The ultimate guide to getting upgraded on Delta

Dec 12, 2021

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Editor’s note: This post has been updated with the latest information. 


Delta Medallion elite status has plenty of perks including same-day confirmed changes, international lounge access and Choice Benefits. Still, there’s one perk that sits above all others when it comes to chasing status: the allure of a free seat upgrade.

There’s nothing quite as magical as paying for one class of service and being upgraded into a superior cabin, be it premium economy, business or first.

A 10-hour flight is a lot more snoozable in first class – see how many points away you are from a cozy, 30,000 foot slumber with the free TPG App!

The upgrade process, however, remains shrouded in mystery. For example, who is eligible for upgrades? When do these upgrades process? And which flights can be upgraded?

We’re here to demystify upgrades. From complimentary elite upgrades, SkyMiles upgrades and Global and Regional upgrade certificates to understanding upgrade priority, it’s all here, so buckle up and let’s learn how to get to the front of the Delta plane.

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In This Post

Complimentary upgrades

Delta Premium Select seats. (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

Delta makes all tiers of Medallion members eligible for unlimited complimentary upgrades to first-class and Delta Comfort+ seating on a wide array of routes. Since April 1, 2018, all Delta Medallion elite members have been eligible for day-of-departure unlimited complimentary upgrades to the Delta One experience on flights within the U.S., including flights to Hawaii.

While it pays to understand the intricacies below, it’s worth mentioning that Delta is systematically selling evermore first-class tickets. Its revenue maximization models are pricing first-class tickets in a way that encourages more people to buy them outright, and according to quarterly earnings reports, it continues to sell more of its forward cabin rather than give it away via an upgrade. You might notice this when you view a Delta reservation and are offered a buy-up upgrade.

Unfortunately, the more first-class tickets Delta sells, the fewer are left available for complimentary upgrades.

Below are the Delta products that are eligible for complimentary upgrades, including paid tickets, SkyMiles award tickets, Pay with Miles tickets and SkyMiles Companion Certificates:

  • Delta Comfort+ (all Delta-operated flights).
  • First class (all Delta-operated domestic flights and select short-haul international flights).
  • Delta One (all Delta-operated domestic flights, including Hawaii and Alaska).

Of course, Delta’s top-tier Medallions (Diamond) get preference over lower-tier Medallions, and timing is everything. Diamond and Platinum Medallion members can clear from Main Cabin into Comfort+ immediately upon booking if space is available. At the same time, Gold members must wait until 72 hours before departure to clear into Comfort+, and Silver members must wait until 24 hours before departure.

For flights with heavy passenger loads — for example, Atlanta (ATL) and San Francisco (SFO) — the Comfort+ cabin is typically full by the time Gold and Silver Medallions are eligible to clear. However, last-minute upgrades at the gate can happen.

Related: What is Delta elite status worth?

You can get bumped into Delta One so long as it’s a domestic route. (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

For Delta One domestic upgrades, Medallion Members will clear on the day of departure following the same clearance priority hierarchy as first-class upgrades, subject to upgrade availability.

Even if your upgrade doesn’t clear in advance, you may still clear at the gate. If an upgrade is still not confirmed at your upgrade window or when you check-in, your pending upgrade request will automatically be added to the airport standby list for a potential upgrade at the gate before you board. You may view your spot on the standby list in the “My Trips” section of the Delta app and at the gate information display at the airport.

Complimentary upgrade hierarchy

Here’s how Delta will determine your spot on the upgrade list:

  1. Medallion status.
  2. Fare class groupings. Higher-priced fares are ranked above lower-priced fares per the following order: B, M, H, Q, K, L, U, T, X and V, then SkyMiles award tickets, then Pay with Miles.
  3. Delta SkyMiles® Reserve American Express Card cardholders.
  4. Delta corporate travelers (ticket must include your employer’s corporate ticket designator).
  5. Cobranded credit card members who earned the Medallion Qualification Dollars waiver in the current calendar year
  6. Million Miler status.
  7. Date and time of upgrade request.

It’s also worth noting that, in 2022, elites who earned or re-earned status in 2021 will receive upgrade priority over elites who had their status extended. This means a Diamond Medallion who earned status will have a better chance of being upgraded than a Diamond with extended elite status.

Further, all Medallion members with Y-class tickets are eligible for instant upgrades and will appear ahead of all other complimentary upgrade requests. Typically, passengers do not book Y tickets unless it’s very last minute or demand is unusually high, such as the last available seat on a weekend flight into the Super Bowl host city.

If two members are identical at a given level, it goes down the above list until the tie is broken. For instance, if two Platinum Medallion members are traveling on K-fare tickets and one has a Delta Reserve credit card, and the other does not, the card-holding passenger will be prioritized.

Diamond and Platinum Medallion members will clear first-class upgrades beginning 120 hours (or five days) before departure. Gold Medallion members will clear beginning 72 hours (three days) before departure and Silver Medallion members will clear beginning 24 hours (one day) before departure, subject to upgrade availability.

It’s also worth noting that upgrade certificates (RUCs and GUCs) and upgrades with miles are prioritized ahead of these complimentary upgrades; we’ll cover these wrinkles in the sections below.

An upgrade to Comfort+ can make all the difference on a long flight. (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

Exclusions and fine print

Unfortunately, not all tickets are eligible for complimentary upgrades — here’s what’s excluded:

  • Basic economy (E) fares are not eligible for paid or Medallion complimentary upgrades, regardless of Medallion or other elite status.
  • Delta Premium Select is not eligible for a complimentary Medallion upgrade.
  • Delta One seats on flights that start or end outside of the United States do not qualify for a complimentary Medallion upgrade.
  • Complimentary upgrades are not available for selection by any passenger while aboard the aircraft regardless of status or fare class.
  • For Companion Upgrades, both passengers must be ticketed, and upgrades must be requested at least three hours before the scheduled departure of the flight.
  • Except for eligible Pay with Miles tickets and eligible award tickets, complimentary upgrades are not eligible on fares that do not earn miles.
  • Companions who change their itinerary and are no longer traveling with the higher-tiered Medallion member after the change are not eligible for a complimentary upgrade at the higher-tiered member’s clearance window. If an upgrade were confirmed before the itinerary change, a reservation for a companion without Medallion status would be changed to reflect the original class of service for the new itinerary, and they will no longer be eligible for a complimentary upgrade. If the companion is a Medallion member, the reservation will be changed to reflect the original class of service. It will continue to be eligible for an upgrade at the companion’s own clearance priority. If the Medallion or partner airline elite member is no longer traveling on their original reservation, the companion traveling on the original reservation will no longer be eligible for complimentary Delta Comfort+ seating. Their Delta Comfort+ seat assignment may be removed.

Improving your chances of an upgrade

Beyond racing for a higher tier of Delta’s Medallion status, you can better your chances of receiving a complimentary upgrade by opening a Delta SkyMiles® Reserve American Express Card or Delta SkyMiles® Reserve Business American Express Card. These cards also net you complimentary access to Delta’s global network of Sky Club airport lounges when flying Delta.

If possible, consider booking a corporate ticket through your employer. Also, if you’re a Platinum/Diamond Medallion with free same-day change abilities, you can sniff around and change to a less popular routing on your day of departure. ExpertFlyer (owned by TPG’s parent company, Red Ventures) is an excellent tool for searching flights, as you can use the “Flight Availability” functionality to get an idea of how many seats remain open/unsold.

Speaking of which, you’ll often have a better shot at an upgrade if you avoid peak business travel periods. This lets you compete with fewer frequent flyers. Generally, this means avoid flying Sunday night, Monday morning and pretty much all day Friday if you want to sidestep top-tier business travelers.

Related: Choosing the best credit card for Delta flyers

Upgrade certificates

If you’re searching for the creme de la creme of Delta upgrades, look no further.

Delta offers two types of dedicated upgrade certificates known as Global Upgrade Certificates and Regional Upgrade Certificates. The only way to get them is to earn Platinum or Diamond Medallion status and select them using your Choice Benefits.

Upgrade certificates have a higher priority than complimentary upgrades and may be requested and, subject to availability, cleared when you book your ticket. In other words: They’re a hyper-exclusive and extremely powerful way to sit in the front of the plane.

Global Upgrade Certificates, available exclusively for Diamond Medallion members, offer upgrades on both international and domestic flights with Delta along with select flights with KLM, Air France, Virgin Atlantic, Korean Air and Aeromexico. Regional Upgrade Certificates, available for Diamond and Platinum Medallion members, offer upgrades on the same routes as complimentary upgrades, including all flights with first class and the domestic Delta One experience.

Related: The ultimate guide to Delta Choice Benefits

As a Choice Benefit selection, Diamond Medallion members may choose any of the following three options as one of their selected benefits:

  1. Four global upgrades.
  2. Eight regional upgrades.
  3. Two global upgrades and four regional upgrades.

Platinum Medallion members may choose four regional upgrades as their single Choice Benefit.

So if you want one of the coveted Global Upgrade Certificates, you’ll need first to achieve Delta’s highest published Medallion tier of Diamond.

Related: Last-minute elite status strategies for Delta Medallion

Important notes about Global and Regional upgrade certificates

delta Hartmann
Hartmann luggage – a gift from Delta to those who hit 1 million miles. (Photo by Darren Murph/The Points Guy.)

Of course, these certificates have several quirks and nuances which you need to be aware of.

For starters, GUCs will change for the worse next year. Starting Feb. 1, 2022, these certificates will only offer confirmed upgrades for one cabin higher than originally purchased. On flights with a Premium Select cabin, this means Main Cabin tickets will upgrade to Premium Select. Then, the elite processing the upgrade will be placed on a Delta One upgrade waitlist 24 hours prior to departure. The good news is that there will be last-seat upgrade availability in Premium Select on international flights. Likewise, there will be last-seat availability when you use your GUC to upgrade a domestic flight, even on Delta One routes.

Additionally, an RUC or GUC is for one-way travel, so you’d need to burn four to take you and a guest on a round-trip itinerary. You can apply an RUC or GUC to a paid ticket, a SkyMiles award ticket, a Pay with Miles ticket and a Companion ticket. Crucially, you cannot apply an RUC nor a GUC to a basic economy (E fare) ticket regardless of your Medallion status level.

While these certificates are not fully transferable to others, Delta will allow you to apply your RUC or GUC to a guest’s ticket so long as that person is traveling on the same flight with you. Even if you’re booked on separate reservations (e.g., your company books your economy ticket, and you book your spouse’s economy ticket later), you can use your upgrade certificates for both passengers.

Currently, each GUC or RUC expires one year from the date it’s issued. This is vital, as the certificate must be burned on a flight that is completed by that one-year mark, not just ticketed. Thankfully, this will change in 2022 when Delta makes upgrade certificates valid through the end of your status year. This means that if you earn your certificates on June 10, 2022, they’re good until Jan. 31, 2024.

Further, Delta extended certificates selected as Choice Benefits between March 1, 2019, and Jan. 31, 2022, to Jan. 31, 2023. Again, you must book and fly your flight by this date.

Each certificate may be used to upgrade flights operated Delta Air Lines or Delta Connection booked in the P, A, G, W, Y, B, M, H, Q, K, L, U, T, X or V fare classes, and may also be used to upgrade on SkyMiles awards, Pay with Miles tickets and Companion Certificates.

Upgrading partner flights with certificates

You can also use GUCs to upgrade select partner flights. Again, this will change to one-cabin upgrades starting Feb. 1, 2022, so GUCs applied to Air France and Virgin Atlantic flights will only move you from economy to premium economy, unless you book a premium economy ticket outright. Note that all partner upgrades must be confirmed 24 hours prior to departure.

These are the rules for upgrading partner-operated flights, starting Feb. 1, 2022:

Upgrading KLM flights

  • Delta-marketed, KLM-operated flights: Main Cabin seats booked in Y, B, M, H, Q, K, L, U, T, X or V to Z class (business class). This is because KLM does not offer a premium economy cabin.
  • KLM-marketed, KLM-operated flights: Economy seats booked in Y, B, M, K, H, L, Q, T, N, R or V class can be upgraded to Z (business class).
  • Air France-marketed, KLM-operated flights: Economy seats booked in Y, B, M, K, H, L, Q, T, N, R or V class can be upgraded to Z class (business class).
  • For flights departing Amsterdam (AMS), Global Upgrade Certificates must be applied prior to check-in with a KLM ticketing agent or at a KLM Crown Lounge.

Upgrading Air France flights

  • Air France-marketed, Air France-operated flights: Economy seats booked in Y, B, M, K, H, L, Q, T, N, R or V class can be upgraded to A class (premium economy), or from W, S or A class to Z class (business class).
  • KLM-marketed, Air France-operated flights: Economy seats booked in Y, B, M, K, H, L, Q, T, N, R or V class can be upgraded to A class (premium economy), or from W, S or A class to Z class (business class).
  • Delta-marketed, Air France-operated flights: Economy seats booked in Y, B, M, H, Q, K, L, U, T, X or V class can be upgraded to A class (premium economy), or from W, S or A class to Z class (business class), or from P, A or G class to Z class (business class).

Upgrading Virgin Atlantic flights

  • Delta-marketed, Virgin Atlantic-operated flights: Economy seats booked in W, S, Y, B, M, H, Q, K, L, U, T, X or V class can be upgraded to P class (premium economy), or from P, A or G class to Virgin Atlantic’s G class (business class).

Upgrading Aeromexico flights

  • Delta-marketed, Aeromexico-operated flights: Economy seats booked in W, S, Y, B, M, H, Q, K, L, U, T, X or V class can be upgraded to O class (business class).

Upgrading Korean Airlines flights

  • Delta-marketed, Korean-operated flights: Economy seats booked in Y, B or M class can be upgraded to J class (business class).

Related: The best Virgin Atlantic Upper Class seats

How to use an upgrade certificate

LAX Terminal 3 - Delta Sky Club Art
(Photo by Darren Murph/The Points Guy.)

It’s a pain (and Delta knows it), but as of now you still have to call Delta to use a GUC or RUC — they cannot be applied online or via the Fly Delta app.

You’ll need to dial the phone number given with your associated Medallion tier or the general hotline at 800-323-2323 and make the request. Be sure to call at least three hours prior to departure to apply your certificate, though 24 hours prior to departure is strongly recommended.

If you’re looking to confirm an upgrade immediately, search for your flight on the Delta website. Upgrade availability is shown underneath the flight times. Make sure you’re logged in to your Delta account as upgrade availability only shows on elite accounts.

Flight search with upgrade space on Delta website
(Screenshot courtesy of delta.com)

If you can avoid waitlisting, do so. Waitlists are not guaranteed to clear, and on particular routes — such as West Coast gateways to Hawaii — they’re known to rarely clear from the waitlist.

On itineraries with connections, be sure to ask the Delta agent to place upgrade priority on the leg that matters most to you. If you don’t clarify this, upgrades can clear on relatively unimportant/short legs, while you remain waitlisted on the long leg. If you don’t prioritize the hard-to-get leg and the upgrade clears on any other leg of your itinerary, the upgrade certificate is considered used.

For example, you don’t want to burn a valuable Global Upgrade Certificate on a 45-minute domestic positioning leg when the leg that matters is the long-haul ride from the U.S. to Europe, Asia, Oceania, etc. Remember, there’s no way to “undo” an upgrade clearing. Once it’s burned, it’s burned.

While it’s possible for upgrade requests on the waitlist to be cleared before you get to the gate, it is more likely that they will be cleared at the gate prior to departure. If your certificate doesn’t clear, it will be automatically reissued to your account and can be used on a future flight.

Related: How not to ‘waste’ your Delta Regional and Global upgrade certificates

SkyMiles mileage upgrades

Delta One cabin on an A350
Delta One Suites aboard an Airbus A350. (Photo by Zach Honig/The Points Guy.)

While we typically recommend storing up SkyMiles until you’re able to exchange them for a true award ticket, that’s not always practical for infrequent flyers. Delta allows its passengers to upgrade their existing tickets with SkyMiles regardless of status.

You can use Delta’s Upgrade with Miles feature to upgrade to Delta One, Delta Premium Select, first class or Delta Comfort+ for eligible flights. If your reservation is eligible for an upgrade, you’ll see the option to upgrade in your trip summary.

Delta mileage upgrade
(Screenshot courtesy of delta.com)

Delta typically prices mileage upgrades by placing a value of roughly 1.07 cents on each SkyMile. In other words, if Delta is charging $60 for a particular seat upgrade, it’ll also allow you to part ways with roughly 5,600 SkyMiles to achieve the same upgrade. Just note that you may be able to achieve marginally higher value by booking an award ticket outright.

Related: How I used SkyMiles to upgrade my Paris flight from coach to Delta One

Bottom line

Getting upgraded for “free” is a glorious thing, and you can better your chances by climbing Delta’s Medallion elite ranks and holding a Delta SkyMiles Reserve card or Delta SkyMiles Reserve Business card. You’ll also be wise to choose flights that aren’t during peak business-travel periods, and if there’s a connection involved, avoid Delta’s largest hubs like Atlanta (ATL), Minneapolis (MSP), New York-JFK and Los Angeles (LAX).

Using a stash of SkyMiles to upgrade can be a great way to boost your flight experience. Still, you’ll want to think carefully before using Upgrade with Miles — Delta will only allow you to extract roughly 1.07 cents per SkyMile via this method.

Upgrade certificates are the most exciting, but you’ll need to reach Platinum or Diamond status to secure them. If you’re fortunate enough to have a few in your account, you can strategically plan a dream trip, pay cash for an OK seat and fly there in a great seat.

Victoria Walker and Andrew Kunesh contributed to this post.

Featured photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy.

 

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