Last night, Greg and I flew from Washington, D.C. to Paris on Air France in business class and by the time you read this we will likely be en route to Dubai on our second ~7-hour flight in flat bed seats with good food and wine after a shower, facial, and French food in the Paris business class lounge in between flights. The cost? Just $304 and one Delta Global Upgrade Certificate each way ($608 round trip; spoiler alert: we aren’t coming home on Air France). If I’m being honest though, the real cost was higher: I spent hours trying to find upgrade availability. Between searching Expert Flyer, checking on awards (both flight and hotel), and waiting for a Delta agent to help, the time investment wasn’t small. The effort paid off in a business class flight that ordinarily would have cost thousands, but there’s no doubt that those chasing Delta status should be ready to put in some effort if you want to use Global Upgrade Certificates on partner flights.
Using Delta Global Upgrade Certificates on Delta is easy
If you want to apply upgrade certificates on flights operated by Delta, it’s easy. You can apply them to paid or award tickets and you can easily search for availability online. See this post: Exciting enhancements for Delta’s top tier elites (On my mind).
Delta Global Upgrade Certificates can also be used on partner flights
In addition to using global upgrades on Delta flights, it has also been possible to use them on select partner airlines (but usually only if the flight was marketed by Delta). For the past few years, Delta has allowed upgrades to business class from highly discounted economy fares on Virgin Atlantic and KLM, but not on Air France or Virgin Australia. Air France global upgrades did exist, but Delta used to require full-fare tickets and would upgrade only to premium economy. Now that has changed.
On February 25th 2020, Delta announced that Global Upgrade Certificates could be used to upgrade Virgin Australia flights to business class. And then in October 2020 Delta greatly improved the use of Global Upgrade Certificates on Air France flights. Since that time, it has been possible to upgrade to business class from highly discounted Air France economy tickets.
Additionally, Air France flights marketed by Air France or KLM can be upgraded as well. This is great because there are situations where flights marketed by Delta cost significantly more than those marketed by Air France or KLM. In some of my searches this proved to be true. Ultimately, we ended up booking through Delta because Greg had credit from cancelled trips to use and I had a $500 gift card from a promotion. Luckily, our flights also happened to be cheapest through Delta.
First step: Finding cheap flights
The easiest part of the planning for our trip was finding cheap flights. Cheap flights were easy in part because when we booked our flights this past spring, international airfares were cheap (and in many cases I believe they still are). The other reason the trip was cheaper than I originally imagined was because it had become apparent that my original ideas – which included much more complex shenanigans that I’ll write about in a future post – weren’t going to be feasible in an era of unpredictable travel.
The unpredictable nature of international travel is probably a good topic for a future post, but in a nutshell it forced me to simplify my planning. In an email back in May, I suggested that maybe we could return to Canada and find a cool place to use a free night certificate to end the trip, “but what if Canada still has a 14-day quarantine requirement at that point?”. Little did I know in May that Canada wouldn’t even begin accepting leisure travel from the US until a couple of weeks before this trip. I also wondered whether country X may require us to quarantine because of having transited country Y within the previous week, but I had no idea 5 months in advance which countries X and Y might be. Since the first challenge in Passing the GUC was “fly safe and don’t get cancelled”, I had to prioritize.
And so I went to Google Flights and started by searching flights from major US airports to various regions with a cap of $1,000 round trip.
Then I started to drill it down. I found that there were a lot of cheap flights to the United Arab Emirates. I played with open jaw itineraries and found some as low as the $560’s. I figured we were on to something. I’ve been to Dubai and Abu Dhabi before, so I had some ideas in mind about what we could do and I knew that Greg hadn’t been to those cities. The next step was to see if it was possible to find flights that we knew we could upgrade.
Finding Delta Global Upgrade Certificate-eligible partner space is a mess
Whereas Delta has made it incredibly easy to use your Global Upgrade Certificates for travel on Delta, the same can not be said for finding availability to use GUCs on partner flights.
Don’t get me wrong: It is awesome that you can use Delta Global Upgrade Certificates on partner flights. It’s not that I don’t like flying Delta, it’s just that Delta’s partners include a much wider reach of destinations and I often find that major foreign airlines offer an experience that is a cut above US airlines (I should note that Delta was excellent in Delta One Suites from Tokyo to Minneapolis a couple of years ago, so they may be able to compete in some cases).
I was pretty excited when we reported that Delta Global Upgrade Certificates (GUCs) could be used on cheap Air France fares because in normal times Air France flies to some pretty unique destinations (gosh I would have loved to have gone to New Caledonia with a Delta certificate! Somebody tell Greg to give them to me again next year :-D). There was also another reason why flying Air France was more attractive than flying Delta, but you’ll have to keep your eye out for details on that in another post.
However, finding upgrade space on Air France was downright difficult (more on that in a minute). Finding upgrade space on KLM was a lot easier.
Finding GUC-eligible business class upgrade space on KLM
The trick to finding upgrade space on KLM-operated flights that can be upgraded using Delta Global Upgrade Certificates is a subscription to Expert Flyer. With Expert Flyer, you can easily search for Z-class space on KLM as shown below (just check the box for “Business – Upgrade with DL SWU/Global Upgrades & Fare Class (Z)” under fare classes as seen below).
The space found by this type of search mostly (though not quite always) matched what agents told me was available. The key to KLM space is to search the entire itinerary together. Let’s say you want to travel from Dubai to Washington, DC as shown above. You might think to search Dubai to Amsterdam and see that there are 8 seats in Z-class:
And then separately search Amsterdam to Washington-Dulles (IAD) and see 9 seats in Z-class:
Based on those separate searches, you might think that you can fly the entire family in business class given enough GUCs. However, you have to search the itinerary as a whole. The same search done from Dubai to Washington showed only one seat available for a Delta Global Upgrade certificate on the day I ran those searches.
This is apparently some sort of married segment logic whereby the availability of the overall itinerary does not match the sum of its parts. Moral of the story: just start your Expert Flyer search with the overall itinerary if you’re looking to upgrade on KLM. If you have some time on your hands and intend to book your flight through Delta anyway, it is probably worth calling an agent to cross-check the availability you’ve found and then just book your flight on the same call and confirm the upgrade immediately.
Finding GUC-eligible business class upgrade space on Air France is harder
I only wish that searching for Air France availability were so easy. Expert Flyer does allow you to search for Z-class space on Air France, but flights that I thought would be available based on Expert Flyer frequently weren’t available according to agents. I spent many hours waiting for an agent (one day I had the computer waiting on a chat rep for over two hours and finally gave up only to find later that an agent responded after about 2.5hrs (at which point I wasn’t at the computer anymore). At least once I think I missed an agent’s response and had to get back in the queue. For a while, phone call hold times weren’t much faster (though you could request a call back).
It doesn’t help that a lot of agents don’t seem to know what they are doing.
At some point, I thought I had the golden ticket with an itinerary that flew Dulles to London on Virgin Atlantic and then London to Paris to Dubai on Air France. I had read on Flyertalk that Virgin Atlantic award space should match upgrade space and I found an itinerary that mixed Virgin Atlantic to London and then Air France to Paris and on to Dubai. It was available as an award ticket which seemed like a good sign. I chatted with a Delta agent to confirm upgrade space. See this excerpt from an email I sent Greg for a taste of the potential for confusion.
The trip including Virgin Atlantic that I sent you is apparently available (I say apparently because the agent initially told me that only Premium Economy was available on the Air France flights. Initially, I gave her full flight numbers and dates (i.e. IAD-LHR departing on Sept 7, VS22, then AFXXX LHR-CDG on Sept 8, etc) and she said business class was available on September 7th but not September 8th. The problem is that the Virgin Atlantic flight departs on the 7th but the Air France flights are actually on Sept 8th. Later, she backtracked and told me that business class was indeed available departing IAD on the 7th. I’m only 62% confident that she searched it properly when she said it was available on the 7th — maybe she searched Virgin Atlantic on Sept 7th and then also searched Air France as though it was departing on Sept 7th. She also said that business class is available departing on September 6th, so at the very least departing one of those days — either the 6th or the 7th — should have availability.
The agent gave me conflicting answers, but settled on saying that the upgrade was indeed available on the Virgin Atlantic & Air France itinerary. I was particularly excited about that option since neither of us have ever flown in Virgin Atlantic “Upper Class”. I also liked the idea because my free trial of FoundersCard has a Virgin Atlantic status challenge that only requires 1 paid flight on Virgin Atlantic (and earning a reduced number of tier credits) to get top-tier Gold status. By my math, I could earn what I needed on a single trip pretty easily, but I needed to fly at least one leg on Virgin Atlantic and this trip would likely be my only opportunity to do that this year.
We went ahead and booked that itinerary and then called Delta to apply the certificates excitedly hoping that the final word from my agent was correct and the flights we wanted were available for upgrade with a GUC.
Unfortunately, they weren’t. Despite Greg assuring his agent that a previous agent had confirmed that these flights were available for upgrade, the agent with whom he spoke (and a supervisor) were firm that that only premium economy was available on those flights on either day. I don’t know for sure which agent(s) were wrong, but the moral of the story is that you may get conflicting information. I would recommend calling to try to apply for GUC immediately after booking or calling to book and apply the upgrade in one shot.
One quick note on upgrading Virgin Atlantic: the rules say that to use a GUC on a Virgin Atlantic flight, it has to be Delta or Virgin Atlantic marketed. In the situation where I tried to apply the upgrade, that meant the itinerary would have cost more than purchasing it through Air France or KLM. We were willing to pay the small premium for a premium cabin Virgin Atlantic experience (though not for Premium Economy).
Dropping back 10 yards to punt
Greg had to call Delta to book his ticket anyway, so he had tried upgrading the Virgin Atlantic + Air France itinerary as noted above but that was a no-go. He wasn’t convinced the initial agent knew what she was doing based on some alternative facts she threw around about how the upgrades work, but he eventually got to a supervisor who kept putting him on hold to check options with someone else who seemed to know what they were doing since they did find space on at least some flights.
Eventually, while on the phone with an agent and also sending instant messages back and forth with me, Greg and his agent settled on an itinerary that was close to the same price as the one we initially booked (the price was actually a bit less and Delta was able to refund me the difference and rebook my flight on Greg’s call). The agent rebooked our tickets on flights with upgrade availability and then immediately applied Greg’s Global Upgrade Certificates.
Departing Washington, D.C. wasn’t actually the cheapest option. I had found an option departing Boston that should have been available that was even cheaper at just $567. It also wasn’t my best shot at elite status: there were options departing/returning to the west coast for similar prices (but more Medallion Qualifying Miles thanks to the additional distance). Greg said, “I guess we still have 24 hours to make changes if you want to have a go at it.” I decided that Delta couldn’t pay me forty bucks to step back into the black hole of looking for upgrade space (and then hoping the agent is right and changing the flights only to risk that they didn’t search properly and can’t actually apply the upgrade, etc). I figured $608 would do.
And so the moral of this part of the story is that the way Greg eventually handled it is probably the best way to go about applying Global Upgrade Certificates if you want to do it on partner flights: call Delta to find availability, then book the flight and apply the upgrades in the same call if you find an agent competent enough to find the upgrade space in the first place.
It is awesome that you can use Delta Global Upgrade Certificates on partner flights, but it isn’t as easy as one would hope. Still, our flight was great. We had good food, excellent service, and good rest in-flight. It is hard to complain about paying $304 (half the price of our ticket) for about 14 hours in business class plus a comfortable break in the lounge in Paris, but if you intend to try to do the same I recommend having flexibility and reaching out to Delta until you find a competent agent and then booking and applying the certificates in one shot for the smoothest experience. If you intend to book first and apply the certificates afterward (for instance if you want to apply them to tickets you purchased from KLM or Air France), I recommend calling to do that within your cancellation window (usually 24 hours) so that you can adjust plans if need be. But if you can be flexible, there is no doubt that Delta Global Upgrade certificates can be amazingly valuable.