As you've no-doubt read, Delta, in a desperate move, has scrapped its old fare structure for a new, radically different one -- and on most routes, other major carriers are matching. Delta's new program boils down to the following: a $499 cap on one-way coach fares, a $599 cap on one-way First Class fares, a maximum $50 ticket-change charge (down from $100), and the end of the Saturday-night-stay requirement.
Now Delta has only four economy class fare levels: 0-, 3-, 7- and 14-day advance purchase. (For more details, visit news.delta.com/article9584.html. For more on American's copy-cat program, visit www.aa.com/content/amrcorp/pressReleases/2005_01/06_new_fares.jhtml.) The funny thing is that many of Delta's old fares are lower than its new fares, usually on routes where it competes directly with other carriers. In Delta's case, that mostly means AirTran. Example: Atlanta-Los Angeles has been $672 round-trip First Class for some time. The new First Class fare is $1,198 (78% higher). Delta's new Miami-Dallas First Class fare is $599 each way, while its previous lowest fare was $325 (because it had to match American's low-fare scheme out of southeast Florida).
So here's how to play the "SimpliFares," as Delta's new tariffs are called: Don't ask for them, because you may find a lower fare by asking for a specific fare code, such as airfares booked in A, D, I or Z class, which denote heavily discounted First or Business Class domestic fares, domestically.
The upshot is that the new fare structures are making elite upgrades an endangered species.
Fewer elite upgrades are available, especially for bottom-tier elites, because these new, less expensive premium seats are now being sold for cash, filling up cabins long before the 24-hour elite confirmation window opens. But you can pull out of the elite upgrade famine. I call it domestic hedging. It's the best way for elites to buy First Class now. Here's how it works.
How I booked my last San Francisco-New York ticket. (Note: Many variations apply).
First: Buy "insurance."
I bought the $549 one-way, refundable Business Class fare, to insure I had a seat should an elite upgrade not pan out, and because refundable tickets, are, well, refundable, should another lower cost option become available.
Second: Try for an elite upgrade.
My elite status card allows me to confirm an upgrade three days out with any fare. So, three days out, I searched for a flight with an elite upgrade on the lowest fare ($164, one-way) that I could confirm on the spot. If it was available, I would have canceled my refundable ticket and saved a few hundred bucks. It turned out that it wasn't available, and I was glad I had purchased the refundable ticket as backup.
Third: If you're daring, gamble on a last-minute upgrade.
If you can't confirm the elite upgrade in Step 2, find another flight that suits your schedule and buy a coach fare, hoping that the elite upgrade will open up closer to departure. (Tip: Ask your agent/reservationist to look for flights with the most First Class seats still available for sale.) I did this, and my $150 elite upgrade, on a $194 one-way economy fare, cleared two days prior to departure! Not a bad fare for a five-hour flight. I actually got a Business Class seat on the flight I really wanted, which wasn't available when I originally booked. Worst-case scenario: The elite upgrade never comes through, you cancel the reservation, and apply the fare toward a future ticket, less a $50 or $100 reissue fee -- in effect, your cost to play the hedging game.