Why Is It So Hard to Upgrade Internationally on Delta?

Delta is tough for international upgrades. They can be tough for domestic ones too, now that they’re monetizing 58% of their forward cabin premium seats.

Though they’ve gotten more generous with top tier elites the past couple of years offering confirmed upgrade certificates from any fare (which they didn’t used to do, and lagged both United and American with their international elite upgrade benefit as a result), they’re still pretty tough.

Delta Boeing 777 Herringbone Business Class

  • Delta’s mileage upgrade costs are astronomical (and not available on the cheapest fares). US – Southeast Asia runs 230,000 miles roundtrip (!!!) and you have to buy a K- fare or above so you’re spending more cash, too.
  • Upgrade space can be very tough to come by.
  • Delta blocks third party sites from seeing their upgrade space, making it difficult for you to find yourself.

Reader Bruce asks,

I am planning a trip from Fort Lauderdale to Singapore in February.

…I called Delta to ask about global upgrade availability. Answer: nothing available on my desired dates. How about nearby dates, like up to a week in either direction? Nope. OK, just for fun, see if you can find upgradeable space available on ANY flights from Ft. Lauderdale to Singapore, any routing, any date starting [in February] and continuing to end of schedule (mid-September)? Nope no upgradeable space on any date. OK, try Miami. Nothing. New York? Nothing.

This is simply infuriating. Why give us these upgrades and make them impossible to book? I know I can buy the ticket and be put on the standby list for upgrades, but I really didn’t want to play the game that way.

Any thoughts?

Singapore is a long way from Tokyo Narita (7 hours!) but let’s say in theory what you care about most is upgrading the transpacific portion of the journey. You want to start just searching for upgradable space on the transpacific portion only.

If you’re asking the agent for space ‘from Miami’ (or Ft. Lauderdale) it could be a given domestic flight that’s causing the agent to say nothing is available.

And Delta doesn’t have that many flights in and out of Singapore, if memory serves it is just one daily Boeing 767 a day from Tokyo Narita. So asking for the trip from origin to destination is really limiting. If the intra-Asia flight isn’t available, they will say nothing is available. Tokyo – Singapore is a long flight, but you’re going to want to at least confirm the segment to Tokyo and then hope for the upgrade onward to Singapore.

Since you’re going to connect in Tokyo, ask about each of Delta’s Tokyo routes separately. And ask only about the US-Tokyo flight. Delta serves Tokyo from:

  • New York JFK
  • Atlanta
  • Detroit
  • New York JFK
  • Los Angeles
  • Portland
  • Seattle
  • Minneapolis

It’s really tough searching for upgrade space on Delta, not just because they don’t offer very much of it, but also because they make it impossible for you to search yourself on a site like Expertflyer.

You’re stuck calling, and in my experience Delta agents are the least knowledgeable of any major US airline call center agents. At least you’re not asking about partner airlines (Delta agents may not know who their partners are, let alone what booking class to search for). Still, it’s a good practice to hang up and call back (the most important advice in all of travel) when you don’t get the answer you’re looking for and you can’t search it yourself. Get told no at least three times before believing it.

Delta Business Class Desserts

If you do want to do some queries yourself, search Delta’s award calendar for a ‘level 1’ or saver business class award seat, and you’re far more likely to find confirmed upgrade space available.

And if you can’t find anything upgradeable to Tokyo to connect to Delta’s Singapore flight, you can try another destination in Asia — Shanghai, for instance, to connect to China Eastern (where you won’t get upgraded for Shanghai – Singapore).

Or perhaps there’s upgrade space to Tokyo but not to Singapore, look for Delta’s Tokyo – Bangkok flight. It’ll mean an extra connection, but you could buy the two hour Bangkok – Singapore flight separately.

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 Ā»

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  1. Confirmed upgrades aren’t a walk in the park on any airline that I’ve seen. I would love to hear United Revenue Management’s explanation for how they open up R fares — many routes don’t get them in advance at all, and others have 9+ open on what seem to be arbitrary days. It defies logic — unless the logic is to make GPUs hard to use (which may well be the case).

    Look at SFO-ICN, for example, which operates daily on a 747. Overall inventory on this route is oversupplied, and J cabin sometimes flies half-empty even after upgrades are processed. This makes it a great hub to Asia if you really want a confirmed upgrade… but availability is still this strange mix of 9+ and 0.

    The best bet I’ve found is just to do your research on capacity levels by day of the week, travel to a location with multiple routing options, watch inventory, and take advantage of free same day changes to move to the route with the best chance of upgrade. Kinda a pain when you already have to gamble ~$600 or more on the W fare, but it usually works for me.

  2. I recently flew JFK > NRT > SIN on Business, using my global upgrades.

    I paid $750 for an economy seat flight, leaving JFK on Tuesday, and leaving Singapore on a Monday. I applied my global upgrade vouchers right after making the reservation, but the agents couldn’t confirm an upgrade because they were still trying to sell the seats. I was placed on a waitlist, and I didn’t clear until I was at the gate morning of (talk about nervewracking).

    Going back to JFK, my upgrades cleared 24 hours prior. Just ask Delta to put you on the waitlist, and fingers crossed your upgrade certificates will clear prior to takeoff.

  3. It’s just posible that Delta don’t feel the (financial) need to fill the premium cabins with upgrades, which would probabley enhance the premium experience fro those who pay cash to be in said cabin.
    If your sole reason for flying Delta is for points/miles/ upgrades then your’re probably flying the wrong airline.
    If you’re flying Delta due to their service, schedule, etc then themiles are an added bonus, even if reward availability is limited.

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