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What is Delta First Class Upgrade Order & What are Your Chances for a FREE Upgrade?

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Rene’s Points For Better Travel, a division of Chatterbox Entertainment, Inc. has partnered with CardRatings for our coverage of credit card products. Rene’s Points For Better Travel and CardRatings may receive a commission from card issuers. Opinions, reviews, analyses & recommendations are the author’s alone, and have not been reviewed, endorsed or approved by any of these entities. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

I want to sit in the pointy end of the jet!

We all want it, that is, to sit in the big nice 1st class / business class seat (no, C+ “fake” upgrades do not count). In fact I think if you asked most elite flyers what the one single best perk an airline can extend to you it would be “FREE” upgrades. I would argue that as a Delta Diamond Global Upgrade certs plus Sky Club membership (as well as all the other bits) are possibly as valuable as free upgrades but that is for another post.

But the shot at an upgrade is a lot harder nowadays and when you take the time to look at all the ways a 1st class seat can be snapped up it may make you reconsider if status is worth it or to at least look at what you need to do to improve your shot at the coveted 1st class seat as well as the upgrade order that Delta uses.

The first one is a “duh” but I have to include it. Simply buy the 1st class seat. This sounds stupidly simple but keep in mind Delta now allows split class of service tickets (a relatively new thing on but old news if you use This means you could buy coach outbound and 1st class on the return all on one ticket.

very cheap delta upgrade to 1st class
that is one cheap upgrade offer 😉

The next one, if you don’t like the price of the 1st class ticket, is wait until you have purchased the ticket and see what happens. There can be times Delta will, for MUCH less than the published “buy now” 1st class ticket to instantly buy an upgrade. Yes, it is crazy (and maybe immoral) but I have given up trying to understand airline fare logic.

Uh, NO – NEVER! This is crazy!

Then we have buy-up roulette. You see once you buy a ticket you can many times day by day login to your reservation and see a 1st class buy-up offer jump up and down day by day. It is totally crazy.

After all of this you may be presented with a buy-up offer at check-in online or at a Delta kiosk at the airport. Not saying it will be a good deal or value but you never know.

Next up we have the chance to upgrade with SkyMiles and let me warn you 99.99% of the time it is an utterly horrid value and you might as well have just purchased an award to begging with as it may have been cheaper. But, someone may not be smart and burn their miles this way ahead of you.

The above is a LOT of paying and paying-ish for those seats we want for “FREE” as an upgrade. But there are more that will go away before your flight if space opens up for either Global or Regional upgrade certificates that Diamonds and Platinums get and the GU can be used on any flight but RU only domestically. If the seats are not upgraded before the “window” then at the gate you are on the top of the list for the free upgrade.

So what are your chances then for the comp’ed upgrade. It goes like this, in practice.

Delta starts with the lowest flight numbers a.k.a. DL1, DL2 for example and works up the flight numbers and at:

  • Day 6 before flight Diamonds can upgrade
  • Day 5 before flight Diamonds and Platinums
  • Day 3 before flight Diamonds, Platinums and Golds
  • Day 1 before flight Diamonds, Platinums, Golds and Silvers
  • Day of flight Skyteam and SPG Crossover Rewards Platinums

You may be starting to see why it is so hard for you, depending on where you are on this long list, to score the coveted “free” upgrade. What about the last few shots.

If you have not cleared before check-in time you could still clear as Delta will continue to clear folks up to the 2-4 hour mark automatically. After that we have “gate control”. That just means it is up to the gate to process the upgrades. The can mean that an hour before flight you DO upgrade as they may need your coach seat due to coach being oversold so they “push” the upgrades sooner than at the gate just before boarding.

Now there is still one more chance for all of the above. The gate agent may bellow out that “First Class has checked-in full so please board with your current seat assignment”. Well if you do you could miss an upgrade. There could be some who have checked-in for first class but will not make the flight for some reason. The last elite standing at the gate often times scores that upgrade or what I call #TeamBoardLast.

Are we done? Nope. There is a remote chance Delta will return to “show me the money” and offer to sell an upgrade onboard but to C+ not to first class. We will see if that changes with the new PE seats.

There is one last way that can and does happen on International flights where you cannot normally get a free upgrade that is when coach is oversold and they upgrade you to Delta One rather than bump someone from the flight who was in coach and had no seat (but paid for it).

So there you are. I know many elites / readers have seen their upgrade rates sharply plummet in 2016 and the above is why. The best way to help your chances are make Diamond. Another is to hold the AMEX Delta Reserve credit card either personal or business (does not matter which) and then judicially use upgrade certs and be ready to have flexible travel plans and even be ready to SDC or same day change flights if need be to score an upgrade. Also avoid Monday mornings and Thursday nights as your shot on those days will be all but impossible.

Any question on any of this and how to score more upgrades? Please fire away in the comments section below! – René

Rene’s Points For Better Travel, a division of Chatterbox Entertainment, Inc. has partnered with CardRatings for our coverage of credit card products. Rene’s Points For Better Travel and CardRatings may receive a commission from card issuers. Opinions, reviews, analyses & recommendations are the author’s alone, and have not been reviewed, endorsed or approved by any of these entities. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Responses are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

René de Lambert is a contributing writer and the founder of RenesPoints. He is an avid Delta and SkyTeam flyer who has held Delta’s top Diamond Medallion status for many years and flown millions of miles.


  1. I think that I will join the #teamboardlast effort..

    Still waiting for that Run with you… before I moved to beautiful Florida we lived in St. Joseph, Mi.. The only mall that was close was University Mall in Southbend and many drives to other airports due to the cost savings. My wife hated the area, the weather, etc and hence I moved us to here where she is in heaven…

  2. Rene,
    You raise an important issue. You mentioned that

    “If you have not cleared before check-in time you could still clear as Delta will continue to clear folks up to the 2-4 hour mark automatically”.

    Does Delta discriminate(for lack of a better word) to those Medallions who purposely do NOT check in until at the airport even though you are 99.9% sure that you will make that particular segment in that “2-4 hour mark”? I am interested to see your response, I can’t recall in 10+ years that Delta ever upgraded me “2-4 hours” before the flight.

    Thanks in advance.

    • @John – I got BLASTED a few years ago, after a Delta CORP representative told me directly, that check-in DOES impact upgrades. After that, I always check in at the 24 hour mark every time just to be safe. Maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t but my upgrades this year are quite good so…

  3. As a DM and Amex Delta Reserve holder Inhave only mises one upgrade in 150 flights this year. It was a late reservation to Boston from Atl and All I could get was a main middle. I can say that the upgrades are indeed the most valuable benefit.

    I do believe early check in affects upgrade processing. There are a lot people at DM/Amex Reserve and high fare classes so the lower tie breakers do affect outcomes.

    A close second as you mention are the GUC and sky club. We need to be able to get more GUC’s. Id pay miles to get more of these or use two choice awards for double certs. I just ran out and now have to wait until I spend 25k on my card to get more in Jan or Feb.

    And a note on GUC’s in CDG. You used to need to go to the special Delta window to process upgrades because Air France just didn’t do it. About 4 months ago, AF has started processing everything just like in the US, so apply your cert, get waitlisted and it will clear at the gate normally now.

    Great blog, has helped me take a lot of hassle out of travel.

  4. GM (used to be PM until a couple of MLOAs the last two summers) here in a city with a lot of DM and PM. I generally book exit row seating and hope for an occasional upgrade, I just experienced my first “sidegrade” to C+ middle seat. By the time I was notified and got on the Delta website to change the seats back, they were not available. I called the elite medallion phone line and politely explained that I had no appreciation for this specific sidegrade nor an intent to be in a middle seat as I am a big guy … not morbidly huge but big. Never got into C+, lost my preferred seating and got beat up on an aisle seat during boarding as we all have tendency to experience. Not a happy camper, BTW … my connection from DTW to RDU was delayed an hour and how does my luggage not make a delayed connection? I carry electronics and training materials in my checked luggage and getting the suitcase just before midnight caused embarrassment and a delay in our training schedule.

  5. I thought DMs who missed the day 6 early UG had to wait at the gate to be upgraded. I’ve been totally confused by upgrades that cleared at day 5, 3, 1. Now I get it. René, thanks for the explanation.

  6. I imagine VS Gold and other DL non-skyteam partners are all day of flight?

  7. I would add that as a PM I can clear as early as 6 days before departure at 5PM. DL says five days, but in reality it is six.

  8. Johnathan Hunt Reply

    Rene, I have 2 questions hoping to get clarification on. I will be PM this coming year so just to be clear.
    1. As a PM, 5 days before departure I can request an upgrade and if a seat is open I am guaranteed the upgrade or only considered?
    2. That upgrade does not require the RUC correct?
    3. When using an RUC and a seat is available you immediately get upgraded and the cert is used or you only only put at the top of the upgrade queue?

    • @Johnathan – You should request 1st class upgrade before the 5 day window for best shot (I think everyone does and if not should). You are not guaranteed anything. If, depending on MANY factors including fare class and if you have the Delta Reserve card etc, you are top on that list you may clear at 5 day window. If not you may have to wait for 3 or 1 or day of or at gate. No you do not need a RU cert unless you are talking the tanscon jfk-lax/sfo route. If RU space is open you can instantly clear at any time yes. If not, only at the 24 window ie once check-in begins to you shoot to the top of the UG list. Before that you are needed RU space to open up from REV MGT.

      • Johnathan Hunt Reply

        thank you for the response – that helps tremendously.

  9. You mentioned holding the Delta Reserve Card. Does that card need to be used to purchase the ticket, or will having it in your profile suffice to move one up the UG list? Thanks.

  10. Thanks for the quick response! Always love reading what you have to say about travel!

  11. Purchased ticket in C+ (W) class, then later called to inquire about upgrading to First using miles. Agent looked at the reservation and said that even though I am in W class, the ticket is really an X fare and therefore ineligible for mileage upgrades.
    Big question: Does Delta also use this methodology for clearing upgrades to First? If a W ticket could be any fare class from X to Y you don’t know where you may end up on the upgrade priority list since you only see W and not the actual fare you are buying?
    Thanks for your thoughts on this one!

  12. Philip Guthrie Reply

    Here is my problem with the “earned upgrade” as a Diamond member. I am HOPING to get upgraded on my vacation to South Africa, after purchasing Business Class Travel throughout the year for working making Diamond Status this year. I was informed by a number of Delta employees that my chances were better on shorter international flights, as Delta likes to hold back the seats to maximize their revenue. While I DO understand that business model, I cant help but fell a bit duped by the fine folks at Delta that dangle a carrot out in front of you in hopes that you will continue to do business with them and have a little reward, as a “Thank you for doing business with us”. I had to purchase a higher coach ticket, only for a CHANCE at getting upgraded. I could have saved money by buying a cheaper coach ticket from the beginning. I was told that the reward certificates would go back into my account for a future trip, if I was not able to get upgraded. But thats when my vacation is and my only opportunity to use the upgrades. Thanks for NOTHING Delta. Now do me another favor and stop asking for my “valued opinion” via surveys when you don’t reply to an email by your “valued customer” when it’s something that you don’t care to hear. I DO enjoy flying Delta, but am keeping my options open in the coming year. Is there a global carrier in the States that truly wants and VALUES their customers?

    • @Philip – Delta in 2018 is WFBF vs loyalty reward. If you think it is bad now??? Just wait till MR. HAM SANDWICH runs $DAL. That day I end my blog! #NotKidding!

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