U.S. Airline Status & Unlimited Free Domestic Upgrades – Do They Ever Clear For Lower Tiers?


Most of the U.S. legacy carriers still offer their elite members the (theoretical) chance of unlimited domestic upgrades but do these ever clear unless the customer is a top tier elite?

With several membership stages and the number of elites ever increasing due to status matches, challenges and credit card promotions it’s very much possible that lower elite tiers in fact never ever see a single upgrade, especially on popular routes.

There are specific routes that are extremely “elite heavy” which means that even for top tier members it’s very often a battlefield upgrade at the gate and often the game ends in coach as the upgrade doesn’t clear.

With frequent flyer programs now increasing the amount of tiers it makes it much harder for the lower half to even have a chance of an upgrade.

American AAdvantage:

  • Gold (500 mile upgrade certs required)
  • Platinum (500 mile upgrade certs required)
  • Platinum Pro
  • Executive Platinum
  • Concierge Key

Delta SkyMiles:

  • Silver
  • Gold
  • Platinum
  • Diamond
  • Delta360

United Mileage Plus:

  • Silver
  • Gold
  • Platinum
  • 1K
  • Global Services

The listing oft the different levels shows that someone who is of the lowest tier or even a mid-tier that comes with lounge access on international trips stands little chance if there are just a couple elites on the same flight, not to talk about those customers who actually pay for domestic First-/Business Class.

And of those paying premium passengers there are now more than one would think and often wish as airlines frequently offer discounted upgrades during online check-in or at the airport.

One of my non status friends just got offered a $69 upgrade to Delta First Class – on a regional jet from Los Angeles to San Jose.

My online check-in offer from Seattle to Los Angeles on United Express was $157 which was too expensive in my opinion.

I ended up losing the upgrade battle as a United Gold:

This flight was wide open 2 days prior (F9, C9 being sold) but First filled up quickly with elites at their respective upgrade window as well as on day of departure. And it’s a very common picture these days.


I’ve come to not expect any upgrades anymore at this point with the mid tier status levels on U.S. carriers. There are some slow routes where one might have a shot but the popular city pairs especially those out of the hubs are upgrades hard to come by.

Have you received or missed any important upgrades recently? What is your experience?