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

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James Larounis
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James Larounis

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James (Jamie) started The Forward Cabin blog to educate readers about points, miles, and loyalty programs. He’s spoken at Princeton University and The New York Times Travel Show and has been quoted in...
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Keri Stooksbury

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With years of experience in corporate marketing and as the Executive Director of the American Chamber of Commerce in Qatar, Keri is now Editor-in-Chief at UP, overseeing daily content operations and r...

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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 flyer 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 flyer 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 its top elites and how non-elites stand a chance of flying in premium cabins.

Types of American Airlines Upgrades

American Airlines AAdvantage loyalty program rewards its top elite members with complimentary upgrades and the ability to earn worldwide upgrades.

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

Complimentary Upgrades

All AAdvantage elite members receive complimentary upgrades on all flights within the U.S., Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean. These upgrades can include 1 companion on the same flight.

Systemwide Upgrades

Systemwide upgrades can be chosen annually as part of the Loyalty Point Rewards system starting at 175,000 Loyalty Points.

These upgrades allow for up to 3 segments in each direction of travel (outbound or return) to be upgraded from Basic Economy or Main Cabin to business class or business class to first class.

Mileage Upgrade Awards

Use your miles to upgrade American-marketed and operated flights worldwide. Depending on the destination you’re traveling to, you can use a combination of miles and a cash co-pay to secure an upgrade to the next higher cabin. For example, a domestic itinerary within the continental U.S. would require 15,000 miles and $75.

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 the seat is available for an upgrade.

If you have ConciergeKey or 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 on aa.com.

Others will have to call to find out if upgrade space is available and if it is possible to use miles 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 ExpertFlyer and search for C (business class) or A (first class) award space.

  • When upgrading from Basic Economy or Main Cabin to domestic first, you need C inventory
  • When upgrading from business class to Flagship First, you need A inventory
  • When upgrading from Basic Economy or Main Cabin to Flagship Business, you need C inventory

Upgrade Priority: Who Gets the Upgrade First?

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

This is the order in which upgrades are processed as well as their numeric code when listed on the internal priority list (known as the PALL):

1. Elite Status Level: Highest to Lowest 

  • ConciergeKey (UPG1)
  • Executive Platinum (UPG2)
  • Platinum Pro (UPG3)
  • Platinum (UPG4)
  • Gold (UPG5)

2. Upgrade Type: Highest Priority to Lowest Priority 

  • Systemwide upgrades (listed as a VIP) and mileage upgrade awards (listed as MLG), tied for the same ranking
  • Complimentary upgrades (formerly 500-mile upgrades) on purchased tickets
  • Complimentary upgrades (formerly 500-mile upgrades) on award tickets (only for ConciergeKey and Executive Platinum)

3. 12-month Rolling Loyalty Points

The amount of Loyalty Points the elite member has earned 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 upgrade awards (or a gifted systemwide upgrade from an elite member), 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 upgrade award. 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

American Airlines 777 Flagship Business Class middle seat
American Airlines 777 Flagship business class. Image Credit: Chris Hassan

Elite status is the #1 factor determining which travelers will be upgraded on American Airlines flights. Top elite members, for example, can earn systemwide upgrade (SWU) certificates that, when used, outrank most other upgrade requests.

SCROLL FOR MORE
Qualifying MetricGold
Oneworld Ruby
Platinum
Oneworld Sapphire
Platinum Pro
Oneworld Emerald
Executive Platinum
Oneworld Emerald
Loyalty Points40,00075,000125,000200,000

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

ConciergeKey

This top status is by invitation-only at American Airlines’ discretion. It includes all of the upgrade benefits of Executive Platinum plus upgrade priority over all other elite members.

Executive Platinum

You can earn 2 systemwide upgrades on the way to Executive Platinum status (at 175,000 Loyalty Points) plus the ability to earn extra SWUs at 250k, 400k, 550k, 750k, 1,000,000, 3,000,000, and 5,000,000 Loyalty Points earned.

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

Achieving Platinum Pro earns 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 and Gold

Achieving Platinum and Gold earns complimentary upgrades on all eligible flights. You will fall behind all other elite tiers.

Bottom Line: Top AAdvantage program elite status is the #1 factor that determines who will receive an upgrade on American Airlines. Having the right credit card in your wallet can make earning one of these elite statuses easier. Read more in our guide to the best credit cards for airline elite status.

AAdvantage Credit Cards: A Faster Path to Elite Status

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

Having an AAdvantage credit card does not increase your chances of receiving an upgrade, but it can make your trip more comfortable and affordable. You’ll be able to get a free checked bag, as well as save on inflight food and beverage purchases.

For co-branded credit cards, you will earn 1 Loyalty Point for every 1 dollar spent. For example, Executive Platinum status, requiring 200,000 Loyalty Points, would require $200,000 spent on a co-branded credit card. The more you spend on your co-branded credit card, the faster you can earn elite status.

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

Upgrading With Miles

All travelers, regardless of AAdvantage frequent flyer status, can use AAdvantage frequent flyer 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 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.

Aadvantage upgrade with miles
Image Credit: American Airlines

The good news is that 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 the American Airlines AAdvantage frequent flyer program to be able to upgrade a flight using miles. Even a discount economy ticket is eligible. 

Upgrading on Partner Airlines

First Class cabin on BA's Airbus A380
You can use miles to upgrade on British Airways and Iberia flights. Image Credit: Daniel Ross

You can use your AAdvantage frequent flyer 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 the 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:

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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. View complete zone and fare class definitions for partner airline mileage upgrades on aa.com.

You can also use systemwide upgrades on British Airways provided that the ticket was purchased through American and has at least 1 segment on American Airlines.

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 U.S. It’s a potentially good value when combined with mileage upgrades. You do not have to be 50 or older to join AARP.

Companion Upgrades

British Airways First Class - Europe Trip 2018
Companion upgrades allow you to share the luxury with others. Image Credit: Alex Miller

American Airlines has recently improved its 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 is deducted from the sponsoring member’s 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. An upgrade can be designated as either “split” or “no split” by speaking with an agent. If there is 1 seat available, a “split” upgrade would upgrade 1 person, but leave the other person in economy. If the upgrade is marked as “no split,” both upgraders will decline the upgrade, and the upgrade will move down on the list to the next eligible person.

Companion upgrades are complimentary for up to 1 companion traveling with you on the same flight. Prior to July 2022, companion upgrades required 500-mile certificates but these have since been retired.

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. Earn systemwide upgrade certificates. These SWUs can be used on any American Airlines flight worldwide and a ticket issued in any fare class, including Basic Economy.
  2. 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.
  3. 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 at the gate before departure based on a “load factory based upgrade.” Pre-departure gate upgrades for purchase may be discounted and a good value. A load factor-based upgrade will never be offered unless all other elites who have requested an upgrade have cleared.

Without American AAdvantage Elite Status

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Upgrade with miles. Even discount economy tickets are eligible for mileage upgrade awards if space is available.
  4. 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.
  5. 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 may be able to 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 a business or first class award tickets with miles or with paid flights offered at discount prices.

Frequently Asked Questions

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?

Yes. As of October 1, 2020, Basic Economy fare tickets can be upgraded by AAdvantage elites.

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 and a cash co-pay, 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 AAdvantage elite status that 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 onboard your flight.

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 Oneworld 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.

James Larounis's image

About James Larounis

James (Jamie) started The Forward Cabin blog to educate readers about points, miles, and loyalty programs. He’s spoken at Princeton University and The New York Times Travel Show and has been quoted in dozens of travel publications.

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