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

Delta Air Lines Boeing 717

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A Delta Air Lines Boeing 717.

  • Elite status is the endgame for most frequent flyers as it offers high-end perks such as free first-class upgrades.
  • I recently attained elite status on Delta Air Lines in the lowest level of its program and took a trip to see if I'd get upgraded despite my low seniority.
  • To my surprise, I was upgraded on every flight and over $800 of value was added to my trip because I had the status.
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When most travelers shop for flights, factors such as price and schedule are usually the key determiners as to which one will be selected. For frequent travelers, however, the process involves more loyalty thanks to frequent flyer programs.

Each airline has its own loyalty program that keeps its most valued customers coming back for a few reasons, but normally chief among them is the desire for elite status and all the benefits that accompany it.

Rising to the top of any loyalty program has its perks in the form of freebies and special treatment, which is no different for airlines. As opposed to getting a free coffee at Starbucks, however, airlines can offer greater incentives such as first-class upgrades, lounge access, and other perks that make traveling easier, more enjoyable and luxurious.

Even at the lowest levels of an airline's elite status hierarchy, a frequent flyer can book the cheapest economy seat and still be sitting in first class without paying a penny more.

I recently attained elite status on Delta Air Lines on the lowest rung of its frequent flyer program for the entirety of 2020. As a SkyMiles Silver Medallion member, I would be entitled to all the trimmings of elite status including upgrades and priority access at airports, according to Delta.

But given my low seniority, I wanted to see just how many benefits I'd be able to take advantage of on a given trip, so I booked one specifically to find out.

Here's how having elite status changed my travel experience.

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Back in November, I received an email from Delta informing me that my excessive travels had paid off and I achieved Silver Medallion elite status in its SkyMiles program.

Back in November, I received an email from Delta informing me that my excessive travels had paid off and I achieved Silver Medallion elite status in its SkyMiles program.

As this was the first time I'd achieved elite status on any airline, let alone one of the world's largest, I was very excited to give it a go. The list of perks included upgrades, free checked bags, and priority check-in.

As this was the first time I'd achieved elite status on any airline, let alone one of the world's largest, I was very excited to give it a go. The list of perks included upgrades, free checked bags, and priority check-in.

The chief among those perks is the first-class upgrade as it's often the most valued and elevates the in-flight experience to a new level.

The chief among those perks is the first-class upgrade as it's often the most valued and elevates the in-flight experience to a new level.

With Delta, however, all elite status holders can request an upgrade on any domestic flight, regardless of length. As a Silver Medallion, I'd be the last in the pecking order and the least likely to be upgraded, I thought.

With Delta, however, all elite status holders can request an upgrade on any domestic flight, regardless of length. As a Silver Medallion, I'd be the last in the pecking order and the least likely to be upgraded, I thought.

On most Delta flights, there are two possibilities for upgrades. One into first-class….

On most Delta flights, there are two possibilities for upgrades. One into first-class….

And the other to Delta Comfort+, an enhanced economy product offering extra legroom, premium snacks, and complimentary alcoholic beverages.

And the other to Delta Comfort+, an enhanced economy product offering extra legroom, premium snacks, and complimentary alcoholic beverages.

I wanted to know just how much easier having the status made flying and whether or not I'd get upgraded, I booked a trip to find out, flying from New York to Raleigh, North Carolina and onward to Orlando, Florida before heading back to New York for $157.

I wanted to know just how much easier having the status made flying and whether or not I'd get upgraded, I booked a trip to find out, flying from New York to Raleigh, North Carolina and onward to Orlando, Florida before heading back to New York for $157.

The flights were a mix of leisure and business routes on medium to small size aircraft, so I'd have a good sample size for my experiment.

The flights were a mix of leisure and business routes on medium to small size aircraft, so I'd have a good sample size for my experiment.

The first flight of the trip was from New York to Raleigh, a route flown primarily by business customers, a group that tends to have elite status.

The first flight of the trip was from New York to Raleigh, a route flown primarily by business customers, a group that tends to have elite status.

The flight was operated by a Delta Boeing 717 aircraft, which features a 12-seat first-class cabin and a 20-seat Comfort+ cabin.

The flight was operated by a Delta Boeing 717 aircraft, which features a 12-seat first-class cabin and a 20-seat Comfort+ cabin.

A few days before departure, both the first class and Comfort+ cabin were showing as having open seats, meaning it would be likely I'd at least get upgraded into Comfort+.

A few days before departure, both the first class and Comfort+ cabin were showing as having open seats, meaning it would be likely I'd at least get upgraded into Comfort+.

The day before my trip, the going rate for an upgrade Comfort+ on the flight was $9.68...

The day before my trip, the going rate for an upgrade Comfort+ on the flight was $9.68...

And for first class, it was $474.

And for first class, it was $474.

Fast forward to the day before departure, I checked in for the flight 24 hours on the dot in advance and was notified shortly after that I'd been upgraded to Comfort+. My $157 ticket was now giving me a value of $166.68 and I was number one on the first-class upgrade list.

Fast forward to the day before departure, I checked in for the flight 24 hours on the dot in advance and was notified shortly after that I'd been upgraded to Comfort+. My $157 ticket was now giving me a value of $166.68 and I was number one on the first-class upgrade list.

When I arrived at the airport the next day, I was still number one on the first-class upgrade list with one seat open. Delta's revenue team was working against me here, hoping that it would sell the upgrade.

When I arrived at the airport the next day, I was still number one on the first-class upgrade list with one seat open. Delta's revenue team was working against me here, hoping that it would sell the upgrade.

Despite having elite status with Delta, I wasn't able to access any of the airline's check-in areas dedicated to elites as I was too low in the status hierarchy. Keep in mind, to even get Silver Medallion status, flyers must spend $3,000 and fly 25,000 miles or 30 flights on Delta or some partner airlines.

Despite having elite status with Delta, I wasn't able to access any of the airline's check-in areas dedicated to elites as I was too low in the status hierarchy. Keep in mind, to even get Silver Medallion status, flyers must spend $3,000 and fly 25,000 miles or 30 flights on Delta or some partner airlines.

The same was true at security where Delta's priority lane was only available to those in the highest tiers of elite SkyMiles status.

The same was true at security where Delta's priority lane was only available to those in the highest tiers of elite SkyMiles status.

I wasn't too phased by either, however, as I had checked in on my phone already and could use my TSA Precheck to get through security without having to wait too long.

I wasn't too phased by either, however, as I had checked in on my phone already and could use my TSA Precheck to get through security without having to wait too long.

If I had been checking bags, though, I would've have had to wait in the regular line.

If I had been checking bags, though, I would've have had to wait in the regular line.

Although my upgrade hadn't cleared by the time I got to the gate, all hope wasn't lost as there was a possibility Delta was waiting until the last possible second to upgrade me in a last-ditch attempt to sell the upgrade. I was still number one on the list.

Although my upgrade hadn't cleared by the time I got to the gate, all hope wasn't lost as there was a possibility Delta was waiting until the last possible second to upgrade me in a last-ditch attempt to sell the upgrade. I was still number one on the list.

I still had my Comfort+ seat so I couldn't complain, especially on an hour-long flight. As I waited to hear the gate agent call my name and tell me that my upgrade had cleared, I looked up to see that all first-class seats were full.

I still had my Comfort+ seat so I couldn't complain, especially on an hour-long flight. As I waited to hear the gate agent call my name and tell me that my upgrade had cleared, I looked up to see that all first-class seats were full.

But when I boarded, I was given a surprise by Delta in the form of a new boarding pass with my new seat, 1D. Despite being the lowest of the low, I'd managed to get an upgrade on what is normally an elite-heavy route for Delta on one of its smallest planes.

But when I boarded, I was given a surprise by Delta in the form of a new boarding pass with my new seat, 1D. Despite being the lowest of the low, I'd managed to get an upgrade on what is normally an elite-heavy route for Delta on one of its smallest planes.

And even got a window seat!

And even got a window seat!

The value of my $157 ticket was now $631 with two more flights to go.

The value of my $157 ticket was now $631 with two more flights to go.

The next flight on my itinerary was another quick hop from Raleigh to Orlando.

The next flight on my itinerary was another quick hop from Raleigh to Orlando.

This time on a Delta Air Lines Airbus A320 with a 16-seat first-class and 18-seat Comfort+ cabin.

This time on a Delta Air Lines Airbus A320 with a 16-seat first-class and 18-seat Comfort+ cabin.

Though a non-standard route for Delta, the airline has been growing in Raleigh and even operates a transatlantic flight to Paris from the North Carolina city.

Though a non-standard route for Delta, the airline has been growing in Raleigh and even operates a transatlantic flight to Paris from the North Carolina city.

When the upgrade list was revealed 24 hours before the flight, I was near-dead last in the list for first class. It wasn't looking good for this one.

When the upgrade list was revealed 24 hours before the flight, I was near-dead last in the list for first class. It wasn't looking good for this one.

I was, however, almost immediately upgraded to Comfort+ and given a window seat, a $34 value based on Delta's upgrade price. The new value of my ticket with the upgrade was now $665.

I was, however, almost immediately upgraded to Comfort+ and given a window seat, a $34 value based on Delta's upgrade price. The new value of my ticket with the upgrade was now $665.

The highlights of Comfort+ are the extra legroom...

The highlights of Comfort+ are the extra legroom...

Complimentary alcoholic drinks,...

Complimentary alcoholic drinks,...

And premium snack offerings on longer flights.

And premium snack offerings on longer flights.

But Comfort+ is really a consolation prize for elites since an upgrade is nearly guaranteed.

But Comfort+ is really a consolation prize for elites since an upgrade is nearly guaranteed.

After landing in Orlando, it was time for the final and longest flight of the day, Orlando to New York on a Delta Airbus A321.

After landing in Orlando, it was time for the final and longest flight of the day, Orlando to New York on a Delta Airbus A321.

As one of the largest narrow-body aircraft in Delta's fleet, the A321 would feature a first-class cabin with 20 large recliner seats.

As one of the largest narrow-body aircraft in Delta's fleet, the A321 would feature a first-class cabin with 20 large recliner seats.

The longer flight would also mean more time to enjoy the service so I was hoping I'd get an upgrade on this one.

The longer flight would also mean more time to enjoy the service so I was hoping I'd get an upgrade on this one.

The day prior, the upgrade list was showing 12 open seats and I was number one on the list so I was hopeful.

The day prior, the upgrade list was showing 12 open seats and I was number one on the list so I was hopeful.

Delta was only selling the upgrades for $159, however, so it easily could've filled up. A single upgrade cost more than the price of my day trip.

Delta was only selling the upgrades for $159, however, so it easily could've filled up. A single upgrade cost more than the price of my day trip.

Much to my surprise, I was upgraded straight into first-class just after I checked in for the flight! Delta must have known it wouldn't sell the upgrades.

Much to my surprise, I was upgraded straight into first-class just after I checked in for the flight! Delta must have known it wouldn't sell the upgrades.

I even managed to get a window seat.

I even managed to get a window seat.

The upgrade wasn't too surprising since I was flying against the grain on a leisure route, but it was a nice treat, nonetheless, and I was surprised at how quickly I was upgraded.

The upgrade wasn't too surprising since I was flying against the grain on a leisure route, but it was a nice treat, nonetheless, and I was surprised at how quickly I was upgraded.

The value of my ticket was now $824, more than five times greater than what I originally paid.

The value of my ticket was now $824, more than five times greater than what I originally paid.

The flight was late at night so no meal service would be offered, but a snack and beverage service offered sustenance and the large seat allowed me to get some well-needed rest, especially with the pillow and blanket provided at each seat.

The flight was late at night so no meal service would be offered, but a snack and beverage service offered sustenance and the large seat allowed me to get some well-needed rest, especially with the pillow and blanket provided at each seat.

I landed back in New York having been upgraded on all three of my flights, with two of them in a first-class cabin.

I landed back in New York having been upgraded on all three of my flights, with two of them in a first-class cabin.

After only spending $157 for an economy ticket, not only did I spend only one flight in (premium) economy but was given an additional $824 value on my ticket through the upgrades to Comfort+ and first class based on Delta's upgrade prices.

The flights showed me that even in Delta's egalitarian system where all elites can request upgrades on any domestic flight, I still had a shot at getting upgraded as a Silver Medallion, which is arguably the greatest perk of elite status.

I didn't notice a difference in the airport experience, though it didn't bother me as I primarily carry-on my bags and don't usually need to visit the counter. TSA Precheck also made any benefits at the security checkpoint pointless as the lane offers amenities that Delta can't, even with a priority line.

I know I may not be as lucky on future flights, but this was a great first trip as a Silver Medallion.

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