Elite status devaluation? Delta is making big changes to how you use upgrade certificates
Next year, Delta is completely revamping how Diamond Medallion elites use their Global Upgrade Certificates.
Before we dive in, as some background, Delta Diamond Medallion elite members can pick Global Upgrade Certificates as one of their three Choice Benefits when qualifying or requalifying for status. Historically, these upgrades have allowed Delta elites to upgrade from economy to Delta One business class when upgrade space is available.
But that changes on Feb. 1, 2022. Here's what you need to know when it comes to using GUCs starting next year.
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Big changes coming to Global Upgrade Certificates
Today, the carrier announced to elites that Global Upgrade Certificates will now move you up by just one class of service.
This means that those booked in Main Cabin will now upgrade to Premium Select — Delta's version of premium economy — on three-cabin international flights. Flights with two cabins will still clear into Delta One, and Comfort+ is still treated as Main Cabin in terms of upgrades. Likewise, those booked in Premium Select can use a GUC to upgrade to Delta One.
Once an upgrade to Premium Select is confirmed, elites will be added to the Delta One upgrade waitlist 24 hours prior to departure, so there's still a chance of a double upgrade.
Unfortunately, this is the same on partner flights.
If you book an economy ticket on a partner like Virgin Atlantic and use a GUC to upgrade, your upgrade will clear into premium economy. Partner flights that don’t have a premium economy cabin will be unaffected by the change and clear into business class.
On the bright side, Delta announced that it will offer last-seat availability to elites using GUCs to upgrade from Main Cabin to Premium Select. So if there's a seat for sale, you can use a certificate to upgrade. This is far easier than how GUCs currently process, where upgrade space is sparse.
Further, using GUCs on domestic flights and flights to Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, Bermuda, Central America and northern South America (excluding Delta One flights) will get easier too. GUCs can now be used to book last-seat availability in first class on these flights, which may be useful for some members.
Finally, as of Feb 1, 2022, Delta is making upgrade certificates valid through the end of your status year. This means that if you earn your certificates on July 14, 2022, they're good until Jan. 31, 2024. Previously, these would have only been valid for 12 months from the date you selected your Choice Benefits.
You can exchange GUCs for SkyMiles
As a one-time courtesy, Delta will allow elites to exchange GUC and Regional Upgrade Certificates for SkyMiles. The airline told TPG that GUCs can be exchanged for 8,000 SkyMiles and RUCs for 4,000 SkyMiles. You can request this swap on Delta's website. These upgrades must have been selected by Nov. 15, 2021, to be eligible for the exchange.
Frankly, this isn't a great value even compared to the new GUC rules. After all, you'll rarely get less than 8,000 SkyMiles in value for your GUC, even if you use it to upgrade a domestic flight. We recommend staying away from this unless you have expiring certificates and absolutely cannot use them for an upgrade.
It's business as usual for now
Until Feb. 1, GUCs will work under the current rules. So, you can continue to use them to upgrade from Main Cabin to Delta One on three-cabin flights if upgrade space is available. Thankfully, this is just the date you need to use your certificates by, meaning you can book a flight departing after Feb. 1 and confirm a seat in Delta One if upgrade space is available.
That said, those on the waitlist for a flight departing after Feb. 1, 2022, will clear into Premium Select if their upgrade doesn't clear before the rules change.
Related: The ultimate guide to getting upgraded on Delta
Does this mark a huge devaluation for Diamond Medallion?
From the looks of it, this change significantly devalues Global Upgrade Certificates for many travelers.
Historically, these certificates have provided a ton of value given that you can book a relatively inexpensive economy fare and upgrade all the way to Delta One. Only allowing elites to upgrade to Premium Select degrades much of this value, as this cabin has fewer amenities and is generally priced much lower than the Delta One cabin.
Under the new rules, if an elite member wants to upgrade to Delta One on a three-cabin flight, they have to pay more for a Premium Select ticket and then apply a GUC if upgrade space is available. Or, the elite can book Main Cabin, upgrade to Premium Select and hope that they clear the waitlist within 24 hours of the flight. Neither sounds appealing when compared to a confirmed upgrade.
The change also makes GUCs less valuable than United PlusPoints or American Systemwide Upgrades.
Both of these upgrade instruments still allow elites of their respective airlines to upgrade from economy to business class, putting Delta at the back of the pack in regards to confirmed upgrades on international flights.
On the flip side, having last-seat access to Premium Select may be good for those traveling to business-heavy destinations like Tokyo, London and Sydney, where upgrade space is often hard to find. The same goes for using GUCs to upgrade to first class on domestic flights — last-seat upgrade availability may be useful when flying to Alaska, Hawaii or other distant-but-technically-domestic destinations. After all, it takes a lot more flying from the East Coast to get to Hawaii or Alaska than it does to some of Europe.
Regardless, I think many Diamond elites will be disappointed by this change.
Even if it's harder to upgrade under the current rules, a flight in Delta One is far more desirable than Premium Select. The change also comes at a less-than-ideal time as the world is finally starting to reopen, so elites will either have to scramble to book international travel before Feb. 1 or play by the new rules.
Related: What is Delta Air Lines elite status worth in 2021?
Starting in February, Delta Diamond Medallion members will only be able to use their Global Upgrade Certificates for one-cabin upgrades. Instead of jumping right from Main Cabin to Delta One, elites will instead upgrade to Premium Select and be added to a Delta One waitlist 24 hours prior to departure.
As someone who will qualify for Diamond status for the first time next month, I can't help but be disappointed by this change. It's a blow to the people who fly the most with Delta and makes it difficult to get outsized value from the four certificates offered to Diamond Medallions upon qualification.
Feature photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy