I recently took 3 flights with Delta as an elite status holder and managed to snag $800 in free upgrades despite seat-blocking policies – here’s how

Flying Delta Air Lines during pandemic
Flying Delta Air Lines during the pandemic.
  • Having elite status on Delta typically means free first class upgrades for the most frequent flyers.
  • Fewer seats are available in premium cabins, however, thanks to Delta's pandemic seat-blocking policy.
  • I took three flights on Delta and still got seven times worth the value of my ticket in upgrades.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

Loyalty has its perks, even during a pandemic.

I earned elite status on Delta Air Lines in late 2019, just a few months before the pandemic grounded even the most frequent flyers. My first experiment flying with status in February 2020 earned me hundreds of dollars in free extras like upgrades to first class and more legroom seats.

Enjoying the perks of the status during the pandemic, however, has been harder as Delta is blocking middle seats and adjacent seats in first class. It's an easy trade-off to make when it comes to safety but means fewer upgrades to the premium cabins.

Delta, like most major US airlines, extended its members' elite status for an extra year and gave frequent flyers like me more time to enjoy the perks. On a recent trip, I took three Delta flights to see how far having status would get me, even as a lowly Silver Medallion as those in the first rung of the program are called.

I flew from Houston, Texas to New York via Salt Lake City and Los Angeles on a variety of aircraft to see just how much more I'd get from my fare by sticking with Delta during the pandemic.

Here's what I found.

Having elite status on Delta comes with a variety of free perks ranging from first class upgrades to checked bags.
Delta Silver Medallion
Welcome email for Delta Silver Medallion status.
And as any elite will likely say, the upgrades are the most sought after as they can be the best bang for you buck and can instantly elevate a trip. Even Silver Medallions can get upgraded to first class, as I found on a February 2020 trip to Orlando.
first class Delta Air Lines

Read More: I took 3 Delta flights in one day after finally getting elite status to see if it's really worth having — here's what I discovered

Coming home from a trip in February, I booked three flights on Delta for a total of $139.50 which meant three opportunities for upgrades either into first class or Delta Comfort+, an extra legroom section of economy.
Flying on Delta Air Lines during pandemic
Flying on Delta Air Lines during the pandemic.
The real prize, however, would be to get an upgrade on the longest of my flights, from Los Angeles to New York. Delta classifies this route as "Delta One" and the Boeing 767-400 operating the flight featured brand-new first class seats.
Delta One
The upgrade window for Silver Medallion opens 24 hours before departure for each flight. But that didn't stop me from checking the seat maps on my flights every day leading up to the flight to check my odds.
Flying Delta Air Lines during the pandemic.
Flying Delta Air Lines during pandemic
My first flight was from Houston to Salt Lake City on Delta's Airbus A220-300, the newest aircraft in its fleet.
Flying Delta Air Lines during pandemic
Flying Delta Air Lines during the pandemic.
With the new seat-blocking policy, the normally 30-seat Comfort+ cabin was reduced to 16 seats...
Flying on Delta Air Lines during pandemic
Flying on Delta Air Lines during the pandemic.
And first class was down from 12 seats to only six. I might've had a good chance to get upgraded into first class in normal times but it was seemingly impossible now.
Flying Delta Air Lines during pandemic
Flying Delta Air Lines during the pandemic.
My flight was departing at 7:50 a.m. so I made sure to check in exactly at the 24-hour mark to see if I had scored the upgrade. The odds were quickly stacked against me as I soon found myself number nine out of nine for a first class upgrade with one seat available.
Flying Delta Air Lines during pandemic
Flying Delta Air Lines during the pandemic.
I was able to snag a Comfort+ upgrade, however, valued at $45.
Flying Delta Air Lines during pandemic
Flying Delta Air Lines during the pandemic.
The upgrade yielded me a window seat in the second-row of the cabin. This normally would also mean being one of the first people on the plane but Delta now boards from the back to the front due to the pandemic.
Flying on Delta Air Lines during pandemic
Flying on Delta Air Lines during the pandemic.
These seats offer 34 inches of pitch, giving me some extra room to stretch out during the three-hour flight to Utah.
Flying Delta Air Lines during pandemic
Flying Delta Air Lines during the pandemic.
Once airborne, flight attendants began the in-flight service. Comfort+ typically receives "premium" snacks but all economy passengers now receive a snack bag, with mine featuring Biscoff cookies and Goldfish.
Flying on Delta Air Lines during pandemic
Flying on Delta Air Lines during the pandemic.
Complimentary alcohol, however, is a perk that's surprisingly survived the pandemic service cuts. It was a bit early for me so I held off but was shocked that I could order a beer and not a soda.
Delta Elite Status Day Trip
The alcohol menu on a Delta flight from Raleigh to Orlando.
While it wasn't first class, the Comfort+ upgrade combined with the empty middle seat made for a great flight to Salt Lake City. And come time to deplane, I was off relatively quickly.
Flying Delta Air Lines during pandemic
Flying Delta Air Lines during the pandemic.
My $139.50 ticket was now worth $184.50 thanks to the $45 upgrade.
Flying on Delta Air Lines during pandemic
Flying on Delta Air Lines during the pandemic.
My next flight was from Salt Lake City to Los Angeles, a quick one-hour hop on a slightly larger Boeing 737-900ER. The total number of available first class seats on this aircraft is 10, and 14 in Comfort+ under the seat blocking policy.
Flying Delta Air Lines during pandemic
Flying Delta Air Lines during the pandemic.
I thought I had a better chance of a first class upgrade on this one but I was sadly mistaken. I was number five on the upgrade list out of five with three seats open.
Flying Delta Air Lines during the pandemic.
Flying Delta Air Lines during pandemic
I did manage to get another upgrade to Comfort+ pretty quickly after departure, valued at $24. Once again, I got a window seat with the middle seat open.
Flying on Delta Air Lines during pandemic
Flying on Delta Air Lines during the pandemic.
The aisle seat also ended up staying open, as luck would have it, giving me an entire row to myself. This upgrade was almost proving to be equal to first class.
Flying on Delta Air Lines during pandemic
Flying on Delta Air Lines during the pandemic.
The quick flight to Los Angeles meant only an hour to enjoy the upgrade but I did take advantage of the complimentary alcohol.
Flying on Delta Air Lines during pandemic
Flying on Delta Air Lines during the pandemic.
And naturally, I was one of the first to "hop off the plane at LAX." The total value of my $139.50 ticket was now $208.50 thanks to the $24 upgrade, with one flight to go.
Flying Delta Air Lines during pandemic
Flying Delta Air Lines during the pandemic.
The next flight was the big one, Los Angeles to New York on one of Delta's largest jets.
Flying Delta Air Lines during pandemic
Flying Delta Air Lines during the pandemic.
I was already upgraded to Comfort+ and that would've been a fine consolation. Comfort+ seats on this jet were the equivalent of domestic first class seats on Delta's smaller jets.
Flying Delta Air Lines during pandemic
Flying Delta Air Lines during the pandemic.
But I was striving for Delta One and the odds were in my favor as no seats were blocked for social distancing in the 34-seat premium cabin. I was 16 of 19 on the upgrade list leading up to departure.
Flying Delta Air Lines during the pandemic.
Flying Delta Air Lines during pandemic
I was hoping to get an early upgrade so I could use the Delta Sky Club, which is open to domestic Delta One passengers, but it was looking like I'd get the infamous gate upgrade.
Delta Sky Club
A Delta Sky Club at JFK Airport Terminal 4.
Delta sometimes tries to wait until the very last second to sell an upgrade and those on the upgrade list won't know they've been upgraded until they literally scan their boarding passes.
Flying Delta Air Lines during pandemic
Flying Delta Air Lines during the pandemic.
And that's exactly what happened to me. I was assigned seat 8D in Delta One.
Flying Delta Air Lines during pandemic
Flying Delta Air Lines during the pandemic.
First class was allowed to board first and I turned left into the immaculate cabin. Delta primarily uses this jet to fly to Europe and South America but the pandemic had luckily relegated it to primarily domestic routes like this one.
Flying Delta Air Lines during pandemic
Flying Delta Air Lines during the pandemic.
My seat was away from the aisle and offered additional privacy.
Flying Delta Air Lines during pandemic
Flying Delta Air Lines during the pandemic.
I immediately got to work playing with all of its features, including the big in-flight entertainment screen.
Flying Delta Air Lines during pandemic
Flying Delta Air Lines during the pandemic.
Among other amenities, the seat came with a pillow and comforter...
Flying Delta Air Lines during pandemic
Flying Delta Air Lines during the pandemic.
Noise-canceling headphones...
Flying Delta Air Lines during pandemic
Flying Delta Air Lines during the pandemic.
And power outlets.
Flying Delta Air Lines during pandemic
Flying Delta Air Lines during the pandemic.
It was safe to say that this was going to be a good flight.
Flying Delta Air Lines during pandemic
Flying Delta Air Lines during the pandemic.
We quickly departed from Los Angeles and it was clear that this wasn't going to be a typical first class flight. Even in Delta One, there were no hot towels, meals, or champagne, par for the course during the pandemic.
Flying Delta Air Lines during pandemic
Flying Delta Air Lines during the pandemic.
Flight attendants instead offered us the standard snack bag and some snack boxes. I chose the meat and cheese kit.
Flying Delta Air Lines during pandemic
Flying Delta Air Lines during the pandemic.
Complimentary alcohol was also on offer but nothing more than beer and wine.
Flying Delta Air Lines during pandemic
Flying Delta Air Lines during the pandemic.
I settled in for the flight just fine and did my best to stay awake after an already long day so that I could enjoy the experience. Day quickly turned to night and the mood lights in the cabin activated, making for an incredibly relaxing ambiance.
Flying Delta Air Lines during pandemic
Flying Delta Air Lines during the pandemic.
The in-flight entertainment screen had no shortage of selections and I watched Tenet and Citizen Kane all the way to New York.
Flying Delta Air Lines during pandemic
Flying Delta Air Lines during the pandemic.
Delta was charging $799 extra for this seat and I was able to get it for free. The new value of my $139.50 ticket was $1,007.50.
Flying Delta Air Lines during pandemic
Flying Delta Air Lines during the pandemic.
Would I have snagged this upgrade in normal times? Almost certainly not.
Flying Delta Air Lines during pandemic
Flying Delta Air Lines during the pandemic.

Getting a first class upgrade as a Silver Medallion proved to be harder during the pandemic than in normal times but getting at least one flight in the premium cabin made it all worth it.

Delta is "upgauging," or placing larger aircraft, on more domestic routes that increase a frequent flyer's chance of an upgrade but getting bumped to first class is few and far between for those lower in the program thanks to the seat-blocking policy. 

April 30, however, is the current expiration date for that policy (unless Delta extends it again) at which point it may be easier for elites to snag a first class seat. Until then, the best way to first class is to either buy a ticket in the cabin or seek out the airline's largest aircraft. 

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