4 Sweet Spots in the Delta SkyMiles Upgrade Award Chart

Jun 11, 2015

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While Delta tends to offer a quality product, its frequent flyer program has been much maligned recently. Today, TPG Senior Points & Miles Correspondent Nick Ewen explains one strategy for extracting value from your SkyMiles, even if they don’t measure up to many other loyalty currencies.

Last week I wrote about how you can still get value out of the Delta SkyMiles program by highlighting some terrific options for award flights. However, some of those redemptions require a large number of miles that you may not have (though the welcome bonuses on the Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express and Platinum Delta SkyMiles Credit Card from American Express can definitely help). Fortunately, there are other ways that you can redeem your SkyMiles and still get great value. Today I’ll take a look at some scenarios where it makes sense to use your miles to upgrade on Delta to first or business class.

What are the best ways to upgrade using your Delta SkyMiles?

First, a quick review of this process. There are actually two different types of upgrades using miles (and you’ll see examples of both below). The first allows you to apply your miles to confirm an upgrade as part of the booking process. You essentially use miles to cover the difference in cost between economy and first/business class.

The other method allows you to redeem a flat mileage amount to upgrade based on the origin and destination of your flight(s). Unfortunately, Delta requires you to purchase very high fare classes (Y, B or M) in order to upgrade any international flight. For flights within or between the US and Canada, you have a few more fare classes to choose from: S, H, Q or K (in addition to Y, B and M). This still leaves out the lowest economy fares.

To search for specific fare classes, visit the Advanced Search page on Delta.com. At the bottom you’ll find a drop-down menu that allows you to specify the lowest fare class you’d like to book:

Again, if you’re traveling internationally, you’ll need to select M or higher; for domestic flights you should select K or higher.

In order to have your upgrade processed at the time of request, the flight(s) must have RP or OP inventory available. The former applies to domestic first class, while the latter applies to international business class (or DeltaOne, as defined by the new product offerings). If there aren’t seats available for immediate upgrades, you can be added to the wailist and hope that space opens up. These upgrades can clear up to three hours prior to the scheduled departure time and follow the hierarchy I laid out in my recent post on Delta upgrade priority. Unfortunately, there’s no way to transfer the mileage upgrade request to the gate standby list, so if you don’t clear before the three hour mark, you’re out of luck!

Keep in mind that Delta has made this exceedingly less transparent by removing both its regular and upgrade award charts from its website. However, you can still get details on how many miles you need to upgrade from archived pages. Delta also forced ExpertFlyer to remove upgrade inventory from its site last September, so you can no longer search for upgrade space here. That leaves you with two options:

  1. Call customer service (and rely on the phone rep);
  2. Search for a lowest tier (Level 1) award ticket. Since these flights book into R/O class, finding them should mean that your upgrade can be processed immediately (though the number of seats in RP/OP may differ slightly)

With all that in mind, what are some of the best ways to use SkyMiles to upgrade? In no particular order:

Delta has updated most of its international 757s, but you may still find an old recliner at the last minute!
You may get lucky and snag an international plane running a domestic route if you upgrade with miles on a cross-country flight.

1. Transcontinental flights

Cross-country flights can be a great option for upgrading with miles. Despite their length, you still need the same number of miles (12,500) and fare class (K or higher) to upgrade from economy to first class on these flights. Ideally you could make this work on Delta’s premium transcontinental service between New York-JFK and Los Angeles or San Francisco. However, I don’t see a single day with even Level 3 availability, so the chances of snagging an upgrade using miles on these routes are basically non-existent.

However, other flights that may not be considered true “transcons” with this premium service are a bit better about opening up availability. You may even luck out and score an internationally configured plane! For example, at the time of writing I see Level 1 space on Delta Flight 1655 from Atlanta to Los Angeles on May 4, 2016, operated by a 767-300:


The lowest coach fare for this flight is $255.60 and books into T class. In order to use miles to upgrade, you’d need to book at least a K class ticket, which currently is available for $360.25. By spending just over $100 extra (plus 12,500 miles), you can snag a ticket in first class that currently retails for $651.60, a value of 2.33 cents per SkyMile. You’ll also be traveling in a lie-flat seat!

Availability on the most popular routes isn’t great, but other routes are much better:

Orlando to Salt Lake City during ski season
Orlando to Salt Lake City during ski season.
Boston to Los Angeles (a 6+ hour flight) available at Level 1 and thus upgradeable with miles.
Boston to Los Angeles (a 6+ hour flight) available at Level 1 and thus upgradeable with miles.
All three Seattle to Anchorage flights on November 18th are available for mileage upgrades.
All three Seattle to Anchorage flights on November 18 are available for mileage upgrades.

2. Last-minute flights

Booking flights only a few days prior to departure can be a stressful and expensive proposition. You may have a last-minute business meeting or need to get home for a family emergency. Delta’s relatively new Upgrade with Miles program allows you to confirm an upgrade from coach to first class by using miles to cover the difference between the prices of the two classes of service. Here’s an example of what that looks like for a flight later this week from Orlando to New York-LaGuardia:

Delta upgrade
Delta lets you redeen miles at one cent apiece to pay for your upgrade.

As you can see, the traveler has the choice of paying $89 (the difference between the main cabin and first-class tickets) or using 8,900 miles to upgrade from economy to business class. This value of 1 cent per mile is lower than TPG’s most recent valuation of 1.2 cents apiece. Still, keeping the cash in your pocket and enjoying first class on a flight that’s almost 3 hours long can be a nice way to redeem your miles.

One other important note about this upgrade system is that you must be logged into your SkyMiles account and have sufficient mileage to cover the upgrade for all passengers in the reservation. The above screenshot was taken while my wife was logged in (she has slightly more than 50,000 miles). When I search for the exact same flight through my own account (with a SkyMiles balance of just 2,099), I only get the paid upgrade option.

Screen Shot 2015-06-08 at 10.30.09 PM
At the time of writing, this itinerary in Air France Premium Economy would be upgradeable using Delta SkyMiles.

3. Premium Economy on Air France

A third sweet spot for mileage upgrades is found when you book a transatlantic premium economy ticket on Air France in either S or W class. As long as you can find availability in O class on the flight (ExpertFlyer can help with this), you can use 15,000 miles each way to upgrade to business class. Remember to use Delta’s advanced search capabilities and select “W or higher” when searching for the specific fare class.

Air France has become much stingier with releasing this inventory in advance, but cities served by the carrier’s A380 will likely offer the best bet. For example, I see several available seats in O class from Miami to Paris departing on Monday, November 23 and returning Monday, December 7. Here’s how that would break down:

  • Lowest economy fare (X): $1,173.30
  • Premium economy fare (W): $1,703.30
  • Business class fare (Z): $2,594

In this case you’re paying an extra $530 per person (plus 30,000 miles) to fly in business class. Your SkyMiles are worth 2.97 cents apiece with this redemption.

There are a few things to keep in mind:

  1. This only applies to transatlantic Air France flights.
  2. This does not apply on flights operated by the 747.
  3. Your upgrade request must be received at least 24 hours prior to departure.
Delta is again selling Medallion Qualifying Miles this year.
If you only want the lie-flat bed for a red-eye, consider combining a high-fare and low-fare ticket on a single reservation.

4. High-fare economy one-way, low-fare economy one-way

A final option for using your miles to upgrade is one I actually recommended to a friend back in 2012: Book a round-trip flight with the outbound in Y, B or M and the return in the lowest coach fare available (or vice versa). Delta.com won’t be able to price out a complicated itinerary like this, so you’ll need to call, but this way you’ll only need to pay the extremely high fare on one of the legs.

My buddy and his wife wound up flying from Atlanta to Barcelona in business class (M fare class upgraded using 25,000 miles per person) and returned from Madrid in coach (T fare class). The ticket was a few hundred dollars more per person than it would’ve been for them to book the lowest coach ticket in both directions, but it was much cheaper than having a higher-class ticket in both directions.

Bottom line

The SkyMiles program has undoubtedly lost a lot of luster over the last few years, but there’s still some solid value to gain from the program. When it comes to using miles for upgrades, the biggest obstacle is the fare class restriction for international flights. Inexplicably, I’ve even seen examples of a YBM ticket being more expensive than an outright business-class ticket, like this mid-November trip from Los Angeles to Tokyo-Narita:

A $381 premium for the "privilege" of flying in coach? No thank you!
A $381 premium for the “privilege” of flying in coach? No thank you!

Despite this lack of flexibility, hopefully this post has highlighted that not all is lost in the SkyMiles 2015 program, and if you play your cards right, you could wind up riding in style courtesy of a mileage upgrade. And the welcome bonuses currently available on the Gold Delta SkyMiles Credit Card from American Express and Platinum Delta SkyMiles Credit Card from American Express can definitely help get you closer to an upgrade.

What are your experiences with mileage upgrades on Delta?

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