The Critical Points: Why Upgrades Are Rarely, Well, Upgrades

Nov 16, 2018

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In the competitive world of business and leisure travel, hotels and airlines continue to search for advantages over the competition. The same competitive advantages are sought by several online travel agencies (OTAs) as well as traditional travel agencies in the hopes of luring new customers. Whether you’re talking about hotel stays, flights, cruises or even car rentals, upgrades continue be an easy carrot for these companies to dangle in their advertising efforts. They know this perk resonates with the public — even the very rare traveler.

There’s only one problem: the coveted upgrade is typically no longer, well, an upgrade. Let’s look at the troubling trend of what is being accepted by the traveling public under the umbrella of “upgrades” so we can begin to turn the tide of these faux enhancements and get back to the business of upgrades being legitimate enhancements to our travel experience.

The Brilliance of the Delta Comfort+ “Upgrade”

About two years ago, when I accepted that eventually I’d be living back in the Atlanta area, I began asking Delta elites what their upgrade percentages were based on their level of Medallion status. I kept getting very shocking percentages from Silver and Gold Medallions, routinely telling me they were getting upgraded 60 – 80% of the time. I asked them what routes they flew and how that was possible; for a brief time, I was entirely confused. Then I got to the real story. Delta elites had accepted complimentary placement in Comfort+ seats as an “upgrade” equivalent to being bumped to first class.

I was astounded that these elites seemed perfectly content with their few inches of extra legroom, and they seemed consider it the same as scoring a free first class seat. After all, here’s what Delta emails you when you’ve been “upgraded” to Comfort+:

It’s only the tiny print on the bottom left and the seat assignment row that delineate your actual new class of service; you’ve scored economy comfort, not first class. This simple change in vernacular, an upgrade list for Comfort+ and Delta’s marketing efforts (like these emails) have led me to have a conversation once a week with a Delta elite boasting about their “upgrade” percentage followed by me asking about real upgrades to first class.

This is an absolutely brilliant move that makes elites feel special, costs Delta very little and (for some reason) has been almost universally accepted and embraced by Medallion members (at least, according to most conversations I have). Delta has made Medallions accept a seat with a few extra inches of legroom as equivalent to a first class upgrade, and they’ve also been able to up-sell non-elites by marketing this as an entirely separate class of service. Astounding.

(NOTE: Delta isn’t the only guilty carrier here. Alaska’s Premium Class, which launched in 2016, follows a similar model, and I fear others will soon follow suit.)

“No Sir, This is a Deluxe, You Booked A Superior”

Hotel upgrades are an increasingly complicated matter with numerous factors: availability, status, loyalty program terms and conditions, social engineering and room categories. This final piece of the puzzle is what hotels continue to complicate so they can work upgrades and award availability to their advantage.

“Guaranteed room upgrades” are selling points of programs like Amex Fine Hotels & Resorts, the Luxury Collection and Hyatt Privé bookings. The problem is that many hotels have started taking the same type of room, often with identical layouts, and divided them into multiple categories. One might be on a slightly higher floor, while another may have a marginally better view. Your “guaranteed” upgrade when booking through these agencies can come through from time to time, but often you’re left wondering: What’s actually upgraded about my room?

Hilton is particularly bad with this trend at many of their large properties that have hundreds of rooms. Many situations come to mind during my three years living in Japan when I’d ask the difference between a Hilton King, King Deluxe and King Premium at properties like the Hilton Tokyo. I said it as politely as possible and in a curious way, because I was in fact curious, but no one ever had an answer. Time and time again, a one-category upgrade can leave me back at the front desk having it explained: “No sir, this is a deluxe and you booked a superior, we’ve upgraded you.”

The only discernible differences in the description of these two accommodations is this for the Deluxe room: “Special touches include a Yukata (Japanese cotton kimono).” Call me cynical, but that’s not an upgrade.

Upgrades Done Right

Despite these unfortunate trends, there are certainly companies that still get it right. Car rental elite status allows me to book a standard car and end up in a van or SUV. (Aside: Don’t put much faith in coupon codes or certificates promising a one-category car upgrade. That will typically get you from a micro car to compact car.) I have cleared about 40% of my flights on Delta this year to first class as a Platinum Medallion. Hyatt continues to place me in complimentary suites on almost 90% of my stays as a Globalist member, and I have certificates that allow me to confirm upgrades to suites months in advance. The traditional upgrade is alive, but I fear its dilution is only accelerating.

I continue to believe that transparency is the best way to address these murky upgrade situations. Hotels should clearly delineate hotel room categories and the differences between rooms, and airlines should use terms that differentiate the upgrade possibilities from one another. And of course, don’t forget the previously-mentioned social engineering aspect of the upgrade which is all too alive and well. Entitlement leads to no upgrades, not even fake ones.

Bottom Line

The reason faux upgrades continue to be successful is a strategy that wrestlers over at the WWE would call “beating into submission.” After years of misusing (or even abusing) the term upgrade when there are actually negligible differences in the upgraded product, the public comes to accept what they’re told. Add in marketing campaigns that repeatedly use the term “upgrade” and the public accepts the altered reality these companies have fabricated.

My charge to you is not to continue on this path of accepting what we’re given and particularly not using the term upgrade when talking about a Delta Comfort+ seat assignment or placement in a “deluxe” room instead of a “superior” one. This path leads to a future where upgrades consist of seats in row 30 instead of row 40 or a room with four pillows instead of two. No, we must not call it an upgrade unless it’s really, well, an upgrade.

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