought. I switched to AA. I like their Admirals clubs far better than Delta’s, and found their flight service to be far better than expected. The airline “feels” much more customer focused than Delta did. AA’s upgrade system is a bit different until you hit ExPlat, but when upgrades are earned, are easier to actually use. (Since I only got 3 upgrades in a year as a MMiler & Diamond (not counting the two RJs from SLC-BOI), I’ve all but given up on Delta upgrades.)

    The only pain point I have is that about 2/3s of my flights now require connections, which is expected since ATL is my home airport. But, the pain is offset by the additional miles earnings which will make it easier to get ExPlat anyway. Since I usually fly out the night before an engagement to avoid the ATL crowds and traffic the extra flight time doesn’t bother me as much.

    So, when would I fly Delta?
    - If I need a direct (for those rare Monday morning flights)
    - Maybe after I re-gain status on AA I’ll occasionally use a Delta flight when it makes sense.

    But I went into this thing looking at it this way: Delta’s Skymiles program is no longer worth keeping loyal to Delta. So, if AA works out, great! If not, well, I’ll just fly the cheapest fare each week. If it’s Delta, great. If it’s not, that’s fine. Delta’s made it clear that my $25k – $30k a year wasn’t that important to them. It was a business decision. I also made a business decision. So far though, I’m extremely happy with my AA switch.

  • TheyCallMeEllis

    But not impossible. I gave them up out of Atlanta.

  • JABS

    I too am disappointed with Delta, been a diamond for past three years and have over 125K MQM’s this year with approx. $30K MQD’s. I would like to make the switch to American but they keep telling me that they do not have any programs to match status. Any thoughts on making the switch?

  • TheyCallMeEllis

    They will status match you to Platinum. Pay them $200 for the program, and if you qualify you fly 10k ‘points’ in 90 days. Then you are plat. You’ll have to earn your way back to ExecPlat. Not ideal, but it’s what I’m doing. (I started this year so I can earn my status.)

  • Jennifer

    The service while in-flight, extensive wi-fi availability and the comfort of travel on their planes is what keeps me with Delta. On the rare instance that there is a travel delay, they do a great job notifying me and getting flights re-booked. Even with all the recent changes and devaluations, I am still a big fan of Delta.

  • dlta

    I can’t quite quit Delta yet.. for price and convenience. Oddly, from Denver they have excellent non-stop connections to NYC (LaGuadia or JFK) n business class for often just $530 (about $100 above coach on all airlines). On United or JetBlue, etc. those same seats/connections are $1,000+

  • jta5

    My wife and I were separated in First Class after equipment change, a larger plane with more first class seats no less. I called to get us seated together, we were then bumped, somehow, to separate seats in coach on a cross country flight. I had no problems dumping Delta, a member since 1982 of Delta and American. I had used 17000 extra miles per ticket to avoid a Northern connection in January. We were able to get First Class seats the following day thru snow flurries in SLC, ironic. After complaining, Delta gave us each 13000 miles, no reimbursement for staying an extra day. Good riddance, I will fly them only if Spirit is my only other choice.

  • Ben Rosenthal

    As an Atlanta resident, it just doesn’t make sense to quit delta. From ATL they seem to have the most destinations.

  • Durango Kid

    Not sure it’s possible to live in ATL and go cold turkey on Delta. Has anyone attempted to do so?

  • Durango Kid

    I live in the ATL and wonder if anyone that lives here has tried it. Seems like I’d be adding a connection most of the time if I switch to AA. Can’t stand US Air.

  • ixthoughtxso

    I have a love hate relationship with Delta. My girlfriend is living in Seattle and I am living in New York. Delta offers the most economical routes and times for me. Delta almost always has a 7am flight out of JFK and a 10/11pm flight out of Seattle–giving me the maximum amount of time to spend in Seattle with my girlfriend. That said, they have lost my checked bags twice and completely destroyed one of them. Also, the S gate in Seattle or gate B-infinity is another hassle that Delta flyers have to deal with.

  • John

    Sounds like a politician.
    You know he has a crush on Alaska and only has flown them once. The reason he’s pushes anything is to push
    those credit cards – how he really earns his $. Gee – he meets with airlines and credit card companies…
    So next week Spirit Airline will be his crush airline if they’re giving
    his something. You all wonder why the
    airlines keep devaluing the programs. It’s
    right here with guys like this – first he tells you how to ‘game’ the system
    and the airlines catch one. Then he’s in
    bed with them working a deal to get revenue for hocking their credit
    cards. For a guy who supposedly flew 150k
    a year when he was on Wall Street he sure doesn’t know jack. Think about what his supposed background is
    and what he writes. He’s nothing but a narcissistic,
    star wannabe. For those of you who
    really travel, you’ll know most of his stuff is pushing the credit cards.

  • Rob Simpson

    This seems like a good place to ask this. I am building miles in oneworld for a future trip but want to also build in another alliance. Most recommend star alliance and united, however I live near Nashville and the flights on Delta are super cheap, I guess because I live close to their hub city ATL. Should I avoid Delta and their sub-par FF program or embrace them due to the low fares?

  • justthebest

    So why do you bother reading, much less posting? Take it elsewhere, buddy.

  • justthebest

    I don’t see any way to do it, living in Atlanta. I think they’ve got us by the . . . . . Sigh.

  • admin
  • wmcheng

    Sorry about you but try other airlines such as Korean or Singapore if fly international, good luck!

  • wmcheng

    I am with you Man, you will not regret but a better service to earn!

  • JNWC

    Unfortunately, I can’t quite quit Delta either. My home airport is a smaller market. With the exception of the low cost carriers (Southwest and Fronteir), Delta is the only major that flies standard sized planes into my airport. USAir, AA, and United all fly their various regional planes, some of which don’t even offer first class seating on those planes. Not that work will pay for the first class seating, but I appreciate the complimentary upgrades I get on Delta. To put it simply, the Home to Hub route on Delta is a higher class of service than the other airlines. Although I increasingly feel like they don’t appreciate my business and it feels that upgrades for platinum members are becoming increasingly more rare on my connecting routes, the class of service to/from my home airport is enough to keep me flying with them.

  • Pat Stahl

    Over the past few months, I have wound up flying delta in an effort to build my Flying Blue balance. While the cost of various items has increased such as $29 for lounge access with a guest, or significantly less upgrade options, I have found that their service has gone up as well.

    On each of the last 6 flights in the last month i have been on (ranging from 45 min hops, to 6hr transcons) the service has been great.

    TLDR: you get what you pay for.

  • CM

    Usually there’s not a problem, so long as there’s space–OU–available. I’ve done it on booking with the Platinum line on the route a handful of times. If they can’t confirm you, they’ve claimed that you’ll still show as requesting UP w/ miles-something Sky Club/gate agents should see on their end (no personal experience with this).

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