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Delta Upgrade Priority and How to Improve Your Chances

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One of the perks of airline elite status is getting bumped up to a premium cabin, but the upgrade process is complicated and it’s sometimes hard to predict when you’ll be accommodated. Today, TPG Senior Points & Miles Correspondent Nick Ewen looks behind the curtain of upgrade priority on Delta.

Traveling in itself is a wonderful thing. Traveling in first or business class is even better. While most airlines offer upgrades, they don’t always make clear the exact process for upgrading flights to the next class of service. Now that the elite status year has reset (as of March 1st), many of you may be facing a new array of benefits (and restrictions). So today, I want to go through how Delta Air Lines handles upgrades to help you know what to expect the next time you fly.

How can you ride up front on your next Delta flight?

Like many airlines, Delta offers a variety of ways for you to upgrade from economy to business or first class. Unfortunately, these options create an incredibly complex system that even a very frequent traveler may not fully comprehend. Which upgrade instrument gets priority over another? Does it matter when you check-in? What about traveling with a companion?

To muddy the waters further, Delta actually has two different upgrade “buckets” that do not have a one-to-one correspondence. RU or OU is used for complimentary Medallion upgrades, while RP or OP is used for upgrades with miles or certificates. It may seem crazy, but I’ve read reports of complimentary upgrades clearing before upgrades with miles or certificates. Of course, since Delta decided to remove all information from ExpertFlyer, the only way to check these inventories is to call!

Today’s post will focus on the routes that are eligible for complimentary medallion upgrades, as all of the upgrade options are applicable to those routes. In addition, I’ll separate out how upgrades are processed in advance and how they happen at the gate. Finally, I’ll go through the different tiebreakers that apply within the pecking order.

Here, in a nutshell, are the factors that impact your upgrade priority:

  • Type of upgrade requested
  • Status
  • Fare class
  • Credit card
  • Time of ticketing

All of these categories have many overlapping segments and tiebreakers, and things can get quite complicated. To simplify it, here’s a table that shows the general method Delta uses to determine whether you’ll be riding up front:

Type of Upgrade

Advance Window Airport Standby?
Global Upgrade Certificates (GUCs) Any time after booking

Yes

Regional Upgrade Certificates (RUCs)

Any time after booking

Yes

Miles

Any time after booking No
Full Fare Economy Ticket Any time after booking

Yes

Diamond Medallions

5 days before Yes
Platinum Medallions 5 days before

Yes

Gold Medallions

3 days before Yes
Silver Medallions 1 day before

Yes

Companions

Within 24 hours Yes
Alaska, Air France/KLM, and Virgin Atlantic elites Within 24 hours

Yes

SPG Platinums

Within 24 hours

Yes

Paid Gate Upgrades

At boarding

N/A

If you’re already confused, you’re not alone! Hang on, as things are about to get a whole lot more complicated.

Use a Delta SWU for an upgrade to BusinessElite.
You can snag an upgrade to DeltaOne (formerly BusinessElite) with certain certificates and using miles on certain fare classes.

Upgrading in Advance (Part 1)

There are three ways that you can upgrade more than a week before the flight:

  1. With certificates
  2. With miles
  3. By upgrading a full fare (Y class) ticket (applies to Medallion members only)

For the first two options, you must have RP or OP availability, while the last option requires RU or OU inventory. RP/RU generally applies to flights with standard first class, while OP/OU typically applies to flights with Delta One (formerly BusinessElite). Unfortunately, even this isn’t a hard-and-fast rule. If you’re on a domestic flight that shares a flight number with a long-haul international flight (e.g., Flight 221 from New York LaGuardia to Atlanta), you’ll need OP/OU availability.

In addition, these first two options are only available for certain fare classes, and the requirements vary by route. See the above links for full details and restrictions.

As you can see from the table above, there are two different kinds of certificates, both of which are available to Diamond and Platinum Medallion members through the Choice Benefits program. Global Upgrade Certificates (GUCs) can be used on any Delta flight, while Regional Upgrade Certificates (RUCs) only apply to flights without a DeltaOne cabin. If you’re using a GUC, you have priority over someone using an RUC.

With either of these certificates, you must make the request at least one hour prior to your scheduled departure time.

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Delta’s domestic first class is actually quite comfortable, and your upgrade could clear up to 5 days in advance.

Upgrading in Advance (Part 2)

Once you’re within a week of departure, certificate and mileage upgrades will continue to clear (if RP/OP space opens up). This is also when complimentary Medallion upgrades begin to clear, depending on whether the flight has RU/OU availability. Status is the first component that impacts your Medallion upgrade priority. Unless you’re traveling on a full-fare (Y class) economy ticket, all Diamond Medallions will clear ahead of all Platinum Medallions.

Within a given tier, the next tiebreaker is fare class. B class goes first, followed by M, S, H, Q, K, L, U, T, V, and X (Delta’s new Basic Economy product, which books into E class, is not upgrade eligible). Diamond, Platinum, and Gold Medallion members are also eligible for upgrades on award tickets and “Pay with Miles” tickets, so those travelers are next in a given tier. This means that a Diamond Medallion traveling on an award ticket would clear before a Platinum Medallion traveling on a B fare class.

Delta Reserve
Both the personal and business versions of the Delta Reserve American Express card give you a (potentially) valuable leg up on the upgrade list.

If two travelers have the same status and are booked into the same fare class, the next tiebreaker is actually the Delta Reserve Credit Card from American Express. If you have the card and another traveler (with equal status and in the same fare class) does not, you will have priority.

If all else is equal, the final tiebreaker is time of ticketing. If two Gold Medallions are both booked on a K class ticket and both have the Delta Reserve card, whichever traveler bought his/her ticket first will appear at the top of the list.

If you want a traveling companion to get an upgrade as well, there is a very slim chance that they will clear in advance, but only within 24 hours of the flight. If you and your companion are on the same reservation, you are “dragged down” to his/her priority level when it comes to advance upgrades. If you’re on separate reservations, you’ll clear at your window, and your companion will clear (at best) within 24 hours of departure.

Despite
Playing the gate upgrade lottery is a nerve-wracking experience for all involved.

Upgrading at the gate

Delta has become stingier about releasing upgrade space in advance, so more and more travelers are being forced to duke it out at the gate. Unfortunately, if you’re trying to upgrade with miles, you can’t do so at the last-minute, per the T&C of the mileage upgrade page on Delta.com:

“Mileage Upgrade Awards do not carry over to the Airport Standby List.”

However, upgrades that you have requested with certificates (both GUCs and RUCs) do carry over to the airport standby list. These upgrades are given priority over complimentary Medallion upgrades, and the same tiebreakers (status, fare class, etc.) apply. Diamond Medallions using an RUC will clear ahead of Platinum Medallions using an RUC, and Platinums using an RUC on a K class ticket will clear ahead of Platinums using an RUC on a T class ticket.

Companions will also appear on the airport upgrade list, though at the gate you’ll be separated based on your individual status. My wife and I have run into this before, where I’m high on the list as a Diamond or Platinum Medallion, while she is very low on the list as a lower-level Medallion.

Platinum SPG members are entitled to complimentary upgrades, but only after all Medallions have cleared.
Platinum SPG members are entitled to complimentary upgrades, but only after all Medallions have cleared.

After companions come partner elites from Alaska Airlines (MVP, MVP Gold, and MVP Gold 75K), Air France/KLM (Flying Blue Gold and Platinum), and Virgin Atlantic (Flying Club Gold members). At the end of the list you’ll find Starwood Preferred Guest Platinum members that participate in the Crossover Rewards program (and don’t otherwise have Medallion status). This benefit was added back in 2013.

As a result, here is how the airport standby list is prioritized:

  1. Diamond Medallions using GUC
  2. Diamond Medallions using RUC
  3. Platinum Medallions using RUC
  4. All Medallions booking in Y class (Diamond, Platinum, Gold, then Silver)
  5. Diamond Medallions on paid tickets
  6. Diamond Medallions on award tickets
  7. Diamond Medallions on Pay with Miles tickets
  8. Platinum Medallions on paid tickets
  9. Platinum Medallions on award tickets
  10. Platinum Medallions on Pay with Miles tickets
  11. Gold Medallions on paid tickets
  12. Gold Medallions on award tickets
  13. Gold Medallions on Pay with Miles tickets
  14. Silver Medallions on paid tickets
  15. Companions traveling with a Diamond Medallion
  16. Companions traveling with a Platinum Medallion
  17. Companions traveling with a Gold Medallion
  18. Companions traveling with a Silver Medallion
  19. Airline partner elites (Alaska, Air France/KLM, and Virgin Atlantic)
  20. SPG Platinum members

If every single one of these passengers has been accommodated in first class and there are still seats available, Delta will offer upgrades for sale at the gate to non-status holders. The price will vary based on the route, but will generally be at least $50. In addition, only customers booked in K fare class or higher are eligible for paid upgrades. As you can imagine, these are quite rare, and are most typical on light business travel days (e.g., Saturdays) and around holidays.

Kicking back in a larger seat with a glass of wine and complimentary meal is a great way to start (or wrap up) your vacation!
Kicking back in a larger seat with a glass of wine and complimentary meal is a great way to start (or wrap up) your vacation!

Bottom line

Delta’s upgrade process is convoluted, and by removing all data from ExpertFlyer, Delta has made it much harder to monitor upgrade inventory. However, having a general idea of where you fall on the upgrade list can help you avoid a nasty surprise when you arrive at the airport.

What are your experiences with upgrading on Delta?

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