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.
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 are upgrades chosen annually as part of a Loyalty Choice Rewards system by Platinum Pro and Executive Platinum elite members and can be used worldwide on American (and some British Airways) flights. Executive Platinum members can choose up to 4 upgrades, while Platinum Pro members can choose 1 upgrade. An Executive Platinum who chooses a systemwide upgrade for all Loyalty Choice Rewards levels would receive 5 upgrades (1 at Platinum Pro and 4 at Executive Platinum).
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 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 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
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.
For 2022, you’ll need these requirements:
|2022 Qualifying Metric
Here’s how elite members fare when it comes to securing an upgrade:
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.
Achieving Executive Platinum earns 4 systemwide upgrade certificates (if you choose these, among many other Loyalty Choice Rewards) plus the ability to earn extra SWUs at 350,000, 550,000, and 750,000 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.
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 Pros will be eligible to earn up to 1 SWU as part of their Loyalty Choice Rewards.
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.
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
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:
||Full-Fare Economy to Premium Economy
||Premium Economy to Business
||Full-Fare Economy to Business
||Business to First
||Indian Subcontinent, Middle East
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.
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
- 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, including Basic Economy.
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- Upgrade with miles. Even discount economy tickets are eligible for mileage upgrade awards if space is available.
- 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.
- 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.
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.