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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 Alaska Airlines.
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 Delta has officially implemented its revenue-based program (as of January 1st) and the elite status year has reset (as of March 1st), you may be facing a new process or priority for scoring that coveted seat in a premium cabin. Today, I want to go through how Alaska Airlines handles upgrades to help you know what to expect the next time you fly.
It’s important to note that this post will focus entirely on Alaska-operated flights, not codeshare flights. As I covered in my post on Delta’s upgrade priority, Alaska Mileage Plan elite members are eligible for complimentary upgrades on Delta-operated flights, though they will fall near the end of the list. The process for clearing on Delta flights is significantly different from that on Alaska flights.
Like Delta, United, and American, Alaska also gives you a variety of methods for upgrading your flight:
- Mileage upgrades
- Complimentary upgrades
- MVP Gold Guest upgrades
- Paid upgrades (only within 24 hours)
In theory, this system should be significantly less complicated than those of the big three carriers. For starters, Alaska doesn’t operate any long-haul flights, so there’s no need to identify which methods apply to which routes. All three types of upgrades apply to all Alaska Airlines flights, and every flight uses the same inventory (U) for these upgrades.
In addition, this inventory is easily searchable on ExpertFlyer, allowing you to easily identify when the airline opens upgradeable seats. For example, here’s a snapshot of upgrade availability for LAX-SEA later this month:
Unfortunately, as you’re about to see, there are still some idiosyncrasies and complexities in the upgrade process, so it’s far from simple!
This post will be organized similarly to my posts on Delta and United, as I’ll go through the options for upgrading in advance, followed by how upgrades are processed at the gate. Hopefully this will help clarify the process of how Alaska handles upgrade requests.
Upgrading in Advance (Part 1)
Three of the aforementioned upgrade options apply more than a week before the flight: using miles, complimentary upgrades, and MVP Gold Guest upgrades. However, these options only apply to certain fare classes, and in all cases you’ll need U inventory on your desired flight(s). Here’s a quick table with that information:
Type of Upgrade
|Applicable fare classes||Other information|
|Mileage Upgrade||Y, S, B, M, or H||
Applicable to paid tickets and Money & Miles (AS50) tickets
MVP Gold 75K Complimentary Upgrade
|Y, S, B, M, or H||Only applicable to paid tickets|
|MVP Gold Complimentary Upgrade||Y, S, B, M, or H||
Only applicable to paid tickets
MVP Complimentary Upgrade
|Y, S, or B||Only applicable to paid tickets|
|MVP Gold Guest Upgrade||Y, S, B, M, H, Q, L, V, and K||
Only applicable to paid tickets; cannot be added to wait list
Fortunately, it’s very easy to find and book eligible tickets for each of these methods using Alaska’s website and the Advanced Search feature. Input your cities & dates, and then choose your desired upgrade option from the drop-down menu on the right:
In each case, the AlaskaAir.com search engine will look for U inventory. However, you’ll notice that the fare will change depending on the upgrade preference you select, as certain methods require higher fare classes than others. You can also change your upgrade preference from the search results page.
For example, here’s the direct Orlando – San Diego flight for later this month with no upgrade preference selected:
When you select MVP under “Upgrade Fare Type” on the left side of the results page, the fares displayed will change:
When you change your selection to Mileage or MVP Gold, you’ll again see new fare results:
Finally, choosing MVP Gold Guest under “Upgrade Fare Type” will change the results again:
So for this particular flight, the following applies:
- The lowest available coach fare is $175, which is also the fare required to apply an MVP Gold Guest Upgrade
- To immediately confirm a mileage or MVP Gold Upgrade, you’d need to pay a premium of $105
- To immediately confirm an MVP Upgrade, you’d need to pay a premium of $214
Let’s take a closer look at each one of these options.
If you don’t currently hold elite status with Alaska Airlines, using miles to upgrade your flight is one of the only ways you can confirm a first class seat in advance. As discussed above, you’ll need to book a ticket in Y, S, B, M, or H classes, and you’ll need U inventory. However, unlike all of the other options, you can use these upgrades on Money & Miles Awards.
Once you’ve purchased your ticket (and confirmed that your flight has U inventory), you need to call Alaska Airlines Reservations at 1-800-252-7522. Each one-way upgrade will cost you 15,000 miles.
Instant Complimentary Upgrades
Alaska Airlines has three tiers of elite status: MVP, MVP Gold, and MVP Gold 75K. All three levels are eligible for instant upgrades on certain fares, with both Gold levels enjoying additional fare classes. Again, your flight must have U inventory available; if it is, you’ll be upgraded immediately. If not, you’ll be placed on the upgrade wait list.
MVP Gold Guest Upgrades
When you qualify for MVP Gold status, four one-way Guest Upgrades will automatically be deposited into your My Account profile. These are electronic codes that can be used in two ways:
- To immediately upgrade your flight if you did not book Y, S, B, M, or H
- To give to a family member or friend to upgrade his/her flight booked in Y, S, B, M, H, Q, L, V, or K
In order to use these upgrades, there must be U inventory available at the time of the request; there’s no way to be added to the wait list. This is when ExpertFlyer comes in handy, since you can set alerts for specific flights and then apply the upgrade.
Upgrading in Advance (Part 2)
If you aren’t booked in an eligible fare class, or don’t want to use miles or Guest Upgrades for your flight, you may still score a seat in first class in the days leading up to your departure. When you book the ticket and request a complimentary upgrade, you’ll be added to the upgrade request queue. When your elite window opens, the system will attempt to automatically process your upgrade. The following windows apply to Alaska elite members:
- MVP Gold 75K — 120 hours prior to departure
- MVP Gold — 72 hours prior to departure
- MVP — 48 hours prior to departure
- Delta Elites — Within 24 hours of departure
When each window opens, upgrades clear in the order in which they were added to the request queue. If no U inventory is available at your window, you will automatically be added to the upgrade wait list. Here, you will join the elites with higher status who are already on the wait list and those who purchased high-fare tickets and were immediately added to the wait list. This is the important distinction between the “upgrade wait list” and “upgrade request queue.”
If you are MVP Gold or Gold 75K and traveling with a companion, he/she is also eligible to clear at your window (and to be placed on the wait list with you if U inventory isn’t available at that time). Note that your companion doesn’t need to be on the same reservation as you; however, if he/she is on a separate itinerary, you must call the MVP Gold desk to request the upgrade. Linking the reservations does not automatically do it!
As of now, Delta elite members are only eligible to be added to the upgrade list within 24 hours of the flight, so in theory, they should appear below all Alaska elite travelers. While I have read reports of Delta elites clearing earlier than that, my upgrades on Alaska as a Platinum/Diamond Medallion Member always occurred at the last minute (within one hour of the flight).
Finally, many recent reports indicate that within the windows, the automatic upgrade process has encountered some glitches where U inventory opens up but upgrades are not confirmed. In theory, any U inventory within the windows should be allocated to 75Ks on high-fare tickets in the order in which they were added to the wait list. However, if you get an ExpertFlyer notification of U inventory within your window and your upgrade isn’t automatically processed, you could try calling and having an agent manually process it. It appears that this may allow a lower-tier elite to jump ahead of others.
Upgrading within 24 hours
As mentioned earlier, Alaska’s system will continually search for upgrade inventory in the days and hours leading up to the flight. If U space opens up, those at the top of the wait list should clear first (the aforementioned glitch non-withstanding). When you purchase a high-fare ticket (eligible for an instant upgrade) and U inventory isn’t available, you are immediately put on the upgrade wait list. However, if you purchase a low-fare ticket, you are immediately put on the upgrade request queue, and you won’t be added to the wait list until you reach your designated elite window.
When it comes to this wait list, determining your priority is a bit confusing. While Alaska’s website doesn’t specifically address this, the following things apply to determining your spot on the wait list:
- MVP Gold 75Ks have a higher separate upgrade priority over all other elites. This means that you can buy a ticket at any time, be added to the wait list, and appear above all MVP Golds and regular MVP members.
- MVP Golds and regular MVP members have no distinction on the list: the only thing that matters is when you were added. If you have MVP status and you purchase a high-fare ticket on April 15th, you will appear above an MVP Gold member who purchases his/her ticket after you, even if he/she is on a higher fare class.
- These same rules apply when you same-day confirm or purchase a last-minute ticket. If you’re MVP Gold 75K, you immediately leapfrog MVP Golds and regular MVP members, but you will appear behind all other 75Ks already on the wait list. However, if you’re MVP Gold or regular MVP, you will appear behind all other elite members, including Delta elites checked in and added to the wait list.
The final way to secure an upgrade within 24 hours is through paid upgrades during the check-in process or at the gate. In theory, these are only supposed to happen after all eligible elites (including Delta elites) have been cleared, and the price varies depending on the distance of your one-way flight:
0 – 1,250
|1,251 – 2,500||
2,501 – 3,750
|3,751 and above||
For what it’s worth, these prices are much better than those I’ve seen with Delta’s similar paid upgrade program, but the chances of seeing one are quite slim.
In theory, Alaska’s upgrade process should be relatively simple, given that the airline has a standard fleet and identical upgrade policies regardless of route. Unfortunately, there are still many layers to the process, so I hope this post has given you an idea of how Alaska assigns seats in first class to help you on your next trip!
What are your experiences with upgrading on Alaska?
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