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The ultimate guide to getting upgraded on Alaska Airlines

Jan. 11, 2023
13 min read
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Editor’s note: This post has been updated with the latest information.


Alaska Airlines is one of the more generous carriers regarding seat upgrades. It offers all levels of its elite members the chance to score an upgrade, and unlike most carriers, there’s no spending requirement to earn Alaska status.

Thanks to its rekindled relationship with American Airlines, some American elite members are also eligible for upgrades on Alaska flights. Even if you don’t have elite status, there are still several ways to upgrade to a more comfortable seat.

Let's take a closer look at how to get an upgrade on an Alaska Airlines flight.

Complimentary upgrades for Alaska elite members

CLINT HENDERSON/THE POINTS GUY

Alaska Airlines currently has four tiers of elite status — MVP, MVP Gold, MVP Gold 75K and MVP Gold 100K.

While you can earn these the old-fashioned way by flying on Alaska, many travelers wind up with one of these elite tiers by crediting flights on partner airlines, such as American Airlines and British Airways, to Alaska.

Premium-class upgrades

All tiers of Alaska elite members are eligible for space-available, complimentary upgrades into Premium class and first class on Alaska-operated flights. Premium class is Alaska’s extra-legroom economy section, offering 4 inches of extra space and complimentary alcoholic drinks, similar to American’s Main Cabin Extra and Delta’s Comfort+.

Upgrades to Premium class may clear instantly at the time of booking, depending on your elite status tier and fare class (though Saver tickets in the X fare class, Alaska’s version of basic economy, aren’t eligible for upgrades at all). MVP Gold 75K and MVP Gold 100K members are instantly upgraded on all fare classes (except basic economy), while the list gets progressively shorter for lower tiers.

Elite tierFare class eligible for Premium-class upgrade at booking
MVPY, B or H fares.
MVP GoldY, B, H, K, M, L, V, S or N fares.
MVP Gold 75KAll fares except Saver fares.
MVP Gold 100KAll fares except Saver fares.

You can view fares with confirmable upgrade space using this box on the sidebar.

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If you book a ticket that can’t 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 no seats are available within these windows, you’ll be added to the upgrade waitlist.

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

  1. Elite status: Higher elite status means higher upgrade priority, regardless of 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 descending order: Y, B, H, K, M, L, V, S, N, Q, O, G, T.
  3. Million Miler: Travelers with Million Miler status will win the tie-breaker.
  4. Time of booking: If there’s still a tie, a higher priority will be awarded to the passenger who booked first.

As 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.

Related: 5 reasons I love having entry-level elite status with Alaska

First-class upgrades

Just like with Premium class, you may be eligible for an immediate first-class upgrade based on the fare code of the ticket you booked.

Elite tierFare class eligible for first-class upgrades at booking
MVPY or B fares.
MVP GoldY, B, H or K fares.
MVP Gold 75KY, B, H, K or M fares.
MVP Gold 100KY, B, H, K or M fares.

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 Y fare class is Alaska’s most expensively priced code, and any elite member who books a Y-class ticket 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 (owned by TPG’s parent company, Red Ventures) to search for this award space.

Here’s where things get 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 an 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/MVP Gold 100K: 120 hours before departure (L, V, S, N, Q, O, G, T).
  • MVP Gold: 72 hours before departure (M, L, V, S, N, Q, O, G, T ).
  • MVP: 48 hours before departure (H, K, M, L, V, S, N, Q, O, G, T).

The final tiebreaker, as with Premium class, will be the time of ticketing. If two MVP Gold members are booked into V class and one upgrade is left, the first-class seat will go to the one who booked their flight earlier.

Related: The latest on Alaska’s Oneworld partnership

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 up to the departure time of the flight. If an MVP Gold 75K member books a last-minute saver economy award ticket (T), they will leap ahead of all MVP Gold and MVP travelers already on the upgrade list.

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

CHRIS DONG/THE POINTS GUY

Complimentary upgrades for American elite members

Oneworld elite status alone doesn’t get you upgrades on Alaska. However, thanks to an enhanced partnership with American Airlines, AAdvantage elite members are eligible for upgrades.

Top-tier American Executive Platinum and Platinum Pro members are eligible for first-class upgrades when flying Alaska Airlines. Upgrades are available on all tickets, except for Saver (X) fares. They’re currently only available for the status member and one companion in the same reservation.

The upgrades can be confirmed as early as 120 hours before departure — even before Alaska MVP Gold and MVP members. Executive Platinum and Platinum Pro members will be prioritized after MVP Gold 75K members, first by fare class and then by the request date and time.

Meanwhile, all levels of AAdvantage status are eligible for upgrades to Premium class (except on Saver fares).

  • Executive Platinum members can select Premium-class seats at the time of purchase on all fares.
  • Platinum Pro and Platinum members can select Premium-class seats at the time of purchase if booked in the Y, B, H, K, M, L, V, S or N fare classes; all other fares can select them within 72 hours of travel.
  • Gold members can select Premium-class seats at the time of purchase if booked in the Y, B, or H fare classes; all other fares can select them within 24 hours of travel.

Related: American, Alaska Airlines detail reciprocal elite benefits, upgrades

Cash or miles upgrades

Even if you don’t have elite status with Alaska, it’s possible to upgrade eligible tickets. As noted above, all first-class upgrades, whether complimentary or paid, are contingent on the availability of U inventory. This is where ExpertFlyer (owned by TPG’s parent company, Red Ventures) can help, as it lets you easily search for a specific fare code.

EXPERTFLYER.COM

If a flight has upgrade inventory available, any Mileage Plan member can use miles to upgrade their 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, B, H, K or M.

Based on TPG’s most recent valuations, 15,000 Alaska miles are worth $270, and on many shorter Alaska-operated flights, you can purchase a first-class ticket outright for less than this amount.

Related: Beginners guide to finding award space with ExpertFlyer

GOOGLE.COM/FLIGHTS

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, so 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 mainly on the distance of your one-way flight. Alaska no longer publishes a price chart, but to give you an idea, upgrades start at $23 for very short flights and cost around $200 for cross-country trips.

CLINT HENDERSON/THE POINTS GUY

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).

Related: What is Alaska Airlines elite status worth?

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 or MVP Gold 100K.) You can use these certificates 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.
  • Y, B, H, K, M, L, V and N fare classes are eligible for Gold guest upgrades.
  • Q, O, G 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 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 box with a white F indicating upgrade inventory or a white box with a blue F indicating there’s none available.

ALASKAAIR.COM

In this case, the first flight on the list would have booked into the K fare class if you selected a 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 guarantee an upgrade.

If your friends or family members are interested in experiencing Alaska first class, you can 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 director Nick Ewen was able to do for his wife on a trip to Portland, Oregon.

ALASKAAIR.COM

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.

ALASKAAIR.COM

This was a prescient move, as first class wound up being full, and her low-tier status would’ve put her near the bottom of the upgrade waitlist. Instead, he confirmed 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-elite members 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 (the 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.

Additional reporting by Ethan Steinberg and Andrew Kunesh.

Featured image by ALASKA AIRLINES
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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  • Earn 1x points on all other purchases
  • Redeem your reward points for statement credits, gift cards, merchandise, flights, hotels, and more
  • With $0 Fraud Liability, you won’t be responsible for unauthorized charges
  • Free Online Credit Score and Credit Report summary, terms apply
  • If you are a Covered Borrower under the Military Lending Act, you may get a different offer
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