United Airlines plane

How to upgrade in economy on US airlines?

As a frequent business traveler, one of the things that I admire most about the big 3 US airlines is the ability to “upgrade” to either first class or [what I call] “enhanced” economy. Since the names are not synonymous across brands, it’s easier to just make my own up.

In this post I’ll focus on the big 3 US airlines and their versions of this product

  • Delta – Delta Comfort+
  • American – Main Cabin Extra
  • United – Economy Plus

Even though I remain a strong Delta truther, I now try to fly direct whenever possible. And with my recent move, came an unfortunate transition away from Delta. I decided to sacrifice the ease and comfort of the Delta experience for the stress that will inevitably come when making tight connections on a weekly basis.

On the flip side, that means an opportunity to try something new.

Of course, change is not always a good thing.

In this transition, I learned the hard way that not all domestic cabin upgrades are made equal. I knew the Delta upgrade system up and down, forward and backward, but American and United are not at all the same. The benefits of each program differ, and as you’ll find below they each require different methods to book or upgrade.

So I want to make sure you are all ready if you ever find yourself trying to upgrade on any of these 3 carriers.

Breaking down the 3 options

First, breaking down the options across these 3 carriers and the benefits that come with each.

Main Cabin Extra (American)

  • Boarding with Group 5, which is not considered “priority”
  • Increased legroom with seats in front of the plane as well as the exit rows
  • Something not advertised on their website is that American has begun to designate bin space for MCE customers (whether or not that is honored is another story)
  • As of July 5, 2018, American MCE offers complimentary beer, wine, and spirits. Something that I find to be a big plus. (I’ve taken advantage of this benefit)

Before July 5, American’s “enhanced” economy was anything but. Sure you boarded a bit earlier than the rest of the economy cabin, and maybe the seats were a bit roomier, but I never saw the value that American was charging for.

Comfort Plus (Delta)

  • 3 to 4 more inches of legroom with seats in the front of the plane
  • Dedicated bin space (similar to American, this comes down to personal accountability)
  • Board with Sky Priority (alongside Delta Gold and Platinum Medallion)
  • Complimentary wine, beer and liquor, as well as premium snacks on longer flights (unlike American, this lives up to its advertisements)
  • “Little extras” — depending on the route and the distance, Comfort+ passengers receive certain amenities, with headsets offered on all flights

While I try to remain unbiased, I can confirm that what Delta advertises is what you’ll get. The newer planes will offer a more spacious seat, but the soft product on board remains relatively consistent.

Economy Plus (United)

  • Up to 5 inches of extra legroom in seats at the front of the plane
  • Dedicated bin space
  • United offers Economy Plus bundles for purchase, that offer even more benefits, depending on what you select
    • Economy Plus Essentials will get you a free checked bag and upgrade to the Economy Plus seating
    • Economy Plus Enhanced will get you that as well as Premier Access (meaning earlier boarding), a United Club pass, and extra award miles
  • I will admit that I am biased towards Delta on any day, but as you can see above, they blow their competition out of the water in terms of their domestic “mid-cabin” experience.

    How to secure an upgrade

    The point of this post was to identify the ways in which you request an upgrade for each of these airlines, but I first want to go over how you could possibly secure such a seat (or at least a chance at one of these seats).

    1. The first and most obvious way to get closer to the front of the cabin is by purchasing tickets in the front of the cabin. While each airline denotes the seats differently, they are all easily available when purchasing another ticket.
    2. deltaseatoptions.PNG
    3. Delta ticketing options, with a Comfort+ seat showing about $75 more than a ‘main cabin’ seat
    4. Another way to upgrade your seat is by purchasing an upgrade after you’ve already purchased your ticket. Depending on the popularity of the route, these upgrades can represent a better value than purchasing the ticket outright.* Depending on the airline, you will usually log into your account and search for your trip — once located, there will usually be an offer to purchase an upgrade for your ticket. The prices will vary depending on when you check the ticket.
    5. The other way to secure a seat is by getting a complimentary upgrade based on your status. Each airline has a bit of a different format for complimentary upgrades, which is what we will focus on in the rest of this post.

    So if you do have status, how do you make sure you are upgraded?

    This all started when I decided I’d try United as my business airline. There were a few specific reasons in the switch (namely the more direct flights from my home airport), but because of my Marriott Platinum status I already would be starting as Premier Silver. It’s no Delta Platinum, but it’s better than nothing. 

    In any case, prior to my first flight as a Premier Silver flier, I ensured that my profile was updated to reflect my status. For some reason I just assumed a similar practice as Delta, and thought that if there were Economy Plus seats I’d be upgraded — not the case. It only took two flights to realize United did not auto-upgrade — since there were open Economy Plus seats while I was stuck in the back.

    Fast forward a few months, I’ve figured out the United intricacies, and am now a semi-regular of American. So while I am in no way a “pro” of any program, I want to make sure you all take advantage of this “enhanced” experience when possible.


    The first thing that I recommend for anyone flying Delta do is download the Delta App — this is just one of the many reasons why Delta is the best domestic flying experience of the 3 US airlines. Unlike some of its competitor’s , Delta makes it super easy to do just about everything from the palm of your hand.

    When it comes to getting upgraded on domestic Delta flights, there is one vital thing you need to make sure you do…and its simple.

    Once logging into the Delta app –> My Delta –> Preferences –> Medallion Upgrade Requests. Ensure that you have both check boxes checked for upgrades to First Class and Comfort+, as well as saving the page.


    Of course you will only get this option if you have at least Silver Medallion with Delta, but you’ll want to make sure you have it selected prior to check-in. If you are flying a less popular route you may just get lucky, and get all the way to first!

    I won’t go into the specifics on this post, but you have an opportunity to get upgraded as a Silver. Of course, odds are low, and there are a few more factors, but there are plenty of routes when I know Silver’s will get upgraded. And you get free drinks!


    American is where the process begins to change. I mentioned earlier that I actually experienced this on United first, where instead of getting automatically upgraded you instead “upgrade” yourself. It is pretty straightforward, though.

    Basically, when available, you will go into the American app or website, log-in to your reservation, and select a Main Cabin Extra seat. The “when available” part is the key, but this selection of the upgraded seat is essentially your self upgrade. In the picture below, you can see I have selected an orange Main Cabin Extra seat, and the price is $0 for the seat. Anyone without status would see a price on this seat depending on the flight. 

    American works the same way as Delta with their upgrade priority. The lowest level, Gold members, are available to upgrade, but they can only claim the seats within 24 hours of the flight. The higher the status the more time you have to claim these seats. In the scenario above I think I claimed this seat 3 days in advance.

    So if you are flying on American soon, and you have status with the airline, set some alerts ahead of time to try and secure a Main Cabin Extra seat — after all, free alcohol now!


    And finally is United. I have to admit I have less solid evidence of the upgrade program with United, but I do know that they have automatic First Class upgrades!

    I once flew a United Connection flight and got upgraded to First with only Silver status and no pre-flight workings. The Economy Plus upgrading process is a bit different, though.

    United has almost the same process as American. If you have status with the airline, you are able to select an Economy Plus seat at a certain point prior to check in and that is it. Similar to my first few trips on American, I would board a United flight and see tons of open Economy Plus seats.

    Knowing that I was eligible for the seats (or so it said online), I always wondered why they couldn’t just upgrade me at the gate. All too often I was left wondering what could have been.  Any frequent flyers know my pain — and maybe more so my constant confusion.

    But as I mentioned I didn’t last long with United before I switched over to flying American regularly. So I unfortunately don’t have any screenshots to prove I’m right or wrong. All I can say is to get in the app and select the seats as soon as they’re made available to you.

    Final Thoughts

    I hope this helps at least one other person in a similar situation to me. I still remember sitting two rows from the back of the plane on United, after flying Delta First Class the previous week, and specifically counting all the empty seats in Economy Plus.

    As much as I looked around I really couldn’t get a good answer on the upgrade process for United to Economy Plus. The real answer is that there isn’t one. If you have status with the airline you are able to select an upgraded seat so long as they are available.

    I had got into a routine with Delta of automatic upgrades that I just assumed United had to have a similar practice. Which further proves the notion that assuming makes an “ass out of you and ..” the airline. Always on the airline.

    Hope this helps!

    Tucker is an avid points and miles enthusiast. Being fully involved in the world of credit cards and frequent flying for only a few years now, he brings a very fresh and unique perspective to the world of travel.

    Leave a Reply

    %d bloggers like this: