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How to Use Delta Upgrade Certificates

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Among the various benefits of holding elite status with an airline is the ability to receive complimentary upgrades, both automatically and with certificates you can apply to upcoming trips. TPG Contributor Richard Kerr takes a look at the latter, showing you how to use Delta’s upgrades.

Like many points and miles enthusiasts, I’ve been a bit critical of Delta amid all the changes to the SkyMiles program. In spite of these opaque policies — often implemented with no warning — one thing I still like about the airline is the array of benefits given to top-tier SkyMile Platinum and Diamond elites. Today, I’ll continue covering legacy carrier elite upgrades and examine how you can use Delta Regional and Global Upgrade Certificates.

Regional Upgrade Certificates vs. Global Upgrade Certificates

One unique thing about Delta is that you get to pick one of the airline’s Choice Benefits when you reach Platinum and two of them when you reach Diamond. For Platinum elites, one of the Choice Benefits options is four Regional Upgrade Certifcates (RUCs). One of the choices for Diamonds Medallions is four Global Upgrade Certificates (GUCs) or eight RUCs.

RUCs are eligible for one-way itineraries in the same markets as Medallion Complimentary Upgrades and are now good for premium transcon routes. GUCs may be used for any flights on a one-way itinerary in the Delta and Delta connection system and on some partner airlines (discussed below). The following chart offers more details on upgrade eligibility.

SkyMiles chart for when a Regional certificate is needed versus a Global certificate.
SkyMiles chart for when a Regional Certificate is needed versus a Global Certificate.

Global/Regional Upgrade Certificate FAQs

When can I request an RUC/GUC? You may request to use your certificate immediately upon booking all the way until three hours prior to departure.

When can my upgrade be confirmed? You can be cleared into the next higher class immediately upon booking all the way until departure time. Delta does not always send you an email or give you a call that your upgrade has cleared, so keep a close eye on your itinerary at Delta.com or on the app. Your ticket does need to be reissued, which should happen automatically, but doesn’t always happen. Things can go sideways with Delta’s IT, so some due diligence is necessary.

What fare classes are eligible for an an RUC/GUC? All published fare classes are eligible with the exception of discount economy E fares. You may not use an upgrade certificate on award tickets, but supposedly you can now use them on Pay with Miles tickets.

How do I request an RUC/GUC? You have to call Delta and request that an agent apply your certificate.

Can I only use RUC/GUCs for myself? You can use both RUCs and GUCs for yourself and up to one traveling companion on the same itinerary, but the kicker with Delta is that each person requires a separate upgrade certificate. Attempts to game the system — such as by attaching upgrade certificates to both you and a non-status traveling companion, then withdrawing yours in hopes of a complimentary medallion upgrade for yourself and leaving only the one certificate attached to the companion — are usually unsuccessful.

Can I use an RUC/GUC on other airlines? You cannot use RUCs for other airlines. You can use GUCs to upgrade on partner airlines, but the exact rules remain a bit blurry and you have to rely on a phone agent for everything. You can upgrade on any KLM-operated flight to business from Y, B and M fares.

Additionally, you can upgrade to premium economy on Air France from a Y, B or M fare or to business from premium economy on an S or W fare. Upgrades are only available on flights between the US and Paris (CDG) and cannot be used on flights operated with a 747 (which shouldn’t be an issue, since Air France just retired its last 747).

The upper deck of the Delta 747 is the most coveted spot in the Delta fleet for many.
For many, the upper deck of the Delta 747 is the most coveted spot in the airline’s fleet.

What if my upgrade doesn’t clear? Your certificate will be redeposited into your online wallet for use until the original expiration date.

Do RUC/GUCs expire? Yes they do. In a bit of a convoluted policy, you have one year from the date that you choose an RUC or GUC as your Choice Benefit to use the certificate, meaning travel complete — not just booking. Therefore, if you don’t have an immediate use for them, wait as long as possible after earning Platinum or Diamond status to chose the RUC/GUC.

Basic RUC/GUC Strategy

Don’t Trust the Waitlist — There are many stories of Delta’s IT not properly automatically clearing waitlisted upgrade certificates. Similarly, you may not find yourself appropriately near or at the top of the waitlist according to Delta’s upgrade priority, even if you request a GUC or RUC months in advance. I don’t trust the waitlist, and I give Delta a call or send @DeltaAssist a tweet once a week for an agent to go in and check to see if upgrade space has opened up.

I’ve yet to find a good guideline for predicting when RUCs and GUCs will clear if waitlisted. There are times when the front of the cabin is empty 10 days before departure and you’re still waitlisted. Heavy business routes, Delta hubs (which are home to many other Diamonds and Platinums) and seasons will all play into whether your upgrade certificate clears.

Watch Your Segments — If you’re flying multiple segments on a one-way itinerary and an RUC/GUC is requested, once any of the segments are upgraded, your certificate is deemed used. You can call and ask to only have your longest leg upgraded if space is available and be waitlisted for the other shorter segments, which should place you near or at the top of the list. This requires constant calls to make sure it doesn’t get messed up. I’ve also read that you can request only to use your certificate if space becomes available on ALL of your segments. I haven’t tried that, but I don’t think I’d trust a Delta agent and Delta IT to get that right.

Check Availability Before Booking — Unfortunately Delta forced ExpertFlyer to remove all of its information from the site in fall 2014. Although you can now search for low-level award inventory again, you still cannot search for upgrade space. You have to call into Delta and hopefully land on a skilled, efficient and educated phone agent to search the flights you’d like. As with most award travel, flexibility is your friend, so try and find flights with RP/OP fare class availability at the time of booking.

Looking into the Delta One business cabin.
Looking into the Delta One business cabin.

Evaluate When a GUC is Warranted — Based on the fare class you’re booked in, using miles or miles + copay to upgrade could be a better option than burning a coveted GUC. If you’re already in a Y, B or M fare with Delta, KLM or Air France, an upgrade probably isn’t many miles depending on the route you’re flying. If you have American Express Membership Reward points, you can transfer to Delta or Flying Blue instantly to have the miles to upgrade. The bottom line: Be smart about burning your certificates.

Are Delta Medallion Upgrade Certificates the Best?

If you haven’t noticed the theme of Delta IT causing problems, I’m going to point it out again. You probably won’t be notified when your upgrade clears; you may not be automatically cleared off the waitlist when space opens up; your ticket may not automatically be reissued for a cleared upgrade; and you may not be placed properly on the waitlist according to Delta’s upgrade priority.

With the computer problems aside, however, I really see a lot of value in the certificates, especially the GUCs. A Diamond elite applying a GUC is at the top of any Delta waitlist for an upgrade and can usually count on at least one seat not being sold on a long-haul flight. This gives the top elite a great shot at a seat upfront. RUCs are really a mixed bag, as a Platinum and Diamond members can roll the dice for a complimentary medallion upgrade almost as well as using an RUC.

You'll now be able to use regional upgrades on Delta's transcon routes.
You’ll now be able to use regional upgrades on Delta’s transcon routes.

I don’t think Delta is as stingy with upgrade space as United is, but I also don’t find them to have as strong of a success rate as American’s System Wide Upgrades for Executive Platinum elites. In the end, I believe Delta falls short of American SWUs, but only just short given the recent reduction in the number of SWUs AA will give Executive Platinums. The fact that Delta excludes E fares, while AA doesn’t exclude any, gives the tiebreaker to American.

What has your experience been using upgrade certificates?

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