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American Airlines upgrades to first class and business class can be achieved in several key ways: by holding elite status or purchasing the upgrade with miles, cash or certificates. If you plan to fly American Airlines and you’re looking for ways to get moved up to the front of the plane, here’s what you need to know about upgrading your flight.
Upgrade priority for American Airlines
American considers four factors when deciding which passengers get top consideration for their upgrade requests and who goes to the bottom of the list.
This is the upgrade priority list from highest to lowest:
Your AAdvantage elite status.
The type of upgrade you’re requesting.
The number of elite qualifying dollars, or EQDs, you’ve accumulated.
The fare class of the ticket you purchased/when the request was made.
1. American Airlines elite members
Your AAdvantage status is the most important factor for determining your upgrade eligibility. ConciergeKey members are above Executive Platinum members, who are above Platinum Pro. Then come Platinum and Gold elites.
The higher your status, the higher you are on the upgrade list.
In 2021, American Airlines reduced elite status qualification levels, so if you’re thinking of going for elite status and you have travel coming up, consider booking it on American so you can achieve elite status.
2. The type of upgrade requested
The second most important factor is the type of upgrade requested.
Travelers using a systemwide upgrade, or SWU, or AAdvantage miles and a copay get first dibs on available upgrades. After these upgrades clear, elites who are using 500-mile upgrade certificates on purchased tickets have their chance.
Next, Concierge Key and Executive Platinum members who are using 500-mile upgrade certificates on award tickets are offered upgrades (these are the only elite members who are able to use 500-mile upgrade certificates on tickets purchased with miles).
Finally, the airline offers complimentary upgrades, which are typically awarded to elites in order of status.
3. Elite qualifying dollars earned in the last 12 months
Unfortunately, there is no way for members to see these 12-month “rolling EQDs” online because your account shows this information by calendar year instead. But looking at your EQDs for the current calendar year can give you a sense of how much money you’ve spent with the airline.
4. Fare class of ticket purchased
The final criterion for determining upgrade likelihood is the booking code of the ticket you purchased, plus when you purchased it. These lettered booking codes are used by American to prioritize your request against other passengers.
For upgrades from business to first class, AA prioritizes each booking code in this order: J, R, D, I and C. For main cabin to next class upgrades, the priority order is W, P, Y, H, K, M, L, V, G, S, N, Q, O and T.
This is yet another way to get a sense of whether you’ll be one of the lucky passengers to fly in a higher class than you paid for. However, remember that if you don’t have elite status, you will be prioritized below all elites.
What if you don’t have elite status with American Airlines?
If you don’t have elite status, your best bet for getting a seat in a premium cabin is to use miles to book a business or first class award ticket. If you could book an off-peak award or a Web Special ticket in a premium cabin, you’d get an even better value out of your AAdvantage miles.
In most instances, this will be a cheaper option than paying for a ticket with cash and then using a combination of miles and cash to upgrade to the next cabin of service.
There are a several ways to earn American Airlines miles; however, the fastest way to get a miles infusion is to get a co-branded AA credit card, earn the sign-up bonus and use the card for regular purchases.
» Learn more: Which American Airlines credit card should you choose?
Paying for an upgrade with your AA miles
If you’re buying a ticket with cash but also have some American Airlines AAdvantage miles, you can request to pay for an upgrade with miles.
Unless you’re an ultra-elite ConciergeKey member, these upgrades may still cost both cash and points. The copay and the number of miles you’ll need will depend on where you’re flying and the fare class of the ticket you bought, and your upgrade will apply for up to three flight segments in one direction.
For example, if you bought a discount economy ticket on a domestic flight, you’ll pay 15,000 miles plus $75 to upgrade to the next class of service. But if you purchased a full-fare economy ticket for that domestic flight, you’ll need just 5,000 miles and no copay.
A longer flight — for example, from the U.S. mainland to South America — costs 25,000 miles plus $350 for an upgrade to business class. You can also upgrade from business class to first class on the few flights where American offers its Flagship First service (select international and transcontinental routes).
You can request your upgrade at the time of booking or anytime before check-in by calling American Airlines Reservations, but there’s no guarantee you’ll get the upgrade.
Airlines tend to set aside only a subset of their open seats for upgrades, meaning you may have some competition. If the airline can’t confirm you’re getting the upgrade at the time you request it, you get put on a waitlist. If your upgrade still hasn’t been confirmed by the time you check in for your flight, you’ll automatically be added to the upgrade standby list (assuming you have enough miles in your account 48 hours before the flight).
The waitlist isn’t purely first come, first served. As noted above, the upgrade priority will dictate how the airline ranks your upgrade request against those of other travelers.
How elite members can get domestic upgrades
If you hold AAdvantage elite status, you get a set number of 500-mile electronic upgrades that you can redeem online for each trip (the exceptions are Platinum Pro and Executive Platinum members, who don’t need the 500-mile upgrades because they receive unlimited upgrades for domestic, Caribbean and Central American flights).
The number of 500-mile upgrades you receive depends on your status level. Each upgrade is valid for 500 miles on a domestic or Caribbean (and select Central American) flight. A flight that is 1,400 miles, for example, would require three 500-mile upgrades. Every fare class except basic economy is eligible for upgrades using these certificates.
If the flight is less than 500 miles, all elite members are automatically added to the upgrade list — no certificate required. Elite members can also use their certificates for a companion traveling with them.
The amount of time you have to wait to find out if you will be upgraded depends on your status in the AAdvantage program. Gold members are notified 24 hours before departure, whereas Platinum members get word sooner, 48 hours before departure.
If you want to add a companion using your complimentary elite upgrades, make sure they are on the same reservation as you. If not, you can link your reservations by calling American Airlines Reservations. If by the time you get to the airport your upgrade hasn’t yet been cleared, ask an agent to confirm that you are both on the upgrade list.
What if you booked a seat in basic economy?
If you have status with American but want to save money by booking the airline's cheapest fare class (basic economy), you could still find yourself with an upgrade. As of August 2020, AAdvantage elite members can apply their current travel benefits on all tickets, including when purchasing a basic economy ticket.
Elite seat privileges, including access to Main Cabin Preferred and Main Cabin Extra seats.
Same-day confirmed flight change benefit.
The one drawback of this otherwise welcome change? As of Jan. 1, 2021, basic economy tickets will no longer earn elite qualifying dollars, miles or segments toward future status.
Systemwide upgrades for elite members
When reaching Platinum Pro status, members can elect to receive one systemwide upgrade. If you can earn Executive Platinum status, you can elect to receive four SWUs. Normally, Executive Platinum elites can choose to receive SWUs (for a total of four) as their two elite choice rewards when reaching 150,000, 200,000 and 250,000 EQM thresholds. However, in 2021, American lowered the thresholds to 120,000, 160,000 and 200,000 EQMs, respectively.
AAdvantage members who reach the Two Million Miler level receive four systemwide upgrades (no matter their current status), and they will receive an additional four of these upgrades for each million-mile threshold reached thereafter.
SWUs can be used on any type of flight for an upgrade and can be applied to as many as three segments in one direction of travel. Let’s say you're flying from Charlotte to Lisbon via Philadelphia — you would need only one systemwide upgrade for both flights.
Not all flights have seats available for systemwide upgrades. Search for flights while logged in to your account and a "systemwide upgrades" tab will appear below if the flight is eligible.
Click on that tab to see which flights will accept your systemwide upgrade. A green checkmark, like the one shown above for a Charlotte-to-London nonstop flight, indicates you can use your systemwide upgrade.
Finding upgrade availability
In addition to American’s website, Expert Flyer shows which flights have systemwide upgrade availability. It is a subscription-based site, but there’s a free five-day trial.
Business Extra: Additional ways to earn upgrades
American also operates a program for small businesses known as Business Extra, which offers upgrade certificates as an award option. This applies only to eligible small-business owners and their travelers. You can check to see if your company can participate online.
If you want to improve your chances for upgrades on American Airlines ...
Holding elite status with American Airlines is the single best way to increase your chance of getting upgraded. If you don’t have status, your best bet is purchasing a ticket and upgrading to the next cabin of service using a combination of cash and miles. However, you may be better off using miles to purchase the ticket in a premium cabin from the outset so that you don’t end up paying too much cash to upgrade your seat.
How to maximize your rewards
You want a travel credit card that prioritizes what’s important to you. Here are our picks for the best travel credit cards of 2021, including those best for:
Flexibility, point transfers and a large bonus: Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
No annual fee: Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card
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Bonus travel rewards and high-end perks: Chase Sapphire Reserve®
Luxury perks: The Platinum Card® from American Express
Business travelers: Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card