The ultimate guide to getting upgraded on Delta

Feb 11, 2020

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We’ve detailed many of the lesser-known perks of Delta elite status, including same-day confirmed changes, gate-to-gate Porsche transfers and flexibility with flight plans when bad weather strikes. 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 in commercial air travel than paying for one class of service and being upgraded into a superior cabin, be it premium economy, business or first. Upgrades, however, remain shrouded in mystery. This guide is meant to demystify the process, explaining how Delta’s upgrade process works across every possible avenue. From complimentary Medallion upgrades to SkyMiles upgrades, Global and Regional Upgrade Certificates to understanding upgrade priority, it’s all covered below.

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In This Post

Complimentary upgrades

Delta A220 first class, photo courtesy of Darren Murph
Delta A220 first class. (Photo by Darren Murph/The Points Guy.)

Unlike certain carriers (we’re looking at you, American Airlines), 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 Medallion members are eligible for day-of-departure unlimited complimentary upgrades to the Delta One experience on flights within the U.S. 50 (and yes, that includes flights to Hawaii!).

While it pays to understand the intricacies below, it’s worth mentioning that Delta is systematically selling ever more 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. Put simply, 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 loads, such as those between Atlanta (ATL) and San Francisco (SFO), the Comfort+ cabin is typically full by the time Gold and Silver Medallions are eligible to clear, though last-minute upgrades at the gate can happen.

Related: What is Delta elite status worth?

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

For Delta One U.S. 50 upgrades, Medallion Members will clear on the day of departure following the same clearance priority hierarchy as First Class Upgrades, subject to upgrade availability.

It’s important to remember that complimentary upgrades might not always clear in advance when your eligibility window opens if there are no upgrades available at that time. Delta keeps a lid on that inventory, but generally speaking, inventory is tighter on popular routes between its largest hubs and also tends to be lower during popular times for business travel.

Even if you don’t clear in advance, you may still clear at the gate. If an upgrade is still not confirmed at your window and still isn’t confirmed when you check-in, your pending upgrade request will be automatically 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 My Trips, in the Fly Delta App upon check-in and on the Gate Information Display screens 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 fare per the following order — B, M, H, Q, K, L, U, T, X, V, then SkyMiles award tickets, then Pay with Miles.
  3. Delta Reserve® Credit Card from American Express cardholders
  4. Delta Corporate Travelers (ticket must include your employer’s Corporate Ticket Designator)
  5. Card Members who earned the Medallion Qualification Dollars (MQD) Waiver in the current calendar year
  6. Date and time of upgrade request

The only notable exception here is with full Y coach fares; 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 sections below.

A free upgrade into Comfort+ makes the journey better. (Photo by Darren Murph/The Points Guy.)

Exclusions and fine print

  • 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 Travel 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 his/her 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

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.

Related: Choosing the best credit card for Delta flyers

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 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. (TPG’s parent company Red Ventures owns Expert Flyer.)

Speaking of, you’ll do better if you avoid peak business travel periods. This enables you to compete with fewer frequent flyers. We’d recommend flying early in the day on Saturday or in the middle of the day on Tuesday — two periods where business travel tends to be quieter. Whatever you do, avoid flying Sunday night, Monday morning and pretty much all day Friday if you want to sidestep top-tier business travelers.

Upgrade Certificates

If you’re searching for the crème de la crème of Delta upgrades — the FastPass of seating — look no further. Delta offers two types of dedicated upgrade certificates known as GUCs and RUCs, and the only way to get them is to become a Platinum or Diamond Medallion and select them using your Choice Benefits. In other words, they’re hyper-exclusive and thus extremely powerful. Upgrade Certificates have a higher priority than Medallion Complimentary Upgrades and may be requested and, subject to availability, cleared when you book your ticket.

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 Medallion 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 (4) Global Upgrades
  2. Eight (8) Regional Upgrades
  3. Two (2) Global Upgrades and four (4) Regional Upgrades

Platinum Medallion Members may choose four (4) Regional Upgrades as their single Choice Benefit.

In other words, 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: Earning Delta status

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 of which you need to be aware of. For starters, each RUC/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 Pay with Miles ticket, and a Companion ticket. Crucially, you cannot apply an RUC nor a GUC to a SkyMiles award ticket nor 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.

Each GUC/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! To maximize your time to use the certificate, we recommend setting a reminder for Jan. 31, and selecting your RUC/GUC Choice Benefit on the last possible day of the Medallion year.

Each certificate may be used to upgrade on Delta Air Lines, or certain Delta Connection operated flights on published retail fares booked in P, A, G, W, Y, B, M, H, Q, K, L, U, T, X or V class and upgrade into RY/OY class, and may also be used to upgrade on Pay with Miles tickets and Companion Certificates.

For travel on KLM-operated, Delta-marketed flights this certificate may be used to upgrade on published fares booked in Y, B, M, H, Q, K, L, U, T, X or V class and all fare classes upgrade into Z class. For travel on KLM-operated flights marketed by either Delta or Air France, this certificate may be used to upgrade on published fares booked in Y, B, or M class. Fares booked in B or M are eligible to upgrade into O class, while tickets booked in Y are eligible to upgrade into Z class.

For Air France-operated flights marketed by either Delta, KLM, or Air France, Y, B, or M fare can upgrade into A class (Premium Voyageur class). In addition, customers booked in an Air France-marketed and operated W or S class, as well as customers booked in an Air France-operated, Delta-marketed P, A, or G class, can upgrade to O class (Affaires or Business Class).

For travel on Aeromexico operated, Delta marketed flights this certificate may be used to upgrade on Delta’s published fares booked in W, Y, B, M, H, Q, K, L, U, T, X or V class and all fare classes upgrade into Aeromexico’s O class. Valid on Delta-marketed, Virgin Atlantic-operated flights for use globally on published Economy Cabin fares booked in W, Y, B, M, H, Q, K, L, U, T, X or V class to Upper Class. Valid on Delta-marketed, Korean Air-operated flights for use globally on Delta’s published fares booked in Y or B class to Korean Air’s Z class, or booked in M class to Korean Air’s O class.

Here are some final, nitty-gritty aspects of these certificates:

  • Finding flights: Upgrade Certificates can be used on any Delta-operated flight, and select partner-operated flights with KLM, Air France, Virgin Atlantic, Korean Air and Aeromexico.
  • Enjoying priority: Upgrade Certificates will clear off the waitlist in order of Medallion Tier, and then the day and time your request was added to the list. If you’re on the Airport Standby List, Upgrade Certificates receive higher priority than Medallion Complimentary Upgrade requests.
  • Ticket eligibility: Upgrade Certificates can be used on most paid tickets, Pay with Miles tickets, and Companion Certificates. They can not be used on Award Travel or tickets booked in Basic Economy (E).
  • Redemption period: Certificates expire a year after they are selected. Certificates must be used on flights flown within the 12 months — otherwise, the certificates will expire.
  • Flexibility: If you have to change or cancel a reservation where an Upgrade Certificate has already been applied and confirmed, you will not lose the certificate. You can either call reservations to apply the Upgrade Certificate to your new flight, or it will automatically be reopened in your account within 2-3 weeks.
  • Application: You can waitlist for multiple flight days, weeks, or even months apart with the same certificate; this is important because the time of upgrade request is a tiebreaker. If the earlier flight doesn’t clear, you still have the requested initially date on the second flight (though if the first flight does clear, you’ll need to re-request an upgrade on the second flight with a new certificate/request date).

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/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. The earlier the better, and remember that you have to do this over the phone; gate agents cannot apply upgrade certificates at the airport.

We generally recommend calling in when you’re first looking to book and playing around with potential booking dates until the Delta agent finds a date where your upgrade certificate will clear immediately. 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, if ever, clear.

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 place priority on the hard-to-get leg, and the upgrade clears on any other leg, your 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.

SkyMiles mileage upgrades

While we at TPG typically recommend storing up SkyMiles until you’re able to exchange them for a completely free ticket (like a 100,000-mile one-way business class flight from the U.S. to the Maldives, which would otherwise cost upwards of $5,000!), that’s not always practical for infrequent flyers. Delta allows its passengers to upgrade their existing tickets with SkyMiles regardless of status, with two methods of doing so.

Upgrade with Miles

a350
Delta One Suites aboard an Airbus A350. (Photo by Zach Honig/The Points Guy.)

The first is Upgrade with Miles, which occurs during the booking process. You can use SkyMiles to upgrade to Delta One, Delta Premium Select, First Class or Delta Comfort+ for eligible flights within the U.S. while you’re purchasing an original ticket either at delta.com or with Delta phone reservations. If your reservation is eligible for an upgrade, you’ll see the option to upgrade in your Trip Summary.

Delta typically prices mileage upgrades by placing a value of 1 cent on each SkyMile — that’s a fairly terrible redemption. In other words, if Delta is charging $60 for a particular seat upgrade, it’ll also allow you to part ways with 6,000 SkyMiles to achieve the same upgrade.

We typically recommend that you try to book award tickets with an outsized value of 3 to 5 cents per SkyMile. While it’s convenient to just exchange a bundle of miles for a cabin upgrade, remember that in doing so you aren’t extracting maximum value from your SkyMiles balance.

Related: The ultimate guide to upgrading with miles

Bottom line

Getting upgraded for free is a glorious thing, and you can better your chances by flying Delta more often (and in turn, climbing its Medallion elite ranks) and by carrying 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, but you’ll want to think carefully before using Upgrade with Miles — Delta will only allow you to extract 1 cent per SkyMile via this method. Mileage Upgrade Awards can be a more valuable route, but it’s also more cumbersome and demands more patience.

Where things really get exciting are upgrade certificates, but you’ll need to reach Platinum or Diamond 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 economy seat and fly there in business class.

Featured photo by Emily McNutt/The Points Guy.

Victoria Walker contributed to this post.

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