How to Upgrade to Business/First Class on Delta Air Lines Flights

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The days of getting upgraded just for dressing sharply or being kind to the gate agent are all but history. Airlines now have strict guidelines to ensure they allocate valuable upgrades to top customers.

Some airline upgrade policies can be complicated, and Delta Air Lines goes a step further and adds a level of secrecy to the upgrade process.

The airline does not publish upgrade availability or allow third-party access to this information. You are allowed to purchase or use miles to upgrade at booking or on an existing reservation, if available, but the pricing can sometimes be prohibitive.

Knowledge is power, and understanding how the process works can gain you leverage when trying to secure an upgrade with Delta Air Lines.

Our guide covers the types of upgrades available with Delta, how the upgrade process works, the value of having a Delta-branded credit card, and tips for increasing your chances of an upgrade on your next Delta flight.

Types of Delta Upgrades

Delta offers many options for upgrades, including upgrading with miles, complimentary and instant upgrades for Medallion Elite members, companion upgrades, and the ability to purchase an upgrade on the day of departure.

  • Complimentary upgrades: Available for Medallion Elites to Comfort +, First Class where those products are available, and Delta One (business class) for travel within the 50 United States.
  • Global upgrade certificates: Available to Diamond Medallion Elite members to upgrade domestic, regional, or international flights on Delta and partner airlines.
  • Regional upgrade certificates: Available to Platinum and Diamond Medallion Elite members to upgrade domestic and select regional Delta flights.
  • Instant upgrades: Medallion Elites who book a Y fare receive an immediate upgrade if available.
  • Upgrade with miles: You can purchase upgrades on select flights within the 50 United States with miles during booking.
  • Mileage upgrade awards: Upgrades available for purchase with miles on existing reservations for select flights worldwide. International upgrades are limited to fare classes Y, B, M, H, Q, or K.
  • Complimentary companion upgrades: Available for passengers traveling on the same reservation as Medallion Elite members.
  • Same-day standby upgrades: Available to all passengers for a fee on the day of departure for specific flight routes mostly in North America, the Caribbean, and Cancun.

How to Find Out if Upgrade Space is Available

Unfortunately, Delta does not publish upgrade availability and does not release the information for third-party publishing. Further limitations include not being able to see availability for seats in any class of service on your reservation other than your own.

For example, if you have a reservation and you’re assigned a Comfort + seat, you will only be able to view that seating section of the plane when you view your reservation. You will not be able to view first, business, or main cabin seating.

The workaround for this restriction is to do a dummy booking for the class of service you wish to view. Count the available seats in the section where you want to upgrade. A dummy booking is not the most accurate accounting but is a relatively easy way to compare available seating between different flights.

Searching for an award ticket will help you determine if there is upgrade space available, as there can be parallel availability. For example, if you do a search for a business-class award ticket and there are seats available, there is a similar chance an upgrade is available.

You can also call Delta to determine upgrade availability space.

CWSI publishes a helpful Delta fare class information chart that you can access on their website.

Upgrade Priority: Who Gets the Upgrade First?

Delta Air Lines, like other airlines, has an upgrade hierarchy that determines who is first in line for the next upgrade. Upgrades are allocated based on the following criteria in order of highest priority:

  • Medallion Elite status
  • Fare class
  • Delta Reserve Credit Card members
  • Delta corporate travelers
  • Delta SkyMiles® credit card holders who have met the Medallion Qualification Dollars (MQD) Waiver in the current calendar year. Delta has a revenue requirement (MQD) for each elite level and spending $25,000 on an eligible credit card waives this requirement for elite levels up to Platinum, $250,000 to waive the revenue requirement for Diamond Medallion Elite status.
  • Date and time of upgrade request (the tiebreaker).

Determine where you might fall in the upgrade hierarchy with Delta using this helpful Medallion Upgrade Priority Calculator from CWSI.

Request upgrade on Delta Air Lines
Delta Medallion members enjoy unlimited complimentary upgrades. Image courtesy of Delta.com

The Importance of Delta Medallion Elite Status

Delta Medallion Elite status is the single most powerful factor in getting upgrading on Delta Air Lines. Delta has several tiers of Medallion Elite status:

  • Delta 360: Top invitation-only status granted at Delta’s discretion
  • Diamond Medallion Members: Unlimited upgrades that begin clearing 5 days prior to departure
  • Platinum Medallion Members: Unlimited upgrades begin clearing 5 days prior to departure
  • Gold Medallion Members: Unlimited upgrades begin clearing a complimentary domestic days prior to departure
  • Silver Medallion Members: Unlimited upgrades begin clearing 1 day prior to departure

If these complimentary upgrades do not clear in advance, Medallion members can be added to the standby list at check-in and cleared for upgrades up until departure.

Complimentary upgrades are valid for Comfort +, Delta One domestic flights, and First Class on Delta. There are no international complimentary upgrades except for regional international flights with Delta/Aeromexico. Complimentary upgrades are available on Aeromexico for Medallion Members on all Aeromexico flights within Mexico, between Mexico and the U.S., and between Mexico and Central America, the Caribbean, Colombia, and Ecuador.

Medallion Members receive priority boarding and seating on many international routes and with most partner airlines.

In addition to complimentary upgrades, Delta Diamond and Platinum Medallion Members can earn annual Global and Regional Upgrade Certificates to redeem on International and Regional flights.

Medallion Members who purchase a full Y economy fare are also eligible for instant upgrades if available.

Learn the details of what it takes to earn Medallion elite status in Delta’s SkyMiles frequent flyer program here.

The Value of a Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card

Having a Delta-branded American Express credit card delivers flight benefits such as improving you and your travel companion’s chances for an upgrade, providing you with companion flight certificates that are also eligible for upgrades, complimentary or discounted lounge access, reaching Medallion Elite status faster, or offering flight benefits including free checked bags and priority boarding.

Hot Tip: The best Delta-branded credit card for increasing your chances for an upgrade on Delta flights is the Delta Reserve Credit Card from American Express. Note that personal Delta credit cards include Medallion Upgrade benefits, but this benefit is not included on Delta-branded business credit cards. 

Upgrading With Miles

It is possible to upgrade your domestic flight with miles during the booking process and on an existing reservation for domestic, regional, and international flights.

Delta seats and upgrade request
When booking a domestic ticket, you will have the option to upgrade with miles. Image courtesy of Delta.com

How to Upgrade With Miles When Purchasing a Ticket

The Upgrade with Miles option is only available when booking a Delta or Delta Connection flight within the 50 United States.

Log in to your account on Delta.com to book your flight, then select a main cabin ticket. If your reservation is eligible for Upgrade with Miles, you’ll see the option in the trip summary before you complete the purchase.

The pricing will be displayed, and you can decide whether the offer is good value. In many cases, it’s not.

How to Upgrade an Existing Reservation With Miles

You will need to contact a SkyMiles representative and provide your booking reference number to upgrade an existing reservation with miles. The representative will let you know if the reservation is eligible for a Mileage Upgrade Award and provide you with pricing.

Miles are deducted from your account if the upgrade can be confirmed.

Upgrades are limited to certain fare classes depending on the route. For North America, Central America, and Northern South America, eligible fare classes for Mileage Upgrade Awards include Y, B, M, H, Q, K, L, U, and T.  For international flights, eligible fare classes include Y, B, M, H, Q, and K.

air france  business class seats
Use Delta SkyMiles to upgrade your Air France flight. Image courtesy of Airfrance.com.

Upgrading on Partner Airlines

It is possible to use a Mileage Upgrade Award on an existing reservation that includes Virgin Atlantic, Air France, KLM, or Aeromexico-operated flights, basically upgrading with miles.

Fare classes and routes can be limited, pricing may be prohibitive, and in some cases, flights in some cases are restricted to only Delta-marketed flights.

You will need to contact a SkyMiles representative to find out if your flight is eligible, receive pricing information, and confirm the Mileage Upgrade Award.

You can access Delta’s web site for terms and conditions and available routes for partner Mileage Upgrade Awards.

Companion Upgrades

Delta does a nice job of including companions in the upgrade process. If a Medallion Member is traveling with a companion, the companion upgrade will receive the same status priority as the Medallion Member.

For example, if a Diamond Medallion Member is traveling with a companion on the same reservation, the companion will be elevated to Diamond-level priority when it comes to upgrades, regardless of whether the companion has status. However, the companion must be a SkyMiles member, and must request the upgrade.

Companion upgrades are available on paid tickets, award tickets, miles and cash tickets, and Pay with Miles tickets.

Hot Tip: Free main-cabin Companion Certificates awarded each year on Delta-branded credit cards such as the  Delta Reserve® Card from American Express and the Platinum Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express are eligible for upgrades for the cardholder and companion, making these certificates even more valuable.    

Discounted first class fare example
Comparing pricing on Delta’s website can yield some surprising results. Discounted first class can occasionally be less than Comfort + seating and not much more than the main cabin on certain routes. Image courtesy of Delta.com

A Dozen Ways to Secure an Upgrade or Increase Your Chances of an Upgrade With Delta

With Delta SkyMiles Medallion Elite Status

  1. Achieve Delta Diamond Medallion Elite status to earn Global Upgrade Certificates and Regional Upgrade Certificates.
  2. Achieve Delta Platinum Medallion Elite status to earn Regional Upgrade Certificates.
  3. Check discounted business, first, and Premium Select prices before using upgrade certificates. Business-class pricing is an especially good value on partner airlines such as China Eastern to Asia and Aeromexico to South America. Premium Select fares on Delta from hubs including DTW can be a good value and also elevate the chances of your Global Upgrade Certificate clearing should you choose to use one.
  4. You can increase your chances of getting upgraded by being a Delta Reserve Credit Card holder.
  5. If you hold one of the other Delta SkyMiles® credit cards, you can increase your chances of an upgrade by meeting the Medallion Qualification Dollars Waiver as early in the year as possible.
  6. As a Diamond, Platinum, or Gold Medallion Member, you have the fee-free opportunity to same-day confirm (SDC) to a different flight. If an alternative flight with a higher number of first-class seats is available, you may be able to increase your chances of a complimentary upgrade. Silver Medallion Members must pay the $75 SDC fee.
  7. Increase your chances of a domestic complimentary upgrade by selecting a plane with the largest number of business- or first-class seats. For example, models of the A319 have only 12 first-class seats, while an A321 can have 20 first-class seats. Review Delta’s fleet of aircraft to compare plane capacities.

Without Delta SkyMiles Medallion Elite Status

While there are few ways to secure an upgrade on a Delta flight without Medallion Elite status, opportunities do exist.

  1. Purchase a Comfort + Upgrade during booking or anytime up until 3 hours before departure.
  2. Use miles to purchase a business- or first-class flight or use miles to upgrade an existing flight if the pricing is good value.
  3. Check discounted business, first, and Premium Select prices (available on certain Delta routes), as this pricing can be a better value than using miles to upgrade, especially on partner airlines such as China Eastern to Asia and Aeromexico to South America.
  4. Purchase a discounted upgrade to first class at check-in. Be aware that upgrades are often available for purchase when you check-in for your flight and pricing can be at a significant discount. These same-day standby upgrades are available in limited markets.
  5. Offer to give up your economy seat when a flight is oversold in exchange for an upgraded seat on the next available flight (plus a flight voucher or gift card). You’ll usually have to ask for the upgrade, but you’ll be in a perfect position for it to be granted.

Final Thoughts

If flying in a premium cabin is your preference, watch for upgrade purchase opportunities at check-in, use miles to upgrade when the value is there, or try to select aircraft with larger premium cabins.

If you want to ensure you’ll be flying in a premium cabin, it may be valuable to seek out and compare discounted business class on Delta and other SkyTeam partner airlines or use miles to purchase Premium Select or business-class fares.

FAQ

Will I earn miles when flying on an Upgrade with Miles ticket?

Yes, you will earn elite qualification miles, redeemable miles, and elite qualification segments on an Upgrade with Miles ticket.

The mileage credit you earn will be based on the price of the ticket purchased, which includes the base fare plus surcharges.

What is the difference between economy class and Comfort +?

The differences between economy and Comfort + are many and include extra leg room and the fact that you are closer to the front of the plane than the economy section. You’ll also receive priority boarding and dedicated overhead space.

Another key difference is that you receive free snacks, cocktails, blankets, pillows, headsets, and amenity kits on long-haul flights.

Is having a Delta credit card worth it?

A Delta credit card is worth it if you use the benefits each card offers.

If you frequently fly Delta Air Lines, having a Delta credit card will provide value. The first free checked bag for you and your traveling companions alone can save you hundreds of dollars each year.

The additional perk of the free companion flight certificate you receive at card renewal on the Delta SkyMiles Platinum Card and the Delta Reserve cards can also save you hundreds of dollars.

How many miles does it take to upgrade a Delta flight to first class?

The price to upgrade a flight with miles varies drastically by route, and since there are no pricing charts published, you’ll have to look at each ticket individually when booking or call Delta for pricing on an existing reservation.

The domestic ticket example we used in this article shows 31,400 miles each way to upgrade, but you may be able to purchase a first-class flight with miles for less.

What is Premium Select and can I get an upgrade to it?

Premium Select is a special seating product offered by Delta Air Lines on select international routes.

Premium Select seats have their own cabin and offer a higher level of service than the main cabin, as there are dedicated flight attendants. You can expect to receive a menu, be served meals on a plate, and receive a small amenity kit.

The seat is wider and has additional recline than a domestic Comfort + seat, plus it has an adjustable footrest.

Complimentary upgrades are not available for Premium Select.

What is a same-day standby upgrade?

A same-day standby upgrade is an upgrade that is available on the day of departure. For a fee, any passenger can upgrade their eligible flight if space is available. You may see this option at check-in or you can ask about it at the departure gate.

Same-day standby upgrades are available between select markets in North America, the Caribbean, and Mexico.

Can I upgrade my basic economy ticket?

Unfortunately, tickets that are purchased in Delta’s basic economy fare class are not eligible for any type of upgrade, regardless of whether you have status.

These fares are discounted heavily and do not allow advanced seat selection, changes to the ticket, or paid priority boarding.

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4 comments

  1. You left out the most important tip: Don’t bother with any of this if you live in a hub. In ATL, very few platinums get free upgrades because there are tens of thousands (or more?) of diamonds here. I used to try to get up to gold, but it’s not worth anything, so I no longer bother. Whoever has the best rate gets my biz.

    • Christine Krzyszton · July 6, 2018 · Reply

      Scoring an upgrade in a hub market can be challenging for sure but it sounds like you’ve moved on and are making things work for you as a free agent. Thanks for reading.

  2. Thanks for doing all the research for a very informative article. It is a great help!

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