Best uses for Delta’s Regional Upgrade Certificates

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Delta’s Regional Upgrade Certificates have become more and more valuable over time.  Unlike when they debuted, they can now be used to upgrade flights booked with companion certificates; to upgrade award tickets; to upgrade any flight within the U.S. 50 states, Canada, Mexico, Caribbean, and Central America (even those with Delta One lie-flat seats).  Further, when logged in as a Delta Platinum or Diamond elite member, Delta now shows which flights have upgrades available when searching online.

Delta One seats on Delta’s Airbus A330 aircraft. While Delta doesn’t usually fly these regularly on qualifying routes, you may get lucky. For example, Delta is currently flying the A330 on the Atlanta to Honolulu route.

Overview of regional upgrade certificates

Regional Upgrade Certificates (RUCs) are an optional Choice Benefit available to those who earn Platinum elite status, and then again for those who earn Diamond elite status.  Platinum elites can choose 4 RUCs.  Diamond elites can choose either Global Upgrade Certificates (GUCs) or more RUCs or a combination of the two.

Here are the basics you need to know about using RUCs:

  • Once you select upgrade certificates as your Choice Benefit, you have one year to use them (that means that the flight must take-off within a year — it’s not enough just to book within a year for a future flight).
  • RUCs can be used to upgrade from main cabin economy to Comfort+ (not recommended since Comfort+ is just barely better than main cabin in my opinion), First Class, or Delta One.  First Class is where you get a bigger and nicer seat up-front.  Delta One seats are much more premium and usually feature lie-flat seats.
  • You cannot apply upgrades to basic economy bookings.
  • A single RUC can be used to upgrade an entire one-way journey even if it includes multiple segments.  Alternatively, based on availability, it’s possible to upgrade some segments but not all.
  • Upgrades can be applied immediately after purchasing a flight with cash or miles.
  • When logged into Delta.com as a Platinum or Diamond elite, Delta now shows upgrade certificate availability in the search results.  This feature is not yet available on Delta’s mobile app.
  • You must contact Delta to apply your upgrades — you cannot do it yourself online.
  • If an upgrade is not available, Delta can add you to the waitlist.
    • If an upgrade becomes available before your flight, you should be automatically upgraded (Note: this has never happened to me with regional upgrade certificates, so don’t hold your breath)
    • If your upgrade doesn’t clear before check-in, you will be added to the airport upgrade standby list, as usual, but you’ll be higher on the list: Upgrade certificates clear the airport standby list before complimentary upgrades.

Which routes qualify?

This map, courtesy of FlightConnections, shows Delta routes that qualify for regional upgrade certificates.

Delta provides complete details, but here’s a quick summary:

  • RUCs can be applied to all Delta flights within the U.S. 50 states, Canada, Mexico, Caribbean, Bermuda, and Central America.  This is true regardless of whether Delta is flying a jet with regional First Class or the much more premium Delta One lie-flat seats.  This expansive list of eligible flights and destinations was a surprise to me as I thought that only west-coast flights to/from Hawaii qualified.  Fortunately, a reader going by DiscoPapa corrected me and inspired this post overall.
  • RUCs can also be applied on Delta flights from/to northern South America (Columbia, Ecuador, Peru, Venezuela), but for First Class only (i.e. not on jets featuring Delta One seating).
  • RUCs can also be applied to AeroMexico flights as follows: all intra-Mexico Aeromexico flights, as well as Aeromexico flights between Mexico and the U.S., Central America, Caribbean, Colombia and Ecuador.

Tips for scoring the best upgrades

Apply upgrades to Hawaii (and other long-distance routes)

FlightConnections currently shows long distance flights between Hawaii and both Atlanta and Minneapolis.  In the past we’ve also seen seasonal service between Honolulu and both Detroit and New York (JFK).  Any one of these routes would offer an incredible use of regional upgrade certificates, if you can find availability.

As you can see in the following maps, there are plenty of other medium to long distance qualifying routes as well.  Here are some examples:

Apply upgrades to premium routes

All of the major U.S. airlines compete aggressively for the business market between New York and Los Angeles.  As a result, each airline, including Delta, tends to offer the best products and services on this route.  And, if you’re departing from Los Angeles on Delta One, you’ll even qualify for Delta’s private check-in experience (details here).

Confirmable upgrades appear to be easy to score if you book well in advance

Search for upgrades at end-of-schedule

Finding available upgrades on the east coast to Hawaii route is nearly impossible.  Nearly.  However, if you look near the end of schedule (e.g. 11 months ahead), you might have a better chance.  For example, I found confirmable upgrades available from Atlanta to Honolulu on March 1 of next year for up to four passengers!  I similarly found upgrade space from Minneapolis to Honolulu on February 28th, but only for 1 passenger.

When searching near the end of schedule, I recommend searching for cash rates rather than awards.  Hopefully Delta will soon fix this, but when I tried searching near end of schedule for award flights, the system often failed to show the nonstop options I was looking for.  Searching for cash rates brought up the desired nonstop flights no problem.

If you have a choice, upgrade to Delta One rather than First Class

Delta One seat selection
Delta First Class seat selection

For some routes, you may find flights that offer First Class and other flights that offer Delta One.  Assuming both flights work for you, you’ll generally find flying Delta One to be a much nicer experience than First Class.

Search the segment you want rather than the whole trip

If a particular segment of your trip is very important to you to be in Delta One, then I recommend searching that segment independently to find upgrade availability.  For example, if you wanted to fly to Hawaii from New York (during a time that nonstop service is not available), it makes sense to look for upgradeable flights from Atlanta or Minneapolis first.  If you find a date that works for you from one of those airports, then you can change your search to originate from New York and you should be able to upgrade at least that important long leg to Hawaii.  In the image above, I found an upgradeable flight from New York to Hawaii with a layover in Atlanta by first finding the upgradeable Atlanta to Hawaii flight.

Jump the airport upgrade queue

When your desired regional upgrade isn’t available, you can still make use of your RUC: ask to be added to the upgrade waitlist.  If you’re ridiculously lucky, upgrade space will appear before your flight.  Otherwise, you’ll still have a good chance to upgrade at the airport: Upgrade certificates clear the airport standby list before complimentary upgrades.  This means that, at the airport, someone with Platinum elite status who used a RUC to waitlist will be upgraded before other Platinum elites and even top-tier Diamond elites who did not waitlist.

If your upgrade never clears, your RUC will still be available for future flights.

Waitlist multiple flights with one certificate

One interesting quirk of Delta’s upgrade certificates is that you can waitlist multiple flights with a single certificate.  If one of those upgrades clears then you’ll be removed from the waitlist for the other upgrades.  This can be very handy if you have booked more regional flights than you have RUCs to cover.  This way, if any of those upgrades do become available, you’ll have put that RUC to good use.

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