How 500-Mile Upgrades Work on American Airlines – Everything You Need To Know

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American Airlines uses a system of 500-mile upgrades for its elite status passengers to upgrade to the next class of service. Unlike other airlines that provide an unlimited amount of complimentary upgrades for these passengers, American has decided to monetize upgrades to an extent, and offer a very different model to be able to sit in the forward cabin.

In this post, you’ll find information on:

  • What a 500-mile upgrade is.
  • How to use 500-mile upgrades.
  • Which elite status levels use 500-mile upgrades, and how they differ between elite levels.
  • Special cases you will need to pay close attention to when using 500-mile upgrades.

American’s upgrade system is really quite lucrative, but there are many intricacies to watch for to ensure you receive the most value.

What is a 500-Mile Upgrade?

A 500-mile upgrade on American Airlines is the capability of any elite status passenger to upgrade to the next class of service on qualifying routes, in 500-mile increments, using a 500-mile certificate. Whereas some airlines will let you upgrade the entire journey without any additional requirements, American requires you to have enough 500-mile upgrade certificates in your account to be able to upgrade on a particular route.

These certificates are often known as “stickers” or “500-mile upgrades” — both mean the same thing, and refer to the earned coupons that allow you to upgrade to first class for every 500-miles of a flight.

To help compare, here is how United Airlines, Delta Airlines, and Alaska Airlines operate domestic upgrades:

  • All United elite tiers receive unlimited complimentary upgrades. To upgrade a companion, you simply need to request it and there is no charge or separate certificate required. Some higher elite tiers receive instant upgrades to first class depending on the fare class purchased.
  • All Delta elite tiers receive complimentary Medallion upgrades. When upgrading a companion, nothing additional is required.
  • All Alaska elite tiers receive unlimited complimentary upgrades on every route Alaska flies with a premium cabin. Elites can upgrade companions at no additional cost, and all elites have the opportunity to upgrade instantly at the time of ticketing depending on the fare class that is purchased.

On American, only the top 3 tiers (ConciergeKey, Executive Platinum, and Platinum Pro) receive unlimited upgrades, while the bottom 2 tiers (Platinum and Gold) must earn upgrades, or purchase them if they don’t have enough. For all elite tiers, upgrading a companion requires a certificate that must be earned or purchased.

American Airlines First Class
In first class, there’s more room to work and eat. Image Credit: American Airlines

How Can You Earn a 500-Mile Upgrade?

Each tier can earn 500-mile upgrades, but how those are earned varies:

AAdvantage Gold and Platinum Members

You earn 4 500-mile upgrades for every 12,500 miles flown. Crossing over this threshold earns an additional 4 certificates. For flights under 500 miles, upgrades are unlimited and do not use earned certificates. This means that if a Gold flies the minimum 25,000 miles per year, they will earn 8 500-mile upgrades and a Platinum will earn 16 500-mile upgrades when they pass 50,000 flown miles.

Purchasing Upgrades

For Gold and Platinum members, additional certificates can be purchased for $40 per 500-miles from AA.com, an airport agent, phone reservations, or the Admirals Club.

A typical Miami (MIA) to Washington, D.C. (IAD) flight, which is 920 miles one-way, would cost $80 to upgrade. This flight includes a meal, but not all first class services do, so you’ll want to consider whether the upgrade is worth the cost.

American Airlines 500 Mile Upgrade
Upgrade to a better level of service from the onboard flight attendants. Image Credit: American Airlines

In general, it is not worth it to spend miles for 500-mile certificates. You’ll receive much more value if you outright purchase or earn the certificates. Keep in mind, you cannot transfer upgrade certificates, so if your friends or family have spares, they won’t be able to share.

A passenger must have enough 500-mile upgrades in their account to cover the entire trip. If they don’t, they’ll be prompted at check-in to purchase more or will be refused the upgrade. You can purchase the additional certificates at check-in, but keep in mind, you should do this early, as your upgrade may be given away to someone with enough upgrades in their account if this isn’t done promptly.

Hot Tip: Since Gold and Platinum members may need to purchase upgrades to complete a trip, buying-up to the next cabin without having to hope for an upgrade may be worth it.

AAdvantage Platinum Pro, Executive Platinum, and ConciergeKey Members

You do not earn 500-mile upgrade certificates for any distances flown, but instead have an unlimited amount for use on any qualifying flight.

AAdvantage Executive Platinum and ConciergeKey members also have the ability to upgrade on award tickets when using AAdvantage miles.

Because Platinum and Gold earn upgrades, you’ll want to keep in mind your progress towards earning your next 4 upgrades. If you have flown 12,510 miles, for example, it may be worth it to fly a trip that’s a bit longer just to accrue the additional 4 upgrades.

It’s worth noting that these 500-mile certificates will not expire, so if you earn them and then advance to a higher tier in a subsequent year, you can still use those previously earned 500-mile upgrades towards upgrading a companion, which will be discussed later.

Bottom Line: Gold and Platinum can either purchase 500-mile upgrade certificates or earn them for every 12,500 miles flown. Platinum Pro, Executive Platinum, and ConciergeKey members receive an unlimited amount of these upgrades and do not earn them separately.

Which Cabin Can You Sit in When Using a 500-Mile Upgrade?

500-mile upgrades are good for upgrading from:

  • Main Cabin to First Class on a 2-class aircraft operating on a domestic route (i.e. Dallas, DFW to Austin, AUS).
  • Main Cabin to Business Class on a 3-class aircraft operating on a premium route (i.e. New York, JFK to Los Angeles, LAX).
  • Main Cabin to Business Class on a 2-class aircraft operating on an international route (i.e. Miami, MIA to Curaçao, CUR).

Upgrades are not valid from 1 premium cabin to another. In other words, you cannot upgrade from a paid business class ticket on a 3-class aircraft to first class on a 3-class aircraft. In addition, you cannot upgrade from Main Cabin into premium economy — you need to purchase that at the time of booking.

To upgrade from purchased business class to first class on a 3-class aircraft, you can either use miles and a cash co-pay or Executive Platinum or ConciergeKey can use an earned systemwide upgrade.

500-mile upgrades are not good on 1-class aircraft since there is no premium cabin to upgrade into.

Bottom Line: 500-mile upgrades will only take you from Main Cabin to business class (on a 3-class plane or international route) or first class (on a domestic route). You cannot use a 500-mile upgrade to jump from business class to first class.

Where Can You Use a 500-Mile Upgrade?

Upgrades using stickers are valid within and between:

  • The U.S., including Hawaii
  • Canada
  • Mexico
  • The Bahamas
  • The Caribbean
  • Bermuda
  • Central America

500-mile upgrades are not systemwide upgrades, which can be used on any American flight no matter the destination, whereas 500-mile upgrade eligible flights can only be within the specified areas.

AA Trancontinental Business Class
Upgrade to business class on American’s transcontinental premium A321T aircraft. Image Credit: American Airlines

The most valuable routes to use a 500-mile upgrade on (primarily due to aircraft or flight length) are:

  • New York (JFK) to Los Angeles (LAX)
    • Upgrading from Main Cabin to business class on the A321T
  • New York (JFK) to San Fransisco (SFO)
    • Upgrading from Main Cabin to business class on the A321T
  • Miami (MIA) to Los Angeles (LAX)
    • Upgrading from Main Cabin to business class on the 777-300ER
  • Dallas (DFW) to Honolulu (HNL)
    • Upgrading from Main Cabin to business class on the 777-200
  • Dallas (DFW) to Maui (OGG)
    • Upgrading from Main Cabin to business class on the 777-200
  • Philadelphia (PHL) to San Fransisco (SFO)
    • Upgrading from Main Cabin to first class on the A330-300
  • Any 3+ hour domestic or international route operated by a Boeing 737

Remember that when using a first class upgrade certificate, you’re requesting upgrades for individual segments. So, if you’re flying from Raleigh (RDU) to Dallas (DFW) to Santa Barbara (SBA), you may clear your Raleigh to Dallas flight separately from the Dallas to Santa Barbara flight. The loads on each flight will be different, and some flights might be more full or have higher elites.

Bottom Line: You can use a 500-mile upgrade on any flight within the U.S., to Canada, Mexico, and select destinations in the Caribbean and Central America.

How Do Upgrades Work?

Upgrades are capacity controlled — just because there is a seat open doesn’t mean it is available. Because American uses a system of elite tiers, upgrades are always confirmed according to that structure, in priority order starting with the most frequent flyers and working down to the least flown of those flyers.

American Airlines Flagship First
American is the only U.S. airline that operates a true 3-class cabin equipped with Flagship First class. Image Credit: American Airlines

An upgrade can be confirmed as early as:

  • Gold: 24 hours
  • Platinum: 48 hours
  • Platinum Pro: 72 hours
  • Executive Platinum: 100 hours
  • ConciergeKey: 120 hours

Upgrades may not necessarily clear at the starting mark, but could process anywhere from that time up until departure. For particularly busy flights, upgrades may be held until the gate where they will be processed by an agent. If a flight is full, and first class is occupied, no upgrades will be processed.

Bottom Line: Remember, that upgrades will start processing as early as 120 hours, depending on your respective elite tier. Some upgrades won’t process until much later, or may even be held until you arrive at the gate.

Upgrade Routes [Good and Good Luck]

The Good Routes

Some routes are much easier to upgrade on than others, such as:

  • Washington (DCA) to New York (JFK or LGA)
  • Washington (IAD) to Dallas (DFW)
    • IAD is much easier to upgrade from than from Washington (DCA)
  • New York (JFK) to Los Angeles (LAX) or San Fransisco (SFO)
    • This route is easier to upgrade on a weekend, late in the evening, or on a red-eye
  • Washington (DCA) to Chicago (ORD)

Good Luck Routes

Some routes are near impossible to upgrade on, such as:

  • New York (JFK) to Los Angeles (LAX) or San Fransisco (SFO)
    • Prime hours of the day, Monday through Friday, given the good number of business travelers
  • Dallas (DFW) to Austin (AUS)
    • Austin has a high concentration of elites
  • Dallas (DFW) to San Fransisco (SFO)
    • SFO has lots of paid first class passengers
  • Dallas (DFW) to Chicago (ORD)
    • This is a hub to hub route, and in direct competition with United
  • Washington (DCA) to Dallas (DFW)
    • This is a route that is heavy with government purchased tickets
  • Dallas (DFW) or Chicago (ORD) to Palm Springs (PSP)
    • Tends to be a lot of purchased premium cabin fares
  • Dallas (DFW) to Seattle (SEA)
    • This is a route heavily flown by large corporate accounts, such as Microsoft and Boeing

Requesting Upgrades

Gold and Platinum members must request an upgrade at booking, either on the website or over the phone. Platinum Pro and Executive Platinum members will have their upgrade proactively auto-requested as they have an unlimited amount of certificates at their disposal.

Gold and Platinum tiers must manually request the upgrade due to the fact that they only earn a limited amount, and if they go beyond this, additional certificates must be purchased.

American Airlines Meals
American serves a variety of complimentary meals in their premium cabins. Image Credit: American Airlines

When Upgrades Become Available

Upgrades clear into “R” inventory, which is released by American depending on the capacity of the plane, and the chances first class seats would otherwise go out empty. This inventory is not specifically viewable by the public, and it is an internal process.

Take note:

  • The emptier the first class cabin, the more upgrades that will be released. If at your upgrade window the first class cabin is very empty, it is assumed the upgrade will clear fairly soon.
  • Even if the first class cabin is relatively full, you may still get an upgrade. If economy class is oversold, they may release upgrades for first class to make room for additional economy passengers.
  • Upgrades on higher profile routes, such as JFK-LAX, may be held until closer to the date of departure. American will want to try and sell these seats before releasing them for upgrades, so even if the cabin looks empty, the upgrade may not be cleared right away.
  • American Airlines phone agents have no control in how upgrades are processed or released or details on where you fall on the upgrade list, so you must let the system run its course.

Prioritizing Upgrades

Upgrades are prioritized in this order:

  • Elite Status Level
    • ConciergeKey
    • Executive Platinum
    • Platinum Pro
    • Platinum
    • Gold
  • Upgrade Type
    • Systemwide and mileage award upgrades
    • 500-mile upgrades on purchased tickets
    • 500-mile upgrades on award tickets (for Executive Platinum and ConciergeKey only)
  • Previous 12-month rolling Elite Qualifying Dollar (EQD) spend

Within each status tier, it is then ordered by the type of upgrade the passenger is using. A systemwide upgrade takes priority over a 500-mile upgrade. Then, the order of passengers is then presented according to how much that passenger spent on American Airlines and partners within the previous 12 months, less taxes and carrier imposed fees.

According to the airport priority list, known as the PALL, upgrades are presented using the UPG designator when an elite member is requesting a complimentary upgrade or using a 500-mile upgrade certificate:

  • ConciergeKey: UPG1
  • Executive Platinum: UPG2 (for upgrades on paid tickets), UPGA2 (for upgrades on award tickets)
  • Platinum Pro UPG3
  • Platinum: UPG4
  • Gold: UPG5
American Airlines Amenities
Some flights include upgraded amenities such as a premium blanket, amenity kit, or headphones. Image Credit: American Airlines

Viewing the Upgrade List

Assuming your upgrade hasn’t cleared by the day of your flight, the upgrade list becomes available to the public within 4 hours of departure. If you are on an itinerary with multiple flights, you’ll be able to view the list for each flight within 4 hours of each respective segment. The list only contains passengers who have checked-in, so if you have not checked-in, you won’t be visible on the airport upgrade list.

An airport agent can view the upgrade list within 24 hours of the flight. If you check-in for a connecting itinerary, and your connection is more than 4 hours away, the agent should be able to tell you where you are ordered on the list, even though you won’t be able to see this within the app at that time.

Keep in mind, upgrade lists can change at a moment’s notice. A higher elite status person may book onto the flight at the last minute, thus trumping you for an upgrade, or another passenger may check in after you, thus becoming higher than you on the upgrade list.

Bottom Line: If you want to find your position on the upgrade list, you should speak to an American Airlines agent since they are able to view the list 24 hours in advance of the flight.

Upgrading a Companion

All AAdvantage elite members can upgrade a companion traveling with them using 500-mile upgrades. The companion can either be booked in the same reservation as the elite member or can be in a separate record that is linked by an American reservations agent.

The 500-mile upgrade certificates for a companion will always pull from the account of the status holder who is adding the companion. That status holder will need enough 500-mile upgrades in their account to upgrade the other person, even though that person may have enough 500-mile certificates in their own account to cover the distance of the flight.

American Airlines First Class 777-300ER
Relax peacefully during your first class flight! Image Credit: American Airlines

It is important to note that Platinum Pro, Executive Platinum, and ConciergeKey members receive unlimited complimentary upgrades for themselves and don’t earn any additional 500-mile upgrades. When they upgrade a companion, they must either purchase additional upgrade certificates or use remaining certificates that may still be in their account from when they were a Gold or Platinum flyer, since these certificates don’t expire as long as the account is active.

If you have more than 1 companion in your reservation, call American and they can assist with upgrading only 1 of those companions, while still preserving the reservations of anyone else additional that is traveling with you.

Upgrading a Companion With Status

Upgrading a companion will cause that companion to inherit your status — so, if you’re Executive Platinum, your companion will temporarily inherit that status for the purpose of upgrading and placement on the upgrade list. The same example holds true if the companion holds a lower status.

If the Executive Platinum member is adding a Platinum Pro as a companion, the Platinum Pro would be listed as an Executive Platinum for the upgrade list only, though that person will still need to use 500-mile upgrade certificates, regardless of their own individual status benefits where they may receive complimentary upgrades on their own.

If your upgrades do not clear prior to the airport, the request disappears when it is moved to the airport list and an airport agent needs to adjust this to have both reservations readjusted and re-linked with the companion added back at the appropriate status level.

American Airlines Flagship Business
Upgrade to a flight equipped with lie-flat seats and personal entertainment monitors. Image Credit: American Airlines

Upgrading at the Same Time

When you upgrade a companion, you are both are upgraded at the same time. In order for this to happen, 2 upgrade seats need to be offered. If only 1 is offered, the upgrade process will skip to the next solo person on the upgrade list, even though both you and the companion are of a higher status.

Because of this, there are 2 things you can do when upgrading a companion that may be beneficial:

Mark the Reservation as “Split”

When you have an American Airlines agent mark the record locator as split, you are indicating that you are willing to have 1 person be upgraded if only 1 upgrade seat becomes available. With this, the companion or second person in the reservation would remain on the upgrade list. This method is good for scenarios where you want at least 1 person to receive the upgrade, and don’t care about sitting together (since it may require 1 person to sit in first class, and 1 to remain in economy).

Mark the Reservation as “No Split”

when you have an American Airlines agent mark the record locator as no-split, you are indicating that you do not want to be split off from your companion, and only want to be upgraded if 2 seats become available. The downside to this is sometimes only 1 seat is released at a time, and if that is the case, it will continually go to the next single person on the upgrade list, theoretically possibly causing you and your companion to never get upgraded, even if it appears there are a lot of seats remaining on the plane (since only 1 seat may be released at a time).

Bottom Line: There are 2 ways to upgrade with a companion – you as the elite member can upgrade on your own and your companion upgrades separately, or the companion and elite member upgrade together at the same time.

For Gold and Platinum Members

There are 2 scenarios for upgrades for Gold and Platinum members, since both elite levels require the status member to use earned 500-mile upgrade certificates for themselves.

For Flights Under 500 Miles

You must have enough 500-mile upgrades in your account for just your companion since you receive complimentary upgrades for all flights under 500-miles. If the flight is less than 500 miles, that means you need 1 upgrade certificate.

For Flights Over 500 Miles

You need enough 500-mile upgrade certificates for both yourself and your companion. As an example, if the flight length is 990 miles, you would need 2 upgrade certificates for yourself, and 2 for your companion, for a total of 4.

For Platinum Pro, Executive Platinum, and ConciergeKey Members

For all flights, regardless of flight length, you just need enough 500-mile upgrades in your account to cover the length of the flight for the companion. For example, if a flight is 990 miles, you need 2 upgrades for your companion only, since you as a status holder receive unlimited complimentary upgrades.

American Airlines Meals
On select flights, customers seated in first class will be offered a choice of hot meals. Image Credit: American Airlines

What If Your Upgrade Doesn’t Clear?

If your upgrade doesn’t clear, don’t fret. There are several things you can do to still enjoy a comfortable Main Cabin experience.

  • If possible, try selecting a Main Cabin Extra seat at the time of booking. Platinum, Platinum Pro, Executive Platinum, and ConciergeKey members can select these seats for free. Gold members can select these seats for free only within 24 hours of departure.
  • Consider purchasing premium economy. On flights to Hawaii, upgrades to first class are complimentary, but because the Hawaii routes are considered premium, a separate premium economy cabin is sold. You can purchase premium economy separately and still list yourself for an upgrade into first class. If you don’t clear, you’ll still be sitting in a comfortable seat.
  • Monitor the upgrade lists to see where the top 1 or 2 people on the list are sitting. If their upgrade clears, you may be able to ask the gate agent to move into their seats if they are more desirable.
  • If your complimentary upgrade doesn’t clear, consider using a systemwide upgrade or mileage and cash co-pay upgrade, which will place you higher on the upgrade list, but within your elite tier. If others in your elite tier are ahead of you, but requesting 500-mile upgrades, you will move ahead of them and may be able to receive an upgrade either in advance or at the gate.

Bottom Line: Selecting a great coach seat is one of the most important things you can do to ensure you’re seated in an area of comfort if your upgrade doesn’t clear.

Protection of Upgrades

When you upgrade using a 500-mile upgrade on an eligible route, the upgrade is not protected if the plane should cancel or you change your flight.

If the aircraft you are on cancels due to mechanical reasons, for example, you are then placed back on the upgrade list for any new flight you move to. 500-mile upgrades are space-available, dependent on the individual flight itself — if you move flights, the load is entirely different than the original flight which you got upgraded on, which is why the upgrade is not protected.

American Express First
American Airlines first class. Image Credit: American Airlines

Lifetime Status and Upgrades

When you fly 1,000,000 miles you earn Gold status for life and 2,000,000 miles for Platinum. Both of these status, as noted above, earn 500-mile upgrades, and will continue to do so even in years where the minimum requirements aren’t met due to the status being bestowed for life.

Keep in mind, lifetime Gold and Platinum members do not have to meet minimum spend or flying thresholds every year. So, theoretically, you can have a $0 annual spend Platinum, as this person would be a lifetime Platinum.

In cases like this, you’d always fall below every other Platinum who has met the $6,000 minimum spend for status, so you always go into the upgrade pool at somewhat of a disadvantage since you’d be on the bottom, though interestingly, a $0 spend Platinum would always beat out even a minimum spend ($3,000) Gold, since upgrades are given in status order.

Even with lifetime status, you can always earn any higher tiers, so long as you meet the spend and flying requirements, so there’s nothing preventing a lifetime Gold or Platinum from earning Platinum Pro or Executive Platinum. If you value upgrades, moving up to a higher tier may in fact be worth it.

Bottom Line: If you have lifetime status on American, it’s important to remember that your listing on the upgrade list will still be ordered by rolling annual spend with American.

Final Thoughts

Knowing how to use 500-mile upgrades on American Airlines is the key to understanding the best ways to be to sit forward in the premium cabin as much as possible. American’s system is definitely different than other airlines, but in many respects is a better system because it provides less competition for those coveted plush seats in the front of the plane.

With the extra knowledge you have to maximize use of the 500-mile upgrade system, you’ll be more empowered to use them on better routes, better flights and at better times — allowing you to sit in business class or first class more often.


FAQ

How much is an American Airlines upgrade?

Upgrades to the premium cabin on American Airlines can be purchased outright (~$40) or elite passengers can use 500-mile upgrades. To use a 500-mile upgrade, the elite passenger must either earn them, or purchase them, and then upgrades will be prioritized based on status level and rolling spend within the last 12 months.

What is an American Airlines 500-mile upgrade?

An American Airlines 500-mile upgrade is the certificate used to upgrade any elite status passenger to business or first class on select domestic and local international routes. You need 1 500-mile upgrade for every 500 miles of travel.

How much is a 500-mile upgrade?

A 500-mile upgrade can generally be purchased for $40 each online on American’s website.

How do I redeem my 500-mile upgrades?

To redeem your upgrades, you must request the upgrade when you purchase your ticket online or by calling American’s reservation team. Once you are waitlisted for the upgrade, it will be cleared in order of elite status level and how much money you’ve spent on American and Oneworld partners within the last 12 months on a rolling basis.

James Larounis

About James Larounis

Jamie first got his hook on miles and points during a high school choir trip to Europe, where he flew in Lufthansa First Class (thanks to his dad’s then US Airways miles) because economy was sold out.

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1 comment

  1. Grumpy Texan Travel · September 3, 2019 · Reply

    Very detailed post. I rarely see this amount of detail on your competitor’s blogs.

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