Best Credit Cards for First Class Upgrades

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Best Credit Cards for First Class Upgrades

Best Credit Cards for First Class Upgrades

Is there any better feeling than being notified that your first class upgrade has cleared? Well, if you’re flying international business or first class, there certainly is. But for domestic hops, especially long ones, I never fail to feel elated when my first class upgrade clears. Having airline elite status is the primary way you can potentially enjoy a complimentary seat in first class. But there are actually a couple credit cards for first class upgrades that help your chances of snagging one.

Delta SkyMiles Reserve American Express Card

The Delta SkyMiles Reserve Amex card is the only product that can potentially get you upgraded without also holding some level of airline elite status. One of the features of the card is that is increases your upgrade priority within your Medallion tier and fare class grouping (these are the first two things considered for upgrade requests). However, general SkyMiles members will clear upgrades after all Medallion members. The official upgrade hierarchy is:

  1. Medallion Status Level
  2. Fare Class Grouping (higher classes are prioritized)
  3. Delta Reserve Amex cardholders
  4. Delta corporate travelers
  5. Card members who earned MQD waiver in the current calendar year

The card provides priority by just holding it, and additional priority if you’ve met the MWD waiver. But the main factor is still Medallion status, so if you’re a Silver Medallion Reserve cardholder like me, your chances are still low.

The likelihood of being upgraded is admittedly small, if you’re relying on just the card perk. Depending on the route, there is often fierce competition for upgrades for Medallion members. When I was a Platinum Medallion, I got upgraded into first class ~50% of the time, most often on short regional hops. Cross-country flight upgrades were rare, but I did end up with a few to/from ATL, and my older son and I cleared on MSP-SFO one trip, which was excellent.

In any case, the Delta SkyMiles Reserve Amex is one of the best cards for first class upgrades since it both gives you the ability to be upgraded as a non-elite but also increases your chances as an elite flyer.

United Cards

Unlike Delta, United does not offer complimentary upgrades for award travel, even if you’re a Premier member. The only way to enjoy complimentary first class upgrades on award travel with United is to be a United cardholder. There are a bunch of card options that will unlock this benefit, including:

The only bummer is that this benefit only applies to the cardholder/Premier member. If you have any companions on your reservation, you won’t be added to the upgrade list. Still, if you’re an upper tier United Premier member and routinely book solo award travel, a United card would be one of the best credit cards for first class upgrades.

Personally, I really dig the new United Quest card. It is an excellent intermediate product between the United Explorer card and the United Club Infinite Card. With an annual $125 United credit and two 5,000-mile rebates on award travel, it is quickly worth the $250 annual fee. Plus, it offers a bunch of other perks.

Unlike the Delta Reserve card, there is no United card that will potentially get you upgraded if you aren’t an elite already. If you’re a non-elite looking to be upgraded, you’re out of luck.

Honorable Mentions

There are a few other cards that might be useful credit cards for first class upgrades, but this is only because they help you earn elite status, not because they provide any direct benefit themselves. These include:

  • Delta Platinum Cards (personal and business) – these let you earn 10,000 bonus MQMs and a waiver of the MQD requirement if you spend $25,000 in a calendar year
  • Barclays AAdvantage Aviator Silver Mastercard – this card allows you to earn up to 10,000 EQMs (5,000 per $20,000 in spend) and 3,000 EQDs if you spend $50,000 in a calendar year
  • Citi AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard – this card allows you to earn 10,000 bonus EQMs after you spend $40,000 in a calendar year

Some United cards also let you earn additional Premier Qualifying Points through spend, which could help propel you to a higher level of elite status.

Final Thoughts on the Best Credit Cards for First Class Upgrades

If you tend to earn elite status with one or more airlines in a given year, you might want to consider any of these credit cards for first class upgrades. The benefit of helping you sit up front might be small, but just a couple more upgrades per year could make it worth it. Some of the cards also provide a wealth of additional benefits that are well worth the annual fee.

Ian Snyder
After igniting his passion for award travel while planning his honeymoon, Ian now enjoys using points and miles to see the world with his wife and three internationally adopted kiddos. He loves dissecting loyalty programs to find maximum value. His goal is to demonstrate that extraordinary travel is possible for the ordinary family.

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  1. I couldn’t find any info about complimentary upgrades for United Explorer – could you share any source/link?


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