My First Experience With Delta’s First Class Buy-Up Offers

Filed Under: Delta

It’s no secret that US airlines are doing more than ever before to try and sell their first class seats rather than offer “free” upgrades. There are different strategies they use to accomplish this, though the main two are offering more attractive first class pricing in advance, and also offering buy-up options after people have booked their tickets.

As far as the “big three” US carriers go, Delta is in the lead when it comes to the percentage of first class seats they sell. For example, in 2011 they claim they only sold 14% of their first class seats, while by next year they hope to sell 70% of those seats. That means over the course of seven years they’re selling 5x as many first class seats.

There are big implications of this for elite members — it means that the percent of seats available to those upgrading is decreasing from 86% to 30%.

So not only does Delta pretty consistently have reasonable first class fares in advance, but they’re also known for their buy-up offers after booking. I was just offered a buy-up for the first time since switching some travel to Delta, and wanted to share my experience.

I find this especially interesting because I’ve been loyal to American for so long, and of the “big three” US airlines, they’re the only one that doesn’t aggressively sell first class upgrade to those who are booked more than 24 hours in advance. Typically American’s buy-up offers are simply them charging you the difference between the cost of the ticket you booked and the cost of first class.

My Delta first class upgrade offer

I’m completing a Platinum Medallion challenge so wanted to earn as many miles as possible for a ticket from Los Angeles to Chicago. Delta lets you route via Seattle, which is the most elite qualifying miles you can earn between the two cities. On top of that, I also figured that gave me better upgrade odds than routing through Atlanta or Detroit.

The fare was great — I paid $141 for economy, which was $20 more than basic economy. In this case I figured paying for first class wasn’t worth it, as it was ~3.5x as much.

However, a couple of days after booking I logged into my reservation and saw an option to “upgrade to first class” for $288. If I purchased the upgrade I’d be paying a total of $429 for first class, which is already ~$80 cheaper than what they were trying to sell it to me for before.

Keep in mind that if you pay to upgrade on Delta you’ll earn both Medallion Qualifying Dollars and Medallion Qualifying Miles for the upgrade cost, so it’s like you outright paid for first class.

But there’s one other thing that made this unique. You could actually pay to upgrade just one of the segments at a reasonable cost — I could upgrade the flight from Los Angeles to Seattle for $145, upgrade the Seattle to Chicago flight for $157, or upgrade both for $288, which represents savings of $14 compared to buying the upgrades separately.

This presents an interesting option. I think the Los Angeles to Seattle flight is a slam dunk upgrade, while I’m not sure my Seattle to Chicago flight would otherwise clear. So if my prediction is right, I could basically be paying the original $140 ticket cost plus a further $157 to get first class the whole way through, which is a pretty reasonable.

I ended up paying for the upgrade, but not for that reason.

Why I purchased a Delta first class upgrade

I decided to upgrade on the Seattle to Chicago flight. While I don’t think my upgrade would have cleared otherwise, I would have chanced it. But I had an ulterior motive. I’m completing a Delta Platinum status challenge, which requires earning 18,750 MQMs in 90 days. As it stands I have the following booked (or already earned) during the period:

  • 11,890 MQMs for flying paid Xiamen Air business class from Los Angeles to Chengdu via Xiamen (you only earn MQMs based on 75% of the flown distance)
  • 3,712 MQMs for flying paid Delta business class from New York to Los Angeles (Delta doesn’t offer free upgrades in the market, and I’m curious to compare the service to other airlines, as I found a decent fare)
  • 2,675 MQMs for flying economy from Los Angeles to Seattle to Chicago

When you add that up, that gets me to 18,277 MQMs, which is just under 500 MQMs short of completing the challenge. By paying to upgrade my Seattle to Chicago flight I’ll earn an extra 860 MQMs (since I’m in paid first class rather than economy), which means I complete the challenge.

Sure, there’s a chance I could have otherwise taken another Delta flight during the challenge period, but I figured it was worth it for a combination of finishing the challenge and also securing a first class seat.

Bottom line

I’ve gotta give Delta revenue management credit. They’re smart. Not only do I find that they consistently charge the most reasonable premiums for first class over economy, but apparently they’re just as good about maximizing revenue after booking. They offer actual discounted upgrades after booking, and even let you upgrade just certain segments.

To Delta flyers, what has your experience been with Delta’s paid upgrade offerings?

  1. How often do they offer this? I’ve noticed it pretty frequently on United where if I ever wanted to buy first class I’d first try and buy coach and get the cheaper upgrade after. And if it’s not offered I can just make use of 24 hour cancel window and buy the first class ticket. I’m curious if it’s often booked into a different fare class though, thus yielding less miles than buying the original first class ticket outright.

  2. My experience with Delta is that the buy-up offer presented immediately before the ticket is purchased is always cheaper than the buy-up offers after the ticket is purchased. The challenge is, of course, taking that risk before you hit ‘Purchase’!!! Consistently, and I fly a lot on Delta so seen it often enough to have a trend, the price after purchase is higher.

  3. Just a thought … don’t know which JFK-LAX frequency you booked, but the best paid business class fares are often only available on odd times of day — but if you have a paid premium cabin domestic fare on Delta, you can also do a same day change to any other flight that day with an open business class seat, even if not in the same fare class (as is required to confirm a same day change in coach).

    This could be particularly interesting since there is at least one daily A330 frequency in the JFK-LAX market, so if you’re currently booked on a less appealing aircraft (especially the 767) , it could be a more comfortable flight and a review of a seat you haven’t otherwise already flown. Unfortunately the Delta A330 reverse herringbone seat definitely isn’t as nice as the CX/AA version, but it’s better than the 767.

  4. There are big implications of this for elite members — it means that the percent of seats available to those upgrading is decreasing from 86% to 30%.

    That is given that the number of First Class seats offered are at the same level. I thought the new aircrafts being introduced, in general held less First class seating, that would lower the ratio? Of course the Trans-cons offering full three class would alter this impact. And than again Delta is not in the “driver”-seat of renewing their domestic fleet?

  5. I’m EXP on AA, and I do wish they had a purchased upgrade program like DL and UA. My company requires that I purchase coach for domestic flights, so a purchased upgrade offer at time of ticketing isn’t much use to me. But there are times where I would most definitely purchase a reasonably priced upgrade after ticket purchase or at check-in, especially on routes where I think its unlikely that my EXP upgrade will clear.

  6. It’s a good idea but it has a fundamental flaw. You can only upgrade your next flight with the buyer up offer.

    Imagine that you have a flight this weekend that is in paid first class. The system is not designed to allow you to do a buy up offering for your flight next week until your flight this weekend already clears.

    The second floor, is that they do not always allow you to upgrade from basic economy.

    Revenue management does everything they can to make the price unpredictable. I have seen the price fluctuate as much as 200% over the course of a day. It’s a nice feature, but too unpredictable.

    The other downside, so I’ve observed personally on a flight, is that if there is an equipment change or swap, the person who did the buy-up will be the first one downgraded.

  7. I did a paid upgrade on a flight I took last night, but it wasn’t reflected in my MQMs or MQDs. I only received MQDs and MQMs for the original Main Cabin ticket I purchased. I contacted Delta about this but it’s slightly concerning, especially seeing the opposite confirmed in this post and on

  8. They offer this on every flight I take and I hate it. I fly on government business so the only way I’m getting first is through an upgrade and they are tougher every year.

  9. UA doesn’t give you the miles flown in Business when you pay to upgrade from prem eco. I find this unacceptable I just got back from AMS and paid $829 to upgrade to Business and I get no credit either in miles or dollars toward elite status.. Just another example of Uniteds bend over policy regarding their frequent flyers and I’m a Gold you’d think they’d want to keep me. I find though that just the opposite is true they could care less…

  10. I recently took the American Airlines upgrade to First Class for $180.00. It was the red eye from San Diego to Chicago O’Hare. I will say this, the service was so poor, I had to place two complaints with American Airlines outlining 6 points of why I was disappointed with their first class service. It was the first time ever that I did not have a flight attendant acknowledge me nor give me a cocktail when I boarded after I seated myself. There was no food offered, I was not offered a water before we landed, overall just poor service from A.A. Red eye flight or not I don’t think any airline should skimp on their First Class service. Basically I don’t feel it was worth the $180.00 dollars. I am happy that American Airlines refunded $150.00 of the $180.00. ($50.00 from the A.A customer complaint page and $100.00 from the A.A. executive complaint team). I will state that I will think twice about upgrading to First Class on certain domestic flights.

  11. @Alex I’ve never had a problem with the paid upgrade being correctly reflected in my MQMs/MQDs …. BUT it does show up differently than the rest of the booked travel. You end up with one line item for your segment, one line item called “Seat Upgrade: Mileage and MQD Accrual” and one line item for any other segments in your trip that you didn’t upgrade. For example, I flew SEA->MSP->OMA->SLC->SEA recently. I’m a Diamond and in my experience, I always get a complimentary upgrade on those segments except SEA->MSP, which is about 50:50 shot. So, I bought an upgrade for that leg. I got the following entries in my recent sky miles activity:

    SEA->MSP: with appropriate miles for my original ticket
    Seat Upgrade: with appropriate miles for my upgrade
    MSP->OMA->SLC-SEA: with appropriate miles for my original ticket

    @Lucky I love the fact that I can now buy an upgrade for just the segments I want to. I routinely buy upgrades for SEA->MSP and SEA->ATL, but not for much else. It works out quite nicely.


  12. @Gregg
    Not sure if this is helpful or not but I have the same issue with my company. However, recently I’ve learned it’s acceptable to purchase refundable tickets as we often have to alter or cancel itineraries. Typically on AA the price of a refundable Y is usually only nominally different than the price of regular non-refundable business. If I know I won’t have to alter travel plans I purchase the full Y, call AA, ask them if they’ll alter my class of service to J and request the $200 change-fee waived. I’ve never had an issue with the change fee being waived if I’m ending up spending more (usually $40-$100) for the RT to upgrade to business.

  13. I’ve also found that calling Delta directly and asking for the upgrade cost is often less than the upgrade cost listed on the website or app. Worth the time to talk.

  14. I use the discount upgrades as mini mileage runs. I fly a lot for work so the base fare is already paid. I don’t mind shelling out $168 (RT) each week for some extra MQMs and comfort. Now I’ll hit platinum with room to spare to get some rollover. And I won’t have to do crazy last minute MQM runs. Saving myself major flying time, $$ and precious weekends/holidays.

    Win win for me. Platinum will come in handy with the waived reward redeposit, since i have a ton or reward trips planned for next year.

    @Alex the 1st time I bought the upgrade that happened to me as well. A quick message to them on twitter and it was fixed the next day.

  15. Lucky: I hope that you will let us know if DL credited you for having flown First Class after you bought an upgrade…in my experience this has never been the case (which was always very disappointing to me after long haul International flights).

  16. The upgrades don’t always give you the full MQMs of booking a first class ticket. Delta offers 150% MQMs for first/business class discount fares, and 200% MQMs for first/business class full fares (flexible). But upgrading from economy to first class has not given me any MQM bonus (although the MQD still applied for the upgrade cost).

    I contacted Delta about this, and was told:
    “The bonus Mqm’s are only credited when the ticket is bought in a
    business/first class fare from the beginning. E-first upgrades are not
    eligible for the bonus Mqm’s. Sorry for the inconvenience.”

    The original ticket was class T. I’ve had this a couple times now, but never bothered following up with support again. Seemed like they were being cheap bastards on it though..

  17. I agree with CJ Kurk that in many cases AA upgrades are not worth of spending extra money on. For some reasons, I find the new F seats on 737 very uncomfortable on long flights and not much different vs. Y. There is no service on AA redeyes. Even when do serve food on domestic F flights it is just pathetic…

  18. As a KLM regular it’s interesting to see you earn miles on Delta (a KLM partner) for the paid offer upgrade, on KLM I am often offered paid upgrade deals on an economy ticket but (sob sob) there’s no miles earned on the upgrade. Which is crazy because everything else I spend with the airline – flights, hotels, even buying something on board, earns miles. I guess I could book KLM flights through Delta?

  19. As a Diamond, I hate it for obvious reasons. Couple that with Delta’s romancing of the media and I have tried out other airlines. Surprisingly pleased with AA service, and like refund policy at Southwest.

  20. @straver if you are referring to the paid upgrades that they offer, then Delta rep who told you that either was not knowledgeable or flat out lied…..

    And yes you are correct most (if not all times) you are upgraded into a discount first class fare group/class. Mine has been Fare Class G so far which gives you 150% MQMs.

    Taken from terms right before checking out and paying for seats.
    ” Upgraded tickets are eligible for additional mileage, MQM, and MQD accruals due to the selection of Delta Comfort+ TM or First/Delta One and associated fare classes, and the increase in base fare or carrier imposed surcharges paid in connection with your upgrade. ”

    I have always gotten the extra miles, MQDs and MQMs from my upgrades.

    @Jan Moester – had a flight on Monday and I was credited the correct MQMs, additional mileage and MQDs automatically.

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