Valuing Delta’s Regional Upgrade Certificates

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Last week, in the post “Why Delta’s great new Choice Benefits irk me” I described Delta’s new Upgrade Certificates that will be available only to Platinum and Diamond Elite members.  Platinum Medallions will have a new Choice Benefit of 4 Regional Upgrade certificates that can be applied on any paid flight that qualifies for free Medallion upgrades.  Diamond Medallions will have a new Choice Benefit of 4 Global Upgrade certificates (or 8 Regional Certificates).  Global Upgrades will be redeemable on almost any Delta run flight to anywhere in the world as long as upgrade space is available.

There’s no question in my mind that these upgrade certificates make achieving Platinum and Diamond status more valuable than before.  The question, though, is how much more valuable have these status levels become?  Is it now worth the extra cost and effort to seek out the next level of status?  To move closer to an answer to that question, in this post I’ll examine the value of Regional Upgrade Certificates.  I’ll look at Global Upgrade Certificates in a separate post.

Why are regional certs worth anything?

The odd thing about Regional Upgrade certificates is that they can be used only on flights where elite members are already eligible for free upgrades.  Think about that.  You have to achieve Platinum or Diamond status to get these certificates, and then they can only be used on flights where you might get upgraded anyway.  Instead of waiting for your free upgrade, you have the option of “paying” for your upgrade with a certificate.  When looked at this way, one could argue that Regional Upgrade Certificates are worthless.  I don’t agree.

Here are a few reasons that I believe Regional Upgrade Certificates will have real value:

Upgrades when you want them most: Free Medallion upgrades are a game of chance.  On some routes and times, upgrades may be easy to get, but they’re never certain.  With Upgrade Certificates you’ll be able to ideally upgrade at the time of booking.  But, even when upgrade space is not available at booking, you can use a certificate to waitlist for the upgrade.  That should effectively put you ahead of all Medallion elites who do not use a certificate.

Upgrades for your companion: Upgrade certificates can be used to upgrade one companion traveling on the same reservation.  While its possible for elites to get companions on the upgrade list today, the chance of upgrades in those situations is extremely low.  Regional Upgrade Certificates should make upgrades very likely. 

Upgrades in off-elite years: While you need to achieve Platinum status to get Regional Upgrade certificates, it should be possible to wait until your Platinum status year is almost over before requesting those certificates.  The certificates are good for a year after issue.  So, one could alternate years between achieving high level status, but still be able to qualify for regional upgrades in the off-status years.

Certificate redemption value based upon Delta pricing

When booking a coach flight on Delta.com, Delta usually offers you the opportunity to pay (with cash or miles) to upgrade to First Class.  The cost to upgrade in that situation is simply the difference in price between First Class and Coach on that itinerary. 

I picked a somewhat random set of travel dates and destinations to see what Delta would charge for paid upgrades at the time of booking.  The one-way upgrade prices ranged from as low as $55 (for a one hour flight) to $574 (for a flight to Honolulu).  What I learned from this is that the redemption value of a Regional Upgrade Certificate could be quite high (up to $574 in my sample), but it could be low as well.  Just as with points and miles, it will be possible to get outsized value from upgrade certificates, but only for certain routes and situations.

Redemption value vs. certificate value

Regardless of Delta’s pricing, the value derived from an upgrade depends upon many factors, such as how much you care about first class vs. coach, how long the flight is, whether you’ll need the extra room and possibly a power outlet perhaps to get work done, and so on.  Ultimately, though, the question I’m trying to answer is not the value of the upgrades, but the value of the certificates.  The upgrade certificates are necessarily worth less than the value you hope to get from using them.  If all goes well, you might get a lot of value from them, but it’s also possible that upgrades won’t be available when you need them and that some of the certificates will ultimately expire unused.

$100 per certificate

My current estimate for the value of Delta’s Regional Upgrade certificates is $100 per certificate.  For most people, it should be possible to get far more value than that from the certificates, but several factors lead me to estimate on the low side:

  • Certificates are non-transferable.  You can’t give one to a friend or relative who really needs it.
  • Certificates expire in one year after issue.
  • Upgrades may not be available when they are most desired.

The $100 estimate is based upon the amount that I think I would be willing to buy certificates for if they were for sale.  Each reader can reasonably value these certificates much higher or lower depending upon their own circumstances.

Choice Benefit value = approx $400

Delta allows Platinum elites to select one Choice Benefit each year.  Most of these benefits are worth about $200.  Here are some examples:

  • 4 Delta SkyClub Passes (These passes are normally priced at $50 each)
  • 20,000 bonus miles (worth $200 if you value miles at 1 cent each)
  • $200 Travel / Retail gift card (Tiffany & Co. or Delta Travel Voucher)

If you agree with my $100 guestimate of  the value of upgrade certificates, then you’ll agree that the option of 4 Regional Upgrade certificates is worth about twice as much as most other Choice Benefits.

Is Platinum worth the extra effort?

If you’re close to achieving Platinum status you might wonder whether Regional Upgrade Certificates increase the value of Platinum status enough to be worth pursuing it.  Platinum status was already quite valuable largely due to the ability to make award changes for free.  Now, I’d estimate that Platinum status is worth about $200 more than it was before thanks to Upgrade Certificates.  Of course, its possible to get far more than $100 per certificate value when redeeming for upgrades.  If you think that it is likely that you will do so, then the incremental value of Platinum status with this new Choice Benefit option may be much higher to you.

Reader input

What do you think about my estimate and reasoning?  If you’re a Delta flyer, how much would you be willing to pay for an upgrade certificate if it could be bought?

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