Delta Testing Out New Option to Upgrade with Miles at Purchase
Delta just started testing out a new option for SkyMiles members who want to upgrade to first class, but don't want to shell out that extra cash. This option is only available at the time of purchase and is similar to the Pay with Miles option, which offers a redemption value of 1 cent per SkyMile. Regardless of the coach fare you intended to purchase, Delta will allow you to upgrade to first class for the price difference of the lowest coach fare and the lowest first class fare by using your SkyMiles at a 1 cent per mile value.
While this isn't the most lucrative redemption (here are some better ways to get more than a cent per mile in value from SkyMiles). The silver lining here appears that when upgrading with miles this way, it will book into a paid first class fare which means these tickets would not only earn all the regular miles, Medallion Qualifying Miles, but they would even earn a class of service bonus. If you find yourself running short on MQM's, then this could be a way to rack some up without breaking the bank.
Upgrading on Delta
This isn't the only option to get a first class seat. Domestically Delta requires a K fare or higher plus 12,500 miles each way, but upgrade space must be available and you only earn the miles for the fare class purchased (coach). If you use Expertflyer, there will need to be either RP (previously G) class space or OP (previously Z) class space available. However with these, you would not earn the class of service bonus miles, and finding available upgrade space can be hard.
In this new option to pay with miles to upgrade from the difference of the coach fare to the lowest first class fare, there is no certain upgrade space that is required. As long as Delta is selling a first class seat on the flight, this would be available. Currently this is only being tested in a few markets, and there is no guarantee that Delta will roll this out across all their flights.
I wanted to test out some the routes where this was offered, so I randomly checked Atlanta-Cincinnati on April 12. The lowest coach fare was $262 for this one-way flight, and Delta was offering upgrades for either $59 or 5,900 miles. This route can be rough for complimentary Medallion upgrades, but for 5,900 miles I could confirm the upgrade at booking.
Another example I saw was from San Jose, CA to Atlanta. The lowest coach fare Delta was selling on April 17 was $322. The price difference for a first class A fare was an additional $139 or 13,900 miles. With the class of service bonus, you would earn 3,174 MQM's on this flight, and wouldn't have to worry about a battlefield upgrade at the gate.
The previous examples were for one-way flights, but this does work on roundtrips as well. The lowest roundtrip fare I could find from Minneapolis-Orange County was $551. The price difference to buy the first class fare outright was an additional $1,460 roundtrip. Delta was offering upgrades with miles for a whopping 146,000 miles (73,000 miles each-way). You could book these flights outright with miles for less than the price Delta wants just to upgrade them, the key difference being that award tickets don't earn MQMs or miles.
The bottom line is that Delta is trying to sell more upgrades, whether with miles or money, instead of upgrading elites. Over time I expect Medallion upgrade percentages to drop as less seats become available for last minute complimentary upgrades. United has also been aggressively marketing upgrades and I know many elites have been disenfranchised by the process, but I'm curious how much business Delta and United have lost as a result. I'd bet less than the amount of revenue they are bringing in- that's what I suspect the hacking of elite upgrades will continue as airlines seek to squeeze as much revenue from paid upgrades. Great news for shareholders- frequent flyers? Not so much.