Are Delta’s upgrade certificates as good as they sound?

Late in 2013, I posted “Why Delta’s great new Choice Benefits irk me.”  Delta had just announced that they would be introducing regional and global upgrade certificates as choice benefits for high level elites.  Here is a summary of the new benefits:

  • Regional Upgrade certificates: Platinum Medallions have a Choice Benefit of 4 Regional Upgrade certificates that can be applied on any paid flight that qualifies for free Medallion upgrades.  Certificates may be used only to upgrade the certificate owner and/or one companion on the same itinerary.  Unlike the old Systemwide Upgrade certificates, which are no longer available, these certificates are valid on any fare other than deeply discounted e-class fares.
  • Global Upgrade certificates:  Diamond Medallions have a Choice Benefit of 4 Global Upgrade certificates (or 8 Regional Certificates).  Global Upgrades can be used on almost any Delta run flight to anywhere in the world as long as upgrade space is available.  Upgrades can also be used on certain partners, but with more restrictions. Certificates may be used only to upgrade the certificate owner and/or one companion on the same itinerary.  Unlike the old Systemwide Upgrade certificates, these certificates are valid on any fare other than deeply discounted e-class fares.

As a Delta hub captive I was excited about these changes.  For regional flights, elites are already entitled to free upgrades to first class, when available. Unfortunately, even top level elites don’t always score those upgrades due to extreme competition from many other top tier elites.  Regional Upgrade certificates give Platinum and Diamond elites a way to increase their upgrade chances for those flights where it is most meaningful to them.  That’s a really nice new perk.

Global Upgrade certificates are even better.  Before Delta introduced these certificates there was no practical way to upgrade an international flight booked in a discounted economy fare.  Only very expensive economy fares were upgradeable and these often cost almost as much as business class seats to begin with!  So, with Global Upgrade certificates, it is finally possible to book a cheap international flight and upgrade to business class.

Delta upgrade certificates

Securing Platinum and Diamond

I fly domestically often and usually with Delta.  And, when flying internationally, I almost always book award flights in business or first class from the get-go.  So, for me, the upgrade certificates I would get from Platinum status would be good enough.  My wife, though, flies to Europe two or three times a year for business and she is reimbursed only for economy bookings.  For her, Global Upgrade certificates promised huge value.

Early in 2014, I used every trick in the book to secure Platinum status for myself and Diamond status for my wife.  Here’s the “book”: How to manufacture Delta elite status.  I somehow managed to accomplish both goals early enough in the year for us to try out both forms of upgrade certificates multiple times.  Here were our experiences…

Regional Upgrade certificates: much better than nothing, but not as good as I had hoped

Upgrade certificates can’t be applied online – you have to call to use them.  If you want to use a certificate and have a lot of flexibility, you can call Delta to find a fight with upgrade space and then book the flight and the upgrade right there, over the phone.  That would be ideal.  In every situation in which my wife or I tried to apply a regional upgrade certificate, though, the timing of the flights trumped upgrade availability.  We booked our flights first then called to see if we could apply the upgrades.

While I didn’t keep careful notes, I’d estimate that we’ve attempted to use regional upgrade certificates about 6 times and only twice were we upgraded immediately.  When the upgrade isn’t available, you get put on an upgrade waiting list and should be automatically upgraded if/when upgrade space becomes available.  And, if that doesn’t work, the certificate should at least put you at the top of the upgrade queue at the airport.  In our experience, it doesn’t really work as expected.

Several times, when we’ve been on the waiting list for a regional upgrade, we’ve received the regular Platinum or Diamond free upgrades instead (up to 5 days out).  In those cases, fortunately, the upgrade certificate became available again for future use.

One time I was at the top of the upgrade list and cleared the upgrade at the gate ahead of even Diamond elites.  Nice!  That time, too, the upgrade certificate became available again for future use.

With several flights, though, the upgrade certificate didn’t seem to help our upgrade chances at all.  We found ourselves fifth or lower in the upgrade queue at the airport.  While it was possible that everyone ahead of us had applied upgrade certificates too, I highly doubt it.  I can’t figure out how or when the upgrade certificate helps your at-the-gate upgrade chances, but it certainly doesn’t put you at the very top of the list – at least, not often.  Luckily, in those cases, nothing is lost: The certificates become available again for future use.

Global Upgrade certificates: awesome, but not perfect

My wife used her four Global Upgrade certificates for two trips: one to Berlin and one to London.  The certificates upgrade only one direction of travel, so you need to apply two if you want to be upgraded in both directions.

With both of my wife’s trips, she booked the flights first and then called to apply her upgrade certificates.  In three out of four cases, the upgrades were available immediately.  In the fourth case, the waiting list actually worked.  A week or two after booking the flight, my wife received a call from Delta saying that her upgrade had cleared.  Score!

All of my wife’s oversea flights were on Delta metal.  Her trip to Berlin, though, included KLM between Amsterdam and Berlin.  That flight (in both directions) was automatically upgraded as well.

So far, so good, right?  The one negative came when my wife had to change the return date of her Berlin trip.  Her new flight had no upgrade space and the Delta agents claimed that it was impossible to get back the upgrade certificate since it had already been successfully applied.  Instead, they transferred it to the new flight.  The idea was that my wife would again be on the waiting list for an upgrade, and would be on the upgrade list at the airport if her upgrade didn’t clear in advance.  Unsurprisingly, her upgrade didn’t clear in advance.  In Berlin, my wife mentioned the upgrade certificate to a KLM agent who was able to move her into business class for the short flight to Amsterdam.  In Amsterdam, though, my wife had a very tight connection and didn’t have a chance to speak with an agent.  Instead, she flew home in Economy Comfort.

Other results

There is a thread on FlyerTalk where people have documented their experience using Delta’s Global Upgrade certificates (found here).  While I won’t claim to have read it through entirely, here is what I’ve gleaned from what I have read:

  • Global upgrade availability has been pretty good at the time of booking.
  • Automatic waitlist upgrades are rare.
  • Anecdotally, it appears necessary to call repeatedly to ask about the status of your upgrade if you’ve been waitlisted.
  • If you haven’t cleared your upgrade in advance, they system won’t usually put you on the upgrade list at the gate automatically.   Getting yourself onto that list depends upon knowledgeable agents and sometimes requires having your upgrade certificate number handy.

Summary and conclusion

In our limited experience, it appears that global upgrades are more readily available than regional upgrades.  That could be simply a matter of competition: many more people have access to regional upgrades than global upgrades.  I realize that people will have different experiences than my wife and I, though.  I have no doubt that some out there are frustratingly sitting on global upgrade certificates that they’ve been unable to apply.  Still, in our experience, Global Upgrade certificates have been mostly great (see above for the exception).

Our Regional Upgrade certificate experience has been more frustrating.  We’ve expected to be moved to the top of the upgrade queue when we weren’t upgraded in advance, but that only seemed to happen once.  Either the certificates do not work the way that Delta intended or I misunderstand the intent.  Either way, it leads to frustration.  Still, Regional Upgrade certificates are much better than nothing!

About Greg The Frequent Miler

Greg is the owner, founder, and primary author of the Frequent Miler. He earns millions of points and miles each year, mostly without flying, and dedicates this blog to teaching others how to do the same.

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Comments

  1. this sounds like a mess- and I thought United’s systemwide upgrades were a pain! Their waitlisting has issues too sometimes but it is automatic and the issues are not quite this severe.

  2. When you were not at the top of the list on the airport upgrade queue, did you call in and make sure the RUC was applied properly. This is definitely sometimes an issue. I have had a great experience applying RUC. I have never failed to be lower than #2 on the list.

    If you were not at the top of list due to other passnengers using RUC, then I don’t see you having a valid complaint.

  3. Does the upgrade change your ticket fare class?

    Let’s say you booked M, use the certificate to upgrade. You fly first/business. Do you get the bonus miles for “flying in Business” ?

  4. 1. Medallion Status

    2. Fare Class Groupings

    3. Delta Reserve Credit Card Members

    4. Delta Corporate Travelers*

    5. Card Members who earned the Medallion Qualification Dollars (MQD) Waiver in the current calendar year

    6. Date and time of upgrade request

    If the Certificate doesn’t get you the seats and puts you on wait list instead, how does it prioritize?

    • I believe that it moves you on top of the list. e.g., assuming the rest of the list is correct, I think that the order is:

      0. Those who applied upgrade certificate
      1. Medallion Status
      2. Fare Class Groupings
      3. Delta Reserve Credit Card Members
      4. Delta Corporate Travelers*
      5. Card Members who earned the Medallion Qualification Dollars (MQD) Waiver in the current calendar year
      6. Date and time of upgrade request

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