Upgrades Are Getting Harder and Harder… But You Can Still Get Them If You Know How.

The Wall Street Journal covers the disappearing perk of the road warrior: upgrades are getting harder and more expensive.

There are (5) reasons this is true.

  1. Airlines are selling discounted first class fares far more than they ever used to.
  2. Airlines are making aggressive buy up offers to first class.
  3. The economy is doing better.
  4. Airlines aren’t expanding. As air travel grows, and the number of seats stays constant, there’s more demand for a dwindling number of available upgrade seats.
  5. Lots of people confirm their upgrades in advance – in part because of all the miles that are out there, and in part because of how tough the competition is.

It used to be that 100,000 mile flyers found themselves in first class nearly all the time, and even mid-tier frequent flyers found themselves in first class most of the time.

Some still do of course, it depends on the routes they fly — and when they fly them.

But there’s little question that upgrades are harder than they were 5 years ago and 10 years ago.

Delta has gone from generating revenue from 31% of first class seats in 2011 to 45% in 2014. This includes post-purchase upsells.

Still, There are Tricks to Make Sure You Can Get That Upgrade:

I still almost always clear my upgrades as an American Executive Platinum flying over 100,000 miles per year. My United 1K colleagues do not do nearly as well. Lower tier elites? Better be avoiding peak business travel routes and times if they hope to see the front cabin.

Huge kudos to Scott McCartney for getting United on the record about failing to refund the extortionate cash co-pays they charge along with miles for international upgrades when those upgrades don’t clear. (Prior to the merger with Continental, these fees were charged only when upgrade actually went through.)

United says only a “small number’’ of customers haven’t received such refunds automatically. The airline says it isn’t sure why but hopes to have the problem fixed this year.

Scott misleadingly though mentions that Delta doesn’t charge these cash co-pays, without noting that you need to buy a nearly full ‘M’ fare before being eligible to use miles to upgrade internationally at all.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

More articles by Gary Leff »


  1. @ Gary re: Delta fare class requirements — FALSE. K class and higher are eligible for domestic upgrades for 12,5000 miles (or one Regional or Global upgrade) one-way. I use this pretty much EVERY time I fly Delta transcon on a paid coach ticket. I typically pay $500 – $700 r/t, which these days really isn’t too bad (albeit higher) compared to the lowest available fares.

  2. @Gene the co-pay and M fare discussion refers to international not domestic. K has been upgradable domestically with miles and without status for ages

  3. Airlines should sell more cheaply the upgrades to economy paying flyers. Much more profitable for airlines. Cash on upgrade which opens another economy seat that can more easily be sold than business class or first class. Pandering to the elites is less profitable and has not worked as a profitable model in the past.

  4. Gary,

    While you are technically correct, I think Gene mentioned that because you have that italized section before talking about DL, many readers (myself included) may think you are talking about upgrades in general.

    I think a bit of clarification would be helpful.


  5. @KeyWestBum

    Considering how the high percentage of revenue that comes from elites, I find this to be a rather dubious claim

  6. @JakefromMSP

    I don’t think anyone doubts that elites tend to contribute a high percentage of revenue. I do, think, however, that airlines are trying to tweak their operations in ways that (a) monetize as much of the system as possible and (b) rewards people who voluntarily spend significant amounts of money with the airlines.

    If they perceive you as someone who is receiving benefits greater than the amount of business you have given them (I.e. an “elite” who got status through cheap mileage runs who is now trying to leverage that status for free upgrades into seats that could be sold to paying customers, or a business traveler who doesn’t actually have much choice b/c your travel is booked by a corporate travel agency), don’t expect them to keep handing out the freebies.

  7. Is there a way to identify which AA flights have upgrade space if you book your flight within your upgrade window?

    When I log in to search on delta.com within my upgrade window, flights with upgrade space have “upgrade available” indication. If I book one of those flights, I will receive instant upgrade confirmation.

    Does AA.com have similar feature?

  8. “3. The economy is improving.”
    LOL, Obama falsehood.

    KeyWestBum said: Pandering to the elites is less profitable and has not worked as a profitable model in the past.

    I totally agree. And special email offers for frequent flyers.

  9. I find with the airline mergers, there is less competition, so all the frequent flyer programs are doing less to incentivise flyers.

    As well, I am finding that I can often find flights in business class for just a few dollars more then coach. In fact last Christmas, it was cheaper to fly from the west coast of Canada to Cancun $800 in business, $825 in coach on United.

    American Airlines. They used to offer business class award seats to Europe. Now you must fly their partners if you want to use your award points. Even American system wide upgrades. They are hiding more of their advance upgrades (rarely see any C inventory these days on expertflyer, in fact I have not noticed any C inventory on any international route from mid February to the end of schedule)

    I predict this is the new norm. Airlines giving less to frequent flyers and far less perks to loyal flyers.

  10. There’s a surefire way of sitting near the pointy end of the plane – buy a ticket to that section. This might be a novel idea, but works all the time.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *