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Using 12,500 Delta SkyMiles to Upgrade a Transcontinental Flight

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There are now plenty of options for crossing the country in a flat-bed seat, but limited opportunities to redeem a reasonable number of Delta miles to do so. TPG Contributor Leigh Rowan takes a different approach, booking a paid coach fare and upgrading his flight instead.

There’s fierce competition among airlines shuttling passengers between New York and Los Angeles or San Francisco. With American, Delta, JetBlue and United offering premium service on these routes, frequent fliers have the opportunity to enjoy much better service than you’d find on your run-of-the-mill domestic flight.

The downside, though, is that most airlines don’t offer complimentary upgrades (even for elite members) on these routes, as there are plenty of business flyers ready and willing to pay full fare for the flat-bed seats. Today, I’m going to show you how to upgrade a transcontinental flight with my program of choice: Delta SkyMiles. As you’ll see, all it takes is 12,500 miles and a bit of know-how.

Booking an Eligible Ticket

As of December 2013, Delta no longer offers Diamond or Platinum Medallion members complimentary upgrades on premium transcontinental Delta One flights. To upgrade, elite members need to use global upgrade certificates (available only to Diamond Medallion members as one of their two annual Choice Benefits) or miles. We’ll take a look at the latter option today.

Delta One on a transcontinental 757.
Delta One on a transcontinental 757.

To upgrade your seat on Delta’s premium transcontinental flights, you’ll need to book your ticket in fare class K or higher. Usually, fares will work out to $360-$400 each way, which is definitely not a bargain — but if you manage to score an upgrade, the cost becomes a relative steal!

Don’t go booking your K class fare just yet, though; it’s only worth it if you know that your flight has open Z class (Delta One mileage/certificate upgrade) inventory. To confirm this availability, call Delta before booking.

I booked a ticket from New York-JFK to SFO in K class, and it cost $373 one-way. I used my Delta SkyMiles Platinum Credit Card – which right now offers a whopping 60,000 SkyMiles and 10,000 MQMs after you spend $2,000 in the first three months – and I got double SkyMiles for the purchase. Given the current signup bonus, you could use the 60,000 SkyMiles to upgrade almost 5 times on transcontinental Delta One flights.


Once the ticket was booked, I called Delta Reservations to apply the 12,500-mile upgrade. $373 and a reasonable number of miles later, I was confirmed in Delta One. Note that it takes about 2-3 days from ticketing for the miles to be pulled from your account, so don’t worry / get too excited if your booking says confirmed and your miles are still there – they’ll get pulled eventually!

Booking my ticket in business class would have cost $1,333 one-way!

If I’d paid out of pocket for a Delta One seat on that same flight, it would have cost me $1,333 one-way — meaning I netted $960 in savings. I’ve seen one-way business fares as high as $1,990 on this route, so depending on when you book, you could end up saving even more.

Optimize Your Upgrade

Make the most of your upgrade by choosing a choice seat on one of Delta’s transcontinental 767s. When it comes to seat selection, I suggest 3B. Delta usually follows the FEBO rule (serving meals from the front on even-numbered flights and starting from the back on odd-numbered flights), so 3B is a safe bet for getting prime pickings for meal options without being too close to the lavatory. Of course, if you’re more of a window seat person, you could go for 3A.

Staying comfy in 3B - aisle access in a flat bed
Staying comfy in 3B – aisle access in a flat bed.

Additionally, try to book a flight operated on Delta’s 767 rather than the 757, as the former offers aisle access for all Delta One seats, while the latter doesn’t.

Finally, don’t forget to visit the Delta SkyClub before your flight — access is included for Delta One transcontinental tickets.

Have you upgraded using SkyMiles before? If so, share your successes below.

Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express

Apply Now
  • Earn 30,000 bonus miles after you make $1,000 in purchases on your new Card within your first 3 months and a $50 statement credit after you make a Delta purchase with your new Card within your first 3 months.
  • Earn 2 Miles per dollar spent on purchases made directly with Delta. Earn 1 mile for every dollar spent on all other eligible purchases.
  • Check your first bag free on every Delta flight - that's a savings of up to $200 per round trip for a family of four.
  • Settle in sooner with Priority Boarding.
  • Enjoy a $0 introductory annual fee for the first year, then $95.
  • Terms and Conditions apply.
  • See Rates & Fees
Intro APR Regular APR Annual Fee Foreign Transaction Fee Credit Rating
None 15.49%-19.49% Variable $0 intro annual fee for the first year, then $95 0% Excellent Credit