American Airlines offers lots of opportunities for you to experience its premium cabins, whether it’s upgrading with miles or using the certificates the airline gives its most frequent fliers. If you plan to fly American Airlines and you’re looking for affordable ways to get moved up to the pointy end of the plane, here’s what you need to know about upgrading your flight.
Use your miles to get an upgrade
If you’re buying a ticket with cash but you also have some American Airlines AAdvantage miles, you can request an upgrade paid for with miles.
Unless you’re an ultra-elite Concierge Key member, you may need to fork over some cash for a copay, too. The number of miles you’ll need and your copay depend on where you’re flying and the fare class of the ticket you bought. The upgrade applies in one direction for up to three flight segments.
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 (as long as you have enough miles in your account 48 hours before the flight).
The wait list isn’t purely first come, first served. A number of factors, including any elite status you have with the airline, go into determining how the airline ranks your upgrade request against other travelers’. More on that below.
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 (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, 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 got the upgrade depends on your status in the AAdvantage program. Gold members are notified 24 hours before departure if upgrade seats are available. 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?
Good news if you have status with American but want to save money by booking a basic economy fare: You could still find yourself with an upgrade, even if you booked from American’s cheapest fare class. 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
Executive Platinum members receive four systemwide upgrades when they reach 100,000 elite qualifying miles (EQMs). They can choose to receive more for reaching 150,000, 200,000 and 250,000 EQM thresholds.
Systemwide upgrades 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 are flying from Charlotte to Lisbon via Philadelphia. You would need only one systemwide upgrade for both flights. Long-haul international fights are the best use of systemwide upgrades because you can go from economy class (except Basic Economy) to business class, with its comfortable seats and elevated service, on a longer flight.
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. 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.
American also operates a program for small businesses known as Business Extra where it offers upgrade certificates as an award option, but this only applies to eligible small business owners and their travelers. You can check to see if your company can participate online.
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.
American considers five factors when deciding which passengers get top consideration for their upgrade requests and who goes to the bottom of the list. In order of importance, the factors they consider are:
The type of upgrade you’re requesting.
The number of Elite Qualifying Dollars (EQDs) you’ve accumulated.
The fare class of the ticket you purchased.
When you made the request.
Your AAdvantage status is the most important factor. Concierge Key members are above Executive Platinum members, who are above Platinum Pro. Then come Platinum and Gold.
The second most important factor is the type of upgrade you have requested. Travelers using a systemwide upgrade or AAdvantage miles plus a copay get prioritized above travelers seeking a free upgrade. American now gives free upgrades to its Concierge Key and Executive Platinum members who booked their tickets using miles. These are prioritized below free upgrades on paid tickets.
The third criterion American Airlines uses to rank upgrade requests is: How many Elite Qualifying Dollars have you racked up 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.
The final criterion 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. You can see above the order in which AA prioritizes each booking code, which is another way to get a sense of whether you’ll be one of the lucky passengers to land in a higher class on the airplane than you paid for.
The bottom line
Using miles can be a great way to experience a premium cabin at a discount, especially if you have a lot of miles. And if you’re lucky enough to have free 500-mile or systemwide upgrades, that’s even better.
Frequently asked questions
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:
Airline miles and a large bonus: Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
No annual fee: Wells Fargo Propel American Express® card
Flat-rate rewards with no annual fee: Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card
Premium travel rewards: Chase Sapphire Reserve®
Luxury perks: The Platinum Card® from American Express
Business travelers: Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card