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Alaska Airlines is rather unique in the world of award travel. Despite not being a member of one of the major alliances, Alaska has put together an impressive set of individual partnerships and corresponding award charts, earning the title of most valuable airline miles in TPG’s monthly valuations in the process.

While this is great news for anyone looking for sweet spot award redemptions (especially for premium cabin travel to Asia), actual flights on Alaska Airlines tend to get overshadowed. Today we’re going to buck that trend by taking a deep dive through one of the most sought-after perks in commercial air travel: seat upgrades. Whether you earn these as an elite perk or choose to spend your money or miles on a bit of extra leg room and additional amenities, we’ll walk through everything you need to know about upgrade eligibility, priority and more.

In This Post

Complimentary Elite Upgrades

Alaska Airlines has three tiers of elite status — MVP, MVP Gold and MVP Gold 75K. While you might earn these the old-fashioned way by actually flying on Alaska, many people will also wind up with one of these elite tiers by crediting flights on partner airlines such as British Airways to Alaska in order to earn more valuable miles.

All three tiers of Alaska elites are eligible for space-available, complimentary upgrades into both Premium Class and first class on Alaska-operated flights. Premium Class is Alaska’s extra legroom economy section, offering four inches of extra space and complimentary snacks and drinks, similar to Delta’s Comfort+. You’ll currently find Premium Class on all of Alaska’s 737-900s, 737-800s and E175s. The airline is in the process of retrofitting its 737-700s and legacy Virgin America A319/A320/A321s with Premium Class, and expects both projects to be completed by the end of 2019.

Upgrades to Premium Class may clear instantly at the the time of booking, depending on your elite status and fare class (though Saver tickets in X fare class, Alaska’s version of basic economy, aren’t eligible for upgrades at all). Top-tier MVP Gold 75K members will be instantly upgraded on all fare classes (except X), while the list gets progressively shorter for lower tiers. MVP elites essentially have to buy the most expensive tickets available in order to earn an immediate upgrade.

You can be sure to snag an eligible fare class during your initial purchase by selecting your applicable elite tier at the left-hand side of the search results page.

This will show you any premium you’d need to pay for an instantly-upgradeable fare, like this example for an MVP Gold member:

You’d need to pay $20 more than the lowest available coach fare to enjoy an immediate upgrade to Premium Class.

If you book a ticket that isn’t able to clear instantly, you’ll have to wait until your elite window opens to snag a complimentary upgrade to Premium Class. This happens for MVP Gold members 72 hours prior to departure, while MVP members are eligible 48 hours prior to departure. If there are no longer seats available within these windows, you’ll be added to the upgrade waitlist.

The upgrade priority on this waitlist is determined by the following three factors, in order of importance:

  1. Elite status: MVP Gold 75K members generally have higher priority than MVP Gold elites regardless of any other factors.
  2. Fare class: The tie-breaker for two passengers with the same elite status will be the fare class of the ticket they booked, in the following order: Y, Z, S, B, M, H, Q, L, V, N, K, G, T, R, W.
  3. Time of booking: In the event that there’s still a tie, the higher priority will be awarded to the passenger who booked first.

As is the case with most carriers, if you’re upgraded to Premium Class (or first class), you’ll earn miles based on the fare code of your original ticket, not based on the upgrade.

Alaska also offers complimentary upgrades to first class for all three tiers of elite status. Just like with Premium Class, you may be eligible for an immediate upgrade based on the fare code of the ticket you booked.

While this list is much shorter than the list of eligible fare classes for Premium Class upgrades, there is one piece of good news. The “Z” fare class is Alaska’s most expensive award prices, and any elite member who books a Z class award will be eligible for a space-available, instant upgrade to first class.

Note that first class upgrades on Alaska clear into the U fare class, and you can use ExpertFlyer to search for this award space.

Here’s where things get a bit tricky, since Alaska uses two separate lists for those who are waiting to be upgraded:

  1. Upgrade Waitlist: This list consists of travelers who have requested an upgrade and are within the eligible window for a complimentary upgrade.
  2. Upgrade Request Queue: This list consists of travelers who have requested an upgrade but aren’t yet within the eligible window.

For any elite member, if you book a instantly-upgradeable fare class but there’s no U inventory available at the time of booking, you’ll be added to the waitlist immediately. If, on the other hand, you book a fare class that’s not eligible for instant upgrades, you’ll be added to the upgrade request queue. In this case, you’ll have to wait until your upgrade window opens before you can clear into first class, which will happen at the following times in the fare class order indicated:

  • MVP Gold 75K: 120 hours prior to departure (Q, L, V, N, K, G, T, R, W)
  • MVP Gold: 72 hours prior to departure (H, Q, L, V, N, K, G, T, R, W)
  • MVP: 48 hours prior to departure (B, M, H, Q, L, V, N, K, G, T, R, W)

The final tiebreaker, like Premium Class, will be time of ticketing. If there are two MVP Gold members booked into V class and one upgrade left, the first class seat will go to the one who booked his/her flight earlier.

Once all available upgrades have been allocated at a given window, the remaining elite members will be moved from the upgrade request queue to the upgrade waitlist. The same priority will thus apply: elite status, fare class and time of ticketing. This same priority applies all the way up to the departure time of the flight. If an MVP Gold 75K member books a last-minute saver economy award ticket (W), he/she would leap ahead of all MVP Gold and MVP travelers already on the upgrade list.

Note as well that not only are the most expensive economy awards (Z) eligible for instant upgrades, but Alaska’s other two economy award classes (N and W) also get you on the waitlist for first class upgrades.

Cash or Miles Upgrades

Even if you don’t have elite status with Alaska, it’s possible to upgrade eligible tickets as well. As noted above, all first class upgrades, whether they’re complimentary or paid, are contingent on the availability of “U” inventory. This is where ExpertFlyer comes in, letting you easily search for a specific fare code.

If a flight has upgrade inventory available, any Mileage Plan member can use miles to upgrade his/her ticket. Regardless of the distance, you’ll need to redeem 15,000 miles each way, and you must be booked into one of the five most expensive economy fare classes: Y, S, B, M or H. Based on TPG’s most recent valuations, 15,000 Alaska miles are worth $270, and on many shorter Alaska-operated flights, you can actually purchase a first class ticket outright for less than this amount.

Since these fare classes also require a hefty premium, I’d recommend against this option, as there are many better options for redeeming your Alaska miles.

A final way to snag a seat up front on an Alaska-operated flight is to pay cash. These are only available within 24 hours of your flight’s departure during online check-in, and they may also be available at the airport, including a kiosk or even at the gate. In theory, they’re only supposed to be available when all elite upgrades have cleared, which means these paid upgrades will likely be rare. Nevertheless, it could be a decent option if you’re presented with it.

The exact price you’ll pay depends on the distance of your one-way flight:

Again, these upgrades are only eligible during online check-in or at the airport if there are still first class seats available. Alaska also notes in the fine print that if you upgrade after checking your bags, you won’t be eligible for a refund of baggage fees. If you’re planning on upgrading an upcoming Alaska flight, you should try and do so during online check-in or as soon as you arrive at the airport to avoid this problem. Paid upgrades are eligible for all paid and award tickets except those booked in Alaska’s Saver class (X).

Gold Guest Upgrade Certificates

In addition to unlimited complimentary upgrades, any traveler qualifying for Alaska MVP Gold status receives four Gold Guest Upgrade Certificates each year. (You don’t receive any additional ones for reaching MVP Gold 75K.) These certificates can be used to instantly upgrade friends or family members who are not traveling with you, or to upgrade yourself on fares that don’t qualify for instant awards. Like all other upgrades, you need available “U” first class inventory for these to clear, and there are a few more restrictions to be aware of:

  • Flights must be marketed, ticketed and operated by Alaska Airlines.
  • G,T,R and X fare classes are not eligible for Gold Guest upgrades.
  • Award travel is not eligible for Gold Guest upgrades.
  • Each upgrade is valid for one-way travel for one person.

Alaska also makes it easy to search for first class upgrade inventory directly on its website, even allowing you to select which form of upgrade you plan to redeem. You’ll then see either a dark blue F indicating there is upgrade inventory or a white F indicating there’s none available.

In this case the first flight on the list would have booked into the “K” fare class if you selected “first class upgrade.” Since this fare code isn’t normally eligible for instant elite upgrades to first class, redeeming a Gold Guest upgrade would be the way to go to guarantee you get that seat in the front of the plane.

If your friends or family members are interested in experiencing Alaska first class, you can simply share the unique, 24-digit upgrade codes with them. As long as U inventory is available on their flights, they should be able to pull up their reservation and find the MVP Gold guest upgrade link, as TPG Editor Nick Ewen was able to do for his wife earlier this year on a trip to Portland, OR.

Even though she has MVP status, he was able to upgrade her on both the outbound and the return flights using expiring Gold guest upgrade certificates from a colleague.

This wound up being a prescient move, as first class wound up being completely full, and her low-tier status would’ve put her near the bottom of the upgrade waitlist. Instead, he was able to confirm her directly into first class over two months before the flight.

Bottom Line

Alaska Airlines offers unlimited, complimentary upgrades to all of its elite members and also offers attractively priced cash upgrades for non-elites within 24 hours of departure, giving you plenty of options to choose from if you’re looking to stretch your legs the next time you fly Alaska. While the airline isn’t always generous with its first class upgrade inventory (“U” fare code), it’s easy for you to do your research and find the flights that have it by leveraging tools like ExpertFlyer and Alaska’s easy-to-use website.

Featured photo by Jessica Puckett / The Points Guy.

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