Are Delta’s Systemwide Upgrades Still Worth It Or is this Just Wishin’ and Hopin’?

Last week, Delta Air Lines (DL) made some lasting changes to their international use of Systemwide Upgrades (SWU). These are upgrade certificates that their Platinum and Diamond Medallion elites may use for most flights. They are elected as an annual Choice Benefit – four as a Platinum, six more for a Diamond.

Generally, each SWU is good for one-way travel. Delta requires at least a K-level fare for most domestic travel and a more expensive M fare for international to earn the right to apply for SWU usage. However, a couple things changed last week.

First, the somewhat expensive M fares no longer earn a 50% bonus towards elite status. For those who travel internationally and frequently purchase M fares, this is a stinging bite. It will easily cost those frequent travelers to Europe 5,000 elite miles or more for each trip while those heading to Asia will now see perhaps 10,000 miles less in their accounts, maybe more. Hitting their elite status levels just got quite a bit tougher.

Difficult as this may be for some to accept, the greater problem is upgradeable inventory to business class (what Delta calls BE) for international flights. Here’s an example: I was looking at a trip to Hong Kong in October. Inexpensive U fare economy seats are available for $1379 round-trip. DL Plats and Diamonds also receive Economy Comfort for free, meaning they can sit in one of the first few rows that enjoy extra legroom and seat pitch. Upgrading to BE requires an M fare which will cost at least $4391 (no miles, co-pays, or additional taxes required). By comparison, the least expensive discounted BE fare for those dates is $6286, though some BE fares on these dates are over $9,000.

Now it is decision time and you have three primary options:

  • Purchase the inexpensive economy ticket and sit in the most comfortable seats there, hoping for an oversold flight where the gate agent feels some mercy and moves you up to a seat in BE.
  • Purchase the M fare, hopefully with upgradeable seats available immediately but if not, hoping there will be upgrade inventory available before flight time.
  • Purchase the discounted BE fare and feel relief that you don’t have to worry about whether you will be upgraded or not.

Delta does offer a couple other options. The first is to upgrade with miles, generally requiring 25,000 miles each way for international travel but again, requiring at least an M fare. Another choice is to pay a portion (or all) of the fare with miles. If this is selected, however, then you receive no miles toward elite status.

Now it gets ugly. For the dates I looked at, there were no seats available for upgrade. Delta, like the other legacies, releases seats for domestic and international upgrade and award travel pretty much whenever they feel like it. Of course, some carriers are more generous than others. At least for now, Delta is only offering a definite maybe.

I like to fly up front on a long-haul as much as anyone but it causes quite a pause when realizing that even paying three times as much for airfare – plus an earned upgrade cert or miles, earned from flying 75-125,000 miles a year – is not enough to insure an upgraded seat up front. In other words, it is very possible to spend $4391 on an M fare only to receive the same $1379 economy seat you could have had for one-third the cost. To paraphrase Dirty Harry, “Are you feeling lucky today?”

a pair of red dice

This explains the title. Most readers are too young to remember the 1963 song – sung first by Dionne Warwick and made popular by Dusty Springfield – but I got a feeling many Delta elites will be memorizing the lyrics. The song starts off with….

“Wishin’ and hopin’

And thinkin’ and prayin’

Plannin’ and dreamin’ each night…

Is this fair to frequent fliers to sit on pins and needles day after day just “wishin and hopin”? After all, they fly frequently and contribute mightily to the airline’s bottom line. Would it be fairer to charge these top tier elites only $1379 at the time of booking and later charge the additional $3012 once the upgrade cleared? Excuse me, that’s IF the upgrade clears. You tell me.

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  1. Nice post. The bottom line is for most Delta SWU (system wide – HA – upgrade – oh as you show maybe) are not worth the “paper” they are printed on. Delta does much right; this is one area, compared to the other major’s they 100% #fail! – Rene

  2. Great and informative blog, but I have to admit, so glad that I could care less about flying business. I am a 2 million miler on AA with over 1 million miles stockpiled, and I never fly business. Just not worth the cost or miles. While you are stressing over seat availability and what you paid to sit up front, I just plan on curling up with a book and my iPad and getting there at the same time as the guys up front.

  3. This is the main reason I left Delta for AA about 8 years ago. Bought a more expensive coach ticket, they took my SWU out of my account and I still didn’t get the upgrade. But a bunch of late connects were moved into BE. While I was in the back. Sorry, but they don’t deserve my business any more.

  4. DL SWUs are great for domestic trips, which require a minimum fare class of K. I don’t even consider them an option for international trips. That’s why I’m a Diamond with almost 1.3 MM lifetime miles, and I never even consider flying DL internationally.

  5. Like Taylor Swift sings I am never ever getting back together with Delta and an M fare gamble, people who do this gamble with employer dollars should be fired

  6. Hello Brabbit. I said “generally” because many readers here are not familiar with SWU’s and I don’t want them thinking that they can always be used for all travel in one direction. For example, one or more segments may be on a regional jet with no first class seating. Also, changing airlines (or alliances) may not recognize the SWU even though you are traveling in the same direction. Of course, good planning and knowledge on how these SWU’s work can eliminate these concerns.

  7. You left out the all important fact that these DL SWUs are not transferable.
    There WAS a time when tese were at least good for upgrades on AF from premium economy to Biz but with the new DL / AF spat, this is no longer an option.

    AA is best – any fare; (I can’t wait for PHL-TLV, PHL-FRA/ZRH etc etc when US joins and opens up more intl options)
    UA is next; (can be applied online without calling and waiting
    DL – useless; only worth a RPU on UA at most for some.

  8. DL SWU’s are really a joke…. makes their mile redemption options look good. As a Diamond, they really only have value on Hawaii flights — if you can find the upgrade space.

  9. I am playing the delta miles upgrade game, for trip from hkg-nyc and then avl-hkg. When I purchased my ticket there was only an upgrade available for the return trip, so I bought that in M class and the outbound in lowest available coach…. I would rather pay a $200 change fee to upgrade if an upgrade becomes available then pay $3000 for a $1200 ticket!

  10. Forget the useless SWU on DL. I fly Air France premium economy on almost all flights to Europe and now that Virgin Atantic is in the fold I will be flying their premium economy too. I’m happy to pay $1600-$2000 for premium economy on one of these SkyTeam partners. The rare times I fly DL internationally, I just buy the cheapest economy and sit Economy Comfort (I’m DL Platinum). Delta is missing the boat on this range of ticket but I’m happy to give Air France, Virgin and even Alitalia my extra dollars.

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