How to Upgrade to Business/First Class on American Airlines Flights

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Want to upgrade on your next American Airlines flight? If you’re not a top elite member of the American Airlines AAdvantage frequent flier program, your chances may seem less than optimal.

But you shouldn’t give up hope. Although upgrade demand is high and availability limited, there’s usually a way to fly in the front of the plane if you:

  • Understand how the upgrade process works
  • Know how to leverage your frequent flier miles for upgrade opportunities
  • Take advantage of premium flights when pricing is discounted

Let’s take a look at American Airlines’ definitive policy for allocating upgrades to their top elites and how non-elites stand a chance of flying in premium cabins.

Types of American Airlines Upgrades

American Airlines rewards its top elite members with complimentary upgrades and the ability to earn worldwide upgrades. Lower-level elite members receive complimentary upgrades on flights 500 miles or less and can earn (or purchase) additional 500-mile upgrades.

All travelers who have AAdvantage frequent flier miles can use miles to upgrade their flights when upgrade space is available.

Complimentary Upgrades

AAdvantage elite members receive complimentary upgrades on flights less than 500 miles in length.

Executive Platinum and Platinum Pro elite members earn complimentary upgrades on flights within the U.S. (including Hawaii), and between the U.S. and Canada, Mexico, the Bahamas, Bermuda, the Caribbean, and Central America.

Systemwide Upgrades

Systemwide upgrades are upgrades earned annually by Executive Platinum Elite members that can be used worldwide on American flights.

These upgrades allow for up to 3 flights in each direction of travel (outbound or return) to be upgraded from economy to business class or business class to first class.

500-Mile Upgrades

Platinum and Gold AAdvantage Elite members earn 4 500-mile upgrades for every 12,500 Elite Qualifying Miles earned. These upgrades can also be purchased by all elite members for $40 each.

Mileage Upgrade Awards

Use your miles to upgrade American-marketed and operated flights worldwide.

How to Find Out if Upgrade Space is Available

One of the greatest challenges of securing an upgrade on American Airlines is finding available seats. Just because you can purchase a business class seat does not mean that seat is available for an upgrade.

If you have ConciergeKey/Executive Platinum status with American Airlines, you’ll be able to see the availability of using Systemwide Upgrades or Mileage Upgrade Awards when you search for a flight.

Others will have to call to find out if upgrade space is available and if it is possible to use miles or 500-mile certificates (elite members) to upgrade on a particular flight.

Another option to find out if upgrade space is available is to subscribe to a third-party service such as Expert Flyer and search for C (business class) or F (first class) award space.

Upgrade Priority: Who Gets the Upgrade First?

The upgrade hierarchy for American Airlines is similar to other airlines’ upgrade ranking in that Elite status is the most important factor.

This is the order in which upgrades are processed:

1. Elite status level: highest to lowest 

  • ConciergeKey
  • Executive Platinum
  • Platinum Pro
  • Platinum
  • Gold

2. Upgrade type: highest priority to lowest priority 

  • Systemwide upgrades
  • Mileage Award upgrades
  • 500-mile upgrades on purchased tickets
  • 500-mile upgrades on award tickets

3. 12-month rolling EQDs

The amount of Elite Qualifying Dollars the elite member has spent in the previous 12 months.

4. Time/date of upgrade request (tie-breaker)

The only option for non-elite members to secure an upgrade is with mileage award upgrades, and even then, all elite members will supersede your request on the upgrade waitlist.

Hot Tip: Don’t let the upgrade priority list keep you from requesting a Mileage Award upgrade. Even without elite status, if upgrade space is available when you book your ticket, the upgrade may clear immediately. The trick is finding available upgrade space, but it is possible. 

The Importance of AAdvantage Elite Status

Elite status is the number 1 factor determining which travelers will be upgraded on American Airlines flights. Top elite members, for example, earn Systemwide Upgrade (SWU) certificates that, when used, out-rank any other upgrade requests.

Here’s how elite members fare when it comes to securing an upgrade.

ConciergeKey

This top status is by invitation only at American Airline’s discretion. All the upgrade benefits of Executive Platinum plus upgrade priority over all other elite members.

Executive Platinum

Achieving Executive Platinum earns 4 Systemwide Upgrade Certificates plus 2 additional SWUs for every 50,000 miles flown up to 200,000 total EQMs annually.

Complimentary upgrades are available on flights within the U.S. (including Hawaii), and between the U.S. and Canada, Mexico, the Bahamas, Bermuda, the Caribbean, and Central America

Platinum Pro

Complimentary upgrades on flights within the U.S. (including Hawaii), and between the U.S. and Canada, Mexico, the Bahamas, Bermuda, the Caribbean, and Central America

Platinum

Complimentary upgrades on flights less than 500 miles. May purchase additional 500-mile upgrades and can earn 4 500-mile upgrades for every 12,500 EQMs flown annually.

Gold

Complimentary upgrades on flights less than 500 miles. May purchase additional 500-mile upgrades and can earn 4 500-mile upgrades for every 12,500 EQMs flown annually.

Bottom Line: Top AAdvantage Program Elite status is the number 1 factor that determines who will receive an upgrade on American Airlines. 

The Value of an American Airlines AAdvantage Credit Card

Having an AAdvantage credit card does not increase your chances of receiving an upgrade, but it can make your trip more comfortable and affordable.

There are 2 issuers of AAdvantage credit cards: Citi and Barclays.

Citi AAdvantage Credit Cards

Citi AAdvantage® Credit CardFlight Benefits/Annual Fee
  • Free checked bag on domestic flights for you and up to 4 traveling companions
  • Preferred boarding on American Airlines flights
  • 25% rebate on in-flight food and beverage purchases
  • Reduced mileage award travel of up to 7,500 fewer miles
  • $95 annual fee
  • A free checked bag for you and up to 8 travel companions on domestic itineraries
  • Priority check-in, boarding, and screening for the primary cardholder
  • 25% rebate on in-flight food and beverage purchases
  • Spend $40,000 and receive 10,000 Elite Qualifying Miles towards AAdvantage Elite status
  • Complimentary American Airlines Admiral’s Club membership for up to 10 authorized users
  • $450 annual fee

Barclays AAdvantage Credit Cards: A Faster Path to Elite Status

Each level of American Airlines elite status qualification requires an EQD (Elite Qualifying Dollars) level of spending with the airline in addition to Elite Qualifying Miles/Segment qualifications (EQM/EQS).

Elite Status LevelEQD RequirementMiles (EQM)/Segment (EQS) Requirement
Gold$3,00025,000 or 30
Platinum$6,00050,000 or 60
Platinum Pro$9,00075,000 or 90
Executive Platinum$12,000100,000 or 120

One of the key benefits of the Barclays AAdvantage Aviator® credit cards is that you can earn Elite Qualifying Dollars (as much as $6,000 per year) towards AAdvantage Elite status with American Airlines. This is a benefit not offered on any of the Citi AAdvantage credit cards.

Barclays AAdvantage® Credit CardFlight Benefits/Annual FeeFaster Path to Elite Status
  • Barclays AAdvantage® Aviator® World Elite Mastercard®
  • Barclays AAdvantage® Aviator® Business Mastercard®
  • First checked bag free and preferred boarding for you and up to 4 companions
  • 25% in-flight savings on food and beverages
  • $95 annual fee
  • $25,000 in purchases per calendar year equals $3,000 EQDs towards AAdvantage Elite status
  • Barclays AAdvantage® Aviator® Silver World Elite Mastercard®
  • Free checked bag and preferred boarding for you and up to 8 traveling companions.
  • Two $99 companion tickets after spending $30,000 on the card annually
  • 25% in-flight savings on food and beverages
  • $195 annual fee
  • Not available for new applications, must upgrade from the Barclays Red Aviator credit card
  • $25,000 in purchases per calendar year earns $3000 EQDs.
  • $50,000 in purchases per calendar year earns a total of $6,000 towards EQD requirement and 10,000 Elite Qualifying Miles

There is a maximum of $6,000 EQDs that can be earned towards Elite status regardless of the number of Aviator credit cards you have.

For a list of American Airlines AAdvantage credit cards and the perks and rewards available with each card, access our complete guide.

Bottom Line: Although having an AAdvantage credit card will not directly help you upgrade on American Airlines flights, the ability to earn EQDs/EQMs on the Barclays Aviator credit cards and EQMs on the Citi AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard can accelerate your progress towards AAdvantage Elite status, which is the most important factor for securing an upgrade. 

Upgrading with Miles

All travelers, regardless of AAdvantage frequent flier status, can use AAdvantage frequent flier miles to upgrade on American Airlines or American Eagle marketed or operated flights based on availability.

Upgrades are valid for a single-class upgrade on up to 3 segments for the outbound or return journey and exclude Basic Economy and award tickets.

The amount of miles it takes to upgrade a ticket varies depending on the route and the fare class of the ticket. The following chart reflects the number of miles and co-pay needed to upgrade.

The good news is even a discount economy ticket qualifies for an upgrade with miles. Unfortunately, upgrade space is not always available.

Visit AA.com for complete descriptions of fare classes and zone definitions for these types of mileage upgrades.

Bottom Line: You don’t have to have elite status with American Airline’s AAdvantage frequent flier program to be able to upgrade a flight using miles. Even a discount economy ticket is eligible. 

You can use miles to upgrade on British Airways and Iberia flights. Image by Christine Krzyszton.

Upgrading on Partner Airlines

You can use your AAdvantage frequent flier miles to upgrade on British Airways and Iberia flights.

One caveat is that you will need to purchase at least a full-fare economy ticket such as Y/B fare class to use miles to upgrade, which may be quite expensive.

Here are examples of how many miles it takes to upgrade flights on these partner airlines.

To/FromTo/FromFull-Fare Economy to Premium EconomyPremium Economy to BusinessFull-Fare Economy to BusinessBusiness to First
North AmericaEurope12,50012,50025,00035,000
North AmericaAfrica20,00020,00040,00050,000
North AmericaIndian Subcontinent, Middle East20,00020,00040,00050,000

Mileage upgrades are valid for up to 3 segments on a one-way journey, outbound or return.

One possible sweet spot here is the British Airways Premium Economy to Business upgrade for 12,500 miles each way. This fare occasionally goes on sale, making it a good value for securing an upgrade.

Keep in mind that there may be additional taxes and carrier-imposed fees for specific itineraries, such as flights originating in Great Britain and France.

Additional routes not originating in North America are also available for mileage upgrades. Visit AA.com for complete zone and fare class definitions for partner airline mileage upgrades.

Hot Tip: British Airways offers discounts for AARP members at the rate of $200 per business class ticket and $65 for economy or premium economy for flights originating from the United States. It’s a potentially good value when combined with mileage upgrades. You do not have to be 50 or older to join AARP. 

 

British Airways First Class - Europe Trip 2018
Companion upgrades allow you to share the luxury with others.

Companion Upgrades

American Airlines has recently improved their companion upgrade process.  If an elite member is traveling with a companion, the companion upgrade will now receive the same status priority as the elite member. Companions do not have to be AAdvantage program members, and the upgrade can be deducted from any account.

For example, if an Executive Platinum Elite Member is traveling with a companion on the same flight, the companion will be elevated to Executive Platinum priority for upgrades, regardless of whether the companion has status and regardless which elite member is providing the upgrade.

ConceirgeKey and Platinum Elite Members can use their system-wide upgrade certificates and request complimentary upgrades for companions.  All other elite members must use 500-mile upgrade certificates to upgrade themselves and their companions on flights greater than 500 miles in length.

Companion upgrades are available on paid tickets and award tickets.

To use 500-mile upgrade certificates, you can select an upgrade when making a reservation or at any time before departure on aa.com or call and speak with an American Airlines representative.

Hot Tip: An elite member who sponsors a companion for an upgrade does not necessarily have to use their own Systemwide/500-mile upgrades for the companion, they just need to be flying with that companion. The Systemwide/500-mile upgrade can be deducted from any account according to the American Airline’s website. 

10 Ways to Secure an Upgrade (or Increase Your Chances) With American Airlines

Securing an upgrade on American Airlines may be challenging. Upgrades are limited, and demand is high, but there are ways to increase your chances of an upgrade or secure a premium cabin ticket directly.

With American AAdvantage Elite Status

1. Attain Executive Platinum Elite status and earn Systemwide Upgrade certificates. These SWUs can be used on any American Airlines flight worldwide and a ticket issued in any fare class except Basic Economy.

2. Purchase 500-mile upgrades. You can purchase 500-mile upgrades for $40 each or purchase 8 upgrades for 40,000 miles. For a 1,900-mile trip, you would need 4 upgrades.

3. Use miles to purchase business or first class award tickets. When you absolutely want to fly in a premium cabin, the easiest way is to use miles to secure business or first class tickets.

4. Buy an upgrade at ticket purchase, check-in or at the gate. Upgrades may be offered while you’re booking your ticket, when you check in, or offered at the gate before departure. Pre-departure gate upgrades for purchase may be discounted and a good value.

5. Purchase full economy fare tickets in Y or B fare class. These fare classes will be the first to clear for upgrades.

Without American AAdvantage Elite Status

6. Have a top AAdvantage Elite member sponsor you. It’s not what you know, it’s who you know. Knowing a top elite member could equal an upgrade if you’re both traveling on the same eligible flight. The top elite member just needs to request the upgrade.

7. Use miles to purchase business or first class award tickets. Purchasing a premium class award ticket with miles is the easiest way to secure a seat in the front of the plane. AAdvantage credit card sign-up bonuses often deliver enough miles to secure a business or first class award ticket, but there are lots of ways to earn plenty of American Airlines miles.

8. Upgrade with miles. Even discount economy tickets are eligible for mileage upgrade awards if space is available.

9. Set up fare alerts for business class fares. Since discounted business class and premium economy tickets can occasionally be less expensive than economy, you can set up fare alerts with sites such as Google Flights to alert you when the route you’re looking for has a good business or first class deal.

10. Trip disruption or voluntary denied boarding. If you miss your connection due to disruption at the fault of the airline or give up your seat when a flight is oversold, you should ask to be upgraded on the next flight.

Final Thoughts

A definitive process for allocating upgrades is a positive and rewards AAdvantage Elite members whose loyalty is strongest with American Airlines. For others, just like with any airline, directly purchasing premium class tickets to fly in premium class is becoming increasingly necessary.

Flying in premium class can be accomplished quite easily by purchasing business or first class award tickets with miles or with paid flights offered at discount prices.

FAQ

How much does a first class upgrade cost with American Airlines?

There is no single price option for upgrading to first class on an American Airlines flight, as the price in cash or miles is based on the route you are flying and the fare class of the ticket you wish to upgrade. Upgrades are also subject to availability.

You can access a chart with all the prices in miles and with miles and co-pays on aa.com.

Can I upgrade my basic economy ticket?

Basic Economy fare tickets cannot be upgraded regardless of elite status and they cannot be upgraded with miles.

The Basic Economy fare was created to provide a low-cost product for those who prioritize cost over amenities and has several additional restrictions including no cancellations or changes and no advanced seat selection.

Can I upgrade my ticket with miles?

Most tickets are eligible to upgrade with miles, with the exception of award tickets and Basic Economy fare tickets, but there must be upgrade availability.

To find out if there is upgrade space available on your flight, you would need to contact American Airlines unless you have top elite status with American, which will allow you to view upgrade space when booking your ticket.

You can view a complete upgrade chart with the cost for upgrading your ticket with miles and with miles and co-pays on aa.com

Does having an American Airlines credit card help with upgrades?

Having an American Airlines AAdvantage credit card will not help you get upgraded, but it will make your trip more comfortable and affordable with priority boarding and a free checked bag.

You'll realize additional savings with a 25% rebate on food and beverage purchases on board your flight.

Having an American Airlines AAdvantage credit card can also accelerate your progress towards earning AAdvantage Elite status as spending on the AAdvantage Aviator credit cards can earn you Elite Qualifying Dollars and Elite Qualifying Miles, both necessary to qualify for elite status.

Do I earn miles on my upgraded ticket?

If you upgrade a ticket with miles, you will earn mileage based on the original purchased ticket fare class.

For example, if you purchase a full-fare economy ticket and then upgrade it with miles to a business class ticket, you will accrue miles based on the original full-fare economy ticket that you purchased.

How do I find discounted business or first class fares on American Airlines?

If you have a specific route you'd like to fly, you can set up alerts on several web sites to notify you when the fare on that route changes.

Google Flights is an example of one website that allows you to narrow your flight search to American Airlines or even One World Alliance to find flights.

Once you've found a flight you like, you can have the site track the flight and alert you when the price changes.

What is a 500-mile upgrade?

A 500-mile upgrade is a form of upgrade certificate that Platinum Elite and Gold Elite status members of American Airline's AAdvantage frequent flier program can earn and elites can purchase.

The upgrades can be applied to flights to upgrade the traveler and/or companion in sufficient quantities to cover the length of the flight.

For example, a flight of 2,400 miles would require 5 500-mile upgrade certificates.

How much do 500-mile upgrades cost?

A 500-mile upgrade costs $40, but it can only be purchased by an AAdvantage frequent flier program elite member. Elite members may also use miles to purchase 500-miles upgrades at the rate of 8 upgrades for 40,000 AAdvantage miles.

Upgrades can also be earned by Platinum and Gold level AAdvantage elite members. For each 12,500 Elite Qualifying Miles flown, the elite member receives 4 500-mile upgrades.

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