Guide to Complimentary Upgrades on Award Tickets
Having status with one of the major airlines can provide you with quite a few perks. One of the best is obviously scoring an upgrade from cattle class to oh-so-fancy first (okay, I’m I may be overselling it). But how does this work on award ticket? Here is our guide to how complimentary upgrades on award tickets work.
Each major airline is a bit different when it comes to complimentary upgrades on award tickets. I’m going to focus on the “Big 3”, with the addition of JetBlue and Alaska. Complimentary upgrades on other airlines either aren’t possible, or they don’t offer them on awards.
Now let’s walk through the airlines one by one, starting with Delta, my personal favorite.
Complimentary Upgrades on Delta Award Tickets
Delta offers complimentary upgrades to Comfort+ and First Class products for their Medallion members. They also offer complimentary upgrades to their Delta One products within the 50 U.S. states. All fare classes (with the exception of basic economy) are eligible for complimentary upgrades, including award tickets.
Upgrades with Delta Medallion status are relatively straightforward, if often competitive. As a Platinum Medallion, I’ve gotten upgraded to first class ~50% of the time this year, typically on paid tickets, and only once on an award. Complimentary upgrades with Delta follow this hierarchy:
- Medallion status (Diamond, Platinum, Gold then Silver)
- Fare class (higher class fares have priority)
- Delta Reserve cardmembers
- Delta corporate travelers
- Card members who have earned the MQD waiver for the current year through $25,000 in Delta card spend
- Date and time of request
Complimentary upgrades on award tickets are entirely possible for the Medallion member and one companion on the same reservation. The higher Medallion status of the two members is used for the upgrade priority. For parties of 3 or more or for manually linked reservations, upgrades are processed differently.
Fare Code is Everything
But those aren’t the details I want to focus on. What matters most beyond your Medallion status is the fare code. Unfortunately, the Delta award ticket fare code is ranked lower than all the paid fare codes (with the exception of E, basic economy).
The fare code order is: B, M, H, Q, K, L, U, T, X, then V. Then award tickets. Then Pay with Miles tickets. Full-fare Y-class tickets receive instant upgrades (but also cost a fortune).
I find it odd that Pay with Miles tickets are ranked last, as you would think it would ticket into whichever paid fare code you used miles to book. But this is not how they operate.
Upgrade certificates cannot be used for award tickets, but they can be used for Pay with Miles tickets and Companion Certificate tickets.
In a nutshell, complimentary upgrades on award tickets with Delta for the Medallion member and one companion operate basically the same as paid tickets. You’re just ranked next to last on the upgrade priority, which is unfortunate. But if you’re a Diamond Medallion traveling on an award, you still get priority above all Platinum members, which is a plus.
Upgrades on United Awards
United MileagePlus members have a trickier time receiving complimentary upgrades on award tickets. United offers approximately the same coverage as Delta in terms of areas where complimentary upgrades are offered, including North America, Central America, and the Caribbean. The notable difference is that United doesn’t offer complimentary upgrades on premium transcontinental routes or long-haul Hawaii routes. They do offer upgrades on intra-Oceania flights from their Guam hub.
Unlike Delta where all elite members are eligible for complimentary upgrades on award tickets, United has one major caveat: you must be the primary cardholder of a co-branded United credit card. This is the primary thing to remember. The second is that only the Premier member is eligible for complimentary upgrades on an award ticket. You cannot upgrade a companion, which is a bummer.
As far as upgrade priority goes, you’re dead last after all paid fare classes (ineligible basic economy tickets being the exception).
If you’re traveling with a companion and wish to be upgraded on an award ticket, you must split your reservation. Otherwise, complimentary upgrades will not process. To do so, call the Premier desk.
Another thing to note is that it doesn’t matter what miles you used to book the award ticket. Contact United by phone and have them add your MileagePlus number. You will be placed on the upgrade list, as applicable. This surprised me when I booked my Turkish award to Hawaii for just 7.5k Miles & Smiles. United placed me on the upgrade list, even though I was flying a partner award.
Upgrades on American Award Tickets
American handles upgrades on award tickets even more differently. Actually, American handles paid upgrades differently than the other airlines. It took me ages to figure out what 500-Miles upgrades were and how they are handled.
For all but Concierge Key and Executive Platinum Elite members, complimentary upgrades on award tickets aren’t possible. I was bummed to learn that my remaining 500-mile certificates couldn’t be used on an award ticket. This was my one remaining itinerary as an American Gold Elite, so I’ll have a handful of stranded upgrade certificates.
Upgrades for Concierge Key and Executive Platinum members are automatically requested for all flights within North America, regardless of length. This is the same for both revenue and award tickets. You do not need to use 500-mile upgrade certificates.
However, things work differently for companions:
- If your everyone on the reservation is eligible for a complimentary upgrade, upgrades will be requested automatically on award tickets.
- As an EP or CK elite, you can upgrade one companion traveling on the same flight, whether traveling on a paid or award ticket. This should be requested automatically if they are the only other person on the reservation.
- Your companion doesn’t need to be on the same reservation. You can call American to link the reservations and manually request the upgrade.
- 500-mile certificates can’t be applied to award tickets, as they are only necessary for Gold and Platinum elites, who do not receive complimentary upgrades on award tickets.
Upgrades are processed first by elite status level, then in the following order:
- Any systemwide upgrades
- Any mileage upgrade awards
- 500-mile upgrades on paid fares
- 500-mile upgrades on award tickets
As you can see, complimentary upgrades on award tickets clear last with American. The good news is that your status still dictates the initial priority. Concierge Key members traveling on award tickets will clear upgrades before any Executive Platinum members. Upgrades for Executive Platinum members traveling on award tickets clear last among their status tier, but before Platinum Pro and lower elites.
Upgrading as an Alaska MVP Elite
Although Alaska isn’t one of the U.S. “Big 3”, they still run a similar elite and frequent flyer program as United, Delta and American. Actually, in many ways, I prefer Alaska’s program. Their lack of coverage just makes them a less-than-ideal option for the bulk of the country.
Alaska offers complimentary upgrades on both paid and award tickets for their MVP members. Upgrades for either work exactly the same way. Upgrades are cleared based on elite status (MVP Gold 75k, MVP Gold, then MVP) and then fare class.
What is interesting is that Alaska has three economy award fare classes: Z, N, and W. W is the lowest on the list, the economy saver award fare class. You are dead last in terms of upgrade priority booking these awards, although they are the best value.
N is ahead of some paid fare classes, but you will have likely paid more miles for the ticket. Refundable Main Cabin awards ticket into the Z fare class bucket, which actually qualify for immediate upgrade for MVP, MVP Gold, and MVP Gold 75k elites, making them essentially another level of first class award.
Here is the full Alaska Airlines fare class order, from highest to lowest: Y, Z, S, B, M, H, Q, L, V, N, K, G, T, R, W
If you’re an Alaska elite, book a refundable Main Cabin award to be instantly upgraded. If traveling on a non-saver (N class) economy award, you’re ahead of some booked revenue tickets (K, G, T and R fare classes). Savers awards place you last on the list.
Companion upgrades work the same on awards as on revenue fares. MVP Gold and MVP Gold 75k members can upgrade one companion on the same reservation in the same fare class. If there is more than one additional person on the reservation, you will not be eligible for upgrades.
Most elite members of the major U.S. airlines are eligible for complimentary upgrades on award tickets, the notable exception being lower-tier American elites. The exact upgrade priority, eligibility, and other details vary by carrier, but it is generally possible. Delta and Alaska are the most generous, with United and American both more restrictive.
I’ve received complimentary upgrades on award tickets with both United and Delta, and I’m going to miss this potential with elite status drops with both airlines in 2020.