Weekend Travel Hacking: Gaming Elite Upgrades


It’s time for another punch in my series on travel hacking with ITA Matrix. As a reminder, ITA Matrix great for hidden city ticketingfuel dumpsfree one-waysforced fare bucketsaircraft selection, multi-class cabin bookings, and avoiding married segments just to name a few. Today I want to tackle a fun one: Gaming elite upgrades.

One of the tropes you’ll find brandished in the mainstream media is that dressing nice, letting the gate agent know that you’re on a honeymoon, or uttering the words “revenue management” will score you a free upgrade. Of course you probably know that’s all a bunch of crap. Airline upgrades don’t work that way and gate agents who play those kinds of shenanigans are disciplined and may end up losing their job.

At a hotel you can usually use the $20 trick for a an upgrade, but trying that at the gate just won’t work. Trust me. So how do you get an edge? Spoiler alert, there is an airline equivalent to the $20 trick that doesn’t involve a crooked gate agent. Let’s call it the “jump-the-bucket” trick. Catchy right? Right? Ok, I know it’s not.

Elite Upgrades in the US

All major US airlines with a first class cabin onboard have some sort of upgrade program for their elite flyers, and there’s a well defined order to which elites are upgraded to the big seat upfront and with what priority. Just because it’s well defined doesn’t mean that airlines publish specific terms and conditions though. Rather, airlines speak about priorities in generalities and as a result it can be a trick to suss out how it really works. To compound the complexity, each airline has slightly different policies and sometimes upgrade instruments get into the mix too.

The major US carriers do share one thing in common for elite upgrades: different ticket fare buckets have different upgrade priorities, and you can hack your way into a higher upgrade priority with the “jump-the-bucket” trick.

Fare Buckets

Ok, so fare buckets matter for upgrades, but WTF is a fare bucket? The boring definition is that each bucket is a letter (like S, or J) or pair of letters (like OW) that corresponds with a given fare on file in their systems. There isn’t a standard for buckets on all airlines, but they do share a lot in common. First class fare buckets are often Z or F, and economy buckets are often S, L, Y, and B for example. Typically there are around 20 fare buckets per airline.

Fare buckets also have a hierarchy. F > Z, and Y > B > M. See the pattern? Nah, me neither. That’s ok though. You don’t need to memorize the hierarchy, just know that it exists and how to find it.


And now my friends, you’ve got enough background to understand how to game the upgrade lottery. When airlines process upgrades, one of the universal tie breakers is your segment’s fare bucket. To win that battle you just have to make sure you’re in a higher bucket than the other guy. Unfortunately that’s not free, but it’s usually less than $20 or so to jump to the next bucket when you book a ticket. Even better, it’s almost a certainty that no elites on your plane have booked into anything other than the cheapest bucket that was available when they bought their ticket. (There’s a small wrench here, sometimes government contracts and big business contracts will book into high buckets per the specific terms of their agreement with the airline. That usually doesn’t matter if you’re not going to or from DC though, especially during peak leisure travel.)

Now, let’s talk about how to jump-the-bucket with ITA Matrix:

1. Search ITA Matrix for your desired flight
2. Pick your desired itinerary
3. Look at which fare buckets the itinerary has

Example: I searched for a Delta direct flight between Los Angeles (LAX) and Chicago O’Hare (ORD) on Sept 10, and picked the cheapest flight that wasn’t basic economy since those fares aren’t upgrade eligible. In this case, it was an economy flight in fare bucket V, which you can see in my example ITA Matrix search at the end of the line in parentheses after the word “Economy”:

A sample itinerary. Note the V booking code embedded in Economy (V) at the end of each leg.

Now I need to find which bucket has a higher priority than V. On Delta, that would be X. (See the next section for priorities. I don’t memorize this and I bet you don’t want to either.) So, to continue with the prior steps:

4. Determine the next higher fare bucket (see next section) — in my case X
5. Return to the main ITA Matrix booking page
6. Enter your desired cities and dates again
7. Click “Advanced controls” to turn them on if they’re not already on
8. Tell ITA Matrix that you want a specific fare bucket (booking code) by entering “f bc=X” in the “Outbound extension codes” and “Return extension codes”. Replace X with the appropriate fare bucket as needed.
9. Click through to find your itinerary
10. Cut and paste your itinerary into bookwithmatrix.com to book

Side tip: Remember how I glossed over searching for a flight that wasn’t basic economy in my example? Well, basic economy on Delta is fare bucket E, and you can enter “f ~bc=E” to tell ITA matrix to ignore any fares in the E bucket. The tilde means “not”.

In this particular example, an X bucket fare was $145.20 which is exactly $13 more than the V bucket. If I book this itinerary, I’ll be ahead of similar leveled elites that booked the cheapest fare they could, which is probably all of them provided the bucket was available when they booked.

The same itinerary after jumping-the-bucket. The higher bucket with a better shot at an upgrade costs an extra $13.00.

Cool eh? Cheaper than the $20 trick, and personally I’ve had great success with this technique in the past.

One last gotcha: Sometimes different segments each have their own fare bucket. That’s ok too, just use the Multi-city tab on ITA Matrix and enter fare codes segment-by-segment and you’ll get what you’re after.

Airline Fare Bucket Priorities

How do you know the order of fare buckets for a given airline? First answer: Ugh. Second answer, visit cwsi.net. To save myself the hassle I’ve written them out and I guess I’ll share them with you too (ordered highest to lowest):

  • Delta: W, Y, B, M, S, H, Q, K, L, U, T, X, V, E (highest first, lowest last, E is basic economy)
  • United: O, A, R, Y, B, M, E, U, H, Q, V, W, S, T, L, K, G, N (highest first, lowest last, N is basic economy)
  • American: Y, H, K, M, V, Q, S, N, L, O, B (highest first, lowest last, B is basic economy)
  • Alaska: Y, B, H, K, M, L, V, S, N, Q, O, G, X (highest first, lowest last, X is basic economy)


A few things to watch out for:

  • As flights get closer, lower fare buckets may sell out or get zeroed out by the airline, pushing close-in bookings into a higher fare bucket. So if you book 5 months in advance and jump-the-bucket at the time, you may not be ahead of everyone by the time you fly
  • There are other criteria for upgrades too, and they vary by airline. Your status level for example is almost always a higher priority than your fare bucket. (Unless it’s a special Y-up bucket, but that’s beyond today’s post)
  • Using certain upgrade instruments trumps all fare classes. (SWUs on AA, RUCs on DL, GPUs on UA)


There’s an airline cousin to the hotel $20 trick, and it’s called the jump-the-bucket trick. For a few extra bucks you can often up your chances for an elite upgrade. #winning #twirlingtowardfreedom

A rusty bucket.
The United “basic economy” fare bucket. Or, is that the Economy+ bucket on an ERJ-145? It can be hard to tell.

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