The days of chatting up the gate agent for a first-class upgrade are over. Now, airline upgrades and seat assignments are managed by algorithm, and only a few seats are assigned by the gate agent — and mostly, they’re basic fare middle seats. 

So don’t arrive at the airport hoping to fly in first with a complimentary upgrade. Getting the upgrade takes strategy and planning, but once you get it down you can be sipping bubbly before takeoff on the regular. 

I’ve been a Delta loyalist for a decade and am nearing a million miles, which, ironically, is not a lot. However, I regularly find myself upgraded to first class, and almost always sit in Comfort+. Here is what I’ve learned, and these tips apply to most other airlines with loyalty programs, too.

First Things First: Start Earning Status

Delta First class with kids
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Status matters. Join the loyalty program and start your journey to frequent flier status. You can get to a higher status faster by buying more expensive tickets or upgrading your existing ticket yourself. 

A few years ago I realized I was within reach of Platinum but had less than 30 days to make it and only a few more trips for the year—not enough to make Platinum. So, I paid to upgrade my employer-purchased tickets to first class which doubled the value of my ticket. Before long I got that “Welcome” letter from Delta and it was joyous. 

Another key part to gaining status is to plan most or all of your travel on your preferred airline. This may mean changing planes, but it can be worthwhile, since once you gain status the airline wants to take good care of you if there’s a travel disruption or other issue. 

Delta’s status strata are Silver, Gold, Platinum, and Diamond. And then, there’s Delta 360, the most elite level reserved for travelers who buy a lot of first-class tickets, fly last minute, and are very spendy. Delta won’t say what the criteria are for entering that circle of status, but I’ve heard people say they’ve spent upwards of $100,000 a year on tickets and still not made the cut. 

Look Closely at Loyalty Membership Rules and Benefits

Flying in Delta Business Class
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This is a good thing to consider before dedicating all your travel to one airline. How flexible is the plan? How do benefits compare one airline to another? Does the airline offer convenient flights to the places you go most, or plan to go? Do their benefits transfer to their partner airlines for international travel? And then most importantly, what are the rules for upgrades, and do they differ by status class? 

Last year Delta rewrote the Skymiles rules governing how status is earned: it’s all about how much you spend, not how much you fly; they call this Medallion Qualifying Dollars, or MQD. So even if you fly a lot, if you always book cheap tickets or basic economy tickets that don’t count toward MQD, it may be difficult to reach status, though there are workarounds; using Delta branded credit cards can get you to status.

Keep in mind that all tickets are created equal. Some airlines won’t give you credit for tickets booked by 3rd parties such as travel agents or aggregators— thankfully Delta is not among them. But if you rely on travel agents or your company’s travel department for your bookings, make sure your preferred airline gives you due credit.

Completely Fill Out Your Profile

Flying Delta first class overseas
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This lets the airline know how to treat you when, and even before, you reach status. If you like aisle seats, they’ll try to seat you there. Add your passport information, known traveler number, and more and they’ll add those details to your tickets. You can also check the “Upgrade requested” box and once you qualify, you’ll automatically be upgraded when you meet the criteria. 

Get the Credit Card

How to get an upgrade on Delta
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Purchases contribute both to miles earned that you can use for travel as well as toward Delta’s MQDs. Most airlines have a separate set of perks for cardholders, including upgrades and a faster path to status. 

For Delta, though, the quicker path to status is expensive: While the Delta Reserve American Express card ($650 a year) gives cardholders a $2,500 bonus toward status, the required annual MQD spend to reach Diamond is $28,000. Reserve card members earn $1 toward MQD per $10 spent, but that would mean spending $280,000 to get to Diamond, a tough threshold for most travelers. However, the contribution is incremental, so if you spend $50,000 on the card, you’ll only have to spend $20,500 on tickets to make Diamond status.

Delta Platinum American Express card holders ($350 a year) also get the $2,500 bonus, but only earn $1 per $20 spent toward Medallion Qualifying Dollars. 

Airline-branded cards give you more perks on your chosen airline. For instance, Delta card holders can book mileage reward tickets at a 15% discount, and that applies to first class, too. Non-branded cards may allow you to book a first-class ticket using miles, but won’t deliver the perks that the airline’s card will.

Specifically, Know the Upgrade Rules 

first class on Delta
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Once you qualify for upgrades, watch them like a hawk. On Delta’s app, you can see the empty seats on your flight and once you’ve checked in, you can see where you are on the upgrade list. 

And, with different levels of status, you can upgrade yourself when seats are available before the flight. Delta Gold members can upgrade to Comfort+ or first class for free within 3 days of departure. Mark your calendar to check for upgradable seats 72 hours before your scheduled departure, and then, tap the seat you want if it’s open. Delta’s rules still may not allow you to choose that seat, if for example, there are a lot of people shopping that flight, passengers with higher status who haven’t been upgraded yet or they have reason to believe those seats will sell out.

Delta Platinum and Diamond passengers can upgrade to first class within 5 days of departure. Again, mark your calendar and if a seat is open, tap it to upgrade yourself. 

Hoard Upgrade Certificates 

flying internationally with kids
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But use them, they expire. These are part of the set of perks offered to Platinum and Diamond members as a thank-you for your loyalty. Upgrades are classified as regional or global and upgrade you to first class if a seat is available, even in Delta One. Keep in mind these cannot be used to upgrade a basic economy ticket. 

When using an upgrade certificate you have to call the airline to apply it; I’ve gotten different answers — some agents have said I would not likely get the seat and yet others, were able to fully upgrade my seat while we were on the phone. Once you’ve elected to use a certificate you’ll need to check in at the airport to get your boarding pass, or, call the Delta line to have them check you in so your boarding pass shows up on your app. I’m not sure why this is, and it can be uneven but still it’s a great perk. I used global upgrades recently for a very long European flight and was even upgraded on Delta’s partner airline flights. It was lovely. 

The Flight You Book Matters

1st class on Delta
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Pick a flight with the most first-class seats, not just the most available when you book your ticket. It’s just math: 20 first-class seats means the cabin will accommodate more passengers. Also, shorter flights tend to have fewer paying first class passengers and therefore more upgrades, as do mid-day, end of day and weekend flights. 

Flights in and out of major hubs or business cities like New York and Detroit means there are probably both more paying first-class fliers and more passengers with higher status. Newer planes and those with more seats are likely to have a more comfortable first-class cabin. 

Also, keep in mind that flights less than two hours and 900 miles on Delta don’t have food service in first class, but the drinks are still free.  

When I fly to Europe I look at the different route options for both the best price and the most open first class seats. Even if I use an upgrade certificate, the seat has to be open for me to snag it. 

Learn to Read the Upgrade List Once You Check In

Delta One
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The upgrade list will show you where you stand on the list for both Comfort+ and first, and once you learn to read it, you can typically predict if you’ll get an upgrade or not and move your seat if you simply want a better view. It’s safe to assume that some or all of the people at the top of the first class upgrade list are already seated in Comfort+ (their name will be on that list if they’re not). If they get upgraded, they then vacate a Comfort+ seat. So, if there are two seats in first and two in comfort, there are really four in Comfort+. If you’re 3rd on the list for Comfort+, you’ll likely get an upgrade, though there can be other priorities such as a passenger with a guide dog or a broken leg who get assigned to that seat. 

I’ve used this strategy in the past to move my Comfort+ seat from an aisle to a window; I asked the gate agent to move me when the upgrades were assigned and always they’ve been happy to oblige. 

Onboard upgrades are generally not a thing either. In fact, if a ticketed passenger is a no-show and there’s an upgrade to be given, the gate agent will usually come on board to deliver the good news. 

And this is good news. More than a few times I’ve had the gate agent come back to my row and offer me a first class seat just before takeoff. I’m always surprised at how many people don’t make the flight! But I guess that’s the delight of being a paying first class flier; your ticket is fully refundable and schedules are more of a suggestion than a rule. 

A Couple of Other Things to Consider

Delta Business Class
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Upgrades are algorithmic. Even though you have top status and your ticket was expensive, the person ahead of you on the upgrade list may have spent more that year, hold more Delta credit cards or have a higher lifetime status and therefore, get the upgrade. And when all things are equal, get in line first. I was once on a flight with a group and most qualified for first class upgrades, though there were only a few seats. Those who put in upgrade certificate requests first or paid for the upgrade got the seats.

Getting an upgrade can be tricky, but there is also a sure way: Buy the upgrade. Paying customers always come first, so you can upgrade your ticket using miles or cash and you will be placed ahead of passengers hoping to get lucky or use a certificate. 

And, paid upgrades can be very reasonable. Keep an eye on your upgrade options before your flight and watch how much the upgrade costs. I’ve actually upgraded to first for $20 in the past! Hard to believe, but the airlines really do want you sitting in those seats. Once you do you’ll always want to return.