The Ins and Outs of American Airlines 500-Mile Upgrades

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If you’re an American Airlines Gold or Platinum member, you can get a free upgrade to first class on domestic and select international flights by using “500-mile upgrades.” TPG Contributor JT Genter walks you through earning, purchasing and — most importantly — using these upgrades.

Whether you realized it or not, one part of your AAdvantage account changed on March 1. And, the number displayed there has never been so high.

Hopefully this describes all of your mileage numbers! But the figure I’m referencing is: “EQMs needed to earn 500-mile upgrades: 12,500.”

Your 500-mile upgrade counter reset on March 1.

Everyone’s 500-mile upgrade counter was reset to 12,500 on March 1, and new changes went into effect on how you can earn and buy these upgrades. Now that we’re all starting from scratch, let’s dig into the 500-mile upgrade system.

Earning 500-Mile Upgrades

American Airlines A321T First Class Featured
Under the new program, booking in business/first class helps you earn 500-mile upgrades faster.

Starting March 1, 2016, American Airlines AAdvantage Gold and Platinum elite status holders receive four “500-mile upgrades” for every 12,500 Elite-Qualifying Miles (EQM) earned. There’s no pro-rating; you must cross the 12,500-EQM threshold to get the upgrades.

There is one small exception to the “no pro-rating” statement: If you earn Executive Platinum status. Since Executive Platinum members don’t earn additional 500-mile upgrades, you lose any progress you made toward 500-mile upgrades when you become an Executive Platinum member. While the pro-rated upgrades won’t automatically post, you can call AA to request additional 500-mile upgrades to compensate.

One quirk this year is that you will only have 11 months to earn these EQMs. Your American Airlines membership period began March 1, 2016, but will end January 31, 2017. So, make sure that you don’t count on February 2017 flights to reach the next threshold.

It used to be that you only needed 10,000 EQMs to get four upgrades, but this was one of the changes buried in the AA devaluation. The justification behind this change was that the changes to the EQM earning chart would make it easier to earn EQMs. However, if you only book economy flights — or fly a lot on Oneworld and other American Airlines partners — this won’t be the case.

American Airlines OneWorld featured
The name on the side of the plane doesn’t determine your earning rate, but the airline and the flight number.

As a quick refresher, you’ll earn between 0.5-3 EQMs per mile you fly in 2016. The rate is based on the cabin, fare class and the airline code of the flight number that you book. Almost all economy fares are going to earn 1 EQM per mile flown on American Airlines flight numbers and 0.5 EQM per mile flown with partner flight numbers.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, if you book full-fare business- or first-class American Airlines flights, you’ll earn 3 EQMs per mile flown. These flights earned 1 EQM per mile flown in 2015 and prior. So, if you fly in business/first class a lot, you’ll earn upgrades faster under the new system.

What does this really mean for you? In order to earn up to 2,000 miles (see Using 500-Mile Upgrades section below) of upgrades, you’ll need:

Miles Required Booked In Flight number
4,167 Full-fare business/first-class AA
6,250 Discount business/first-class AA
8,333 Full-fare economy AA
8,333 Premium economy/business/first-class Partners
12,500 Economy (except full-fare economy) AA
12,500 Full-fare economy Partners
25,000 Economy (except full-fare economy) Partners

As you can see, there’s a drastic difference in how fast you earn upgrades. So, you want to stick to booking AA flight numbers if possible. And, if you get stuck buying a full-fare ticket, at least you can console yourself in that you’re earning upgrades faster!

Purchasing 500-Mile Upgrades

Need more upgrades for an upcoming flight? American Airlines gives you two ways of buying more.

First, you can purchase them for $40 each. Not bad for an upgrade, right? Just remember you’ll need more than one 500-mile upgrade for the flight. See the Using 500-Mile Upgrades section below for more about that.

As American Airlines processes the payment itself, make sure to use a credit card that earns you bonus miles for travel or airfare purchases:

You can also “pay” 40,000 AAdvantage miles for 8 upgrades. This is a horrible deal and should probably make it on the list of ways NOT to use your miles. TPG values AAdvantage miles at 1.7 cents each, so you’d be giving up $680 in value for 8 upgrades (essentially paying $85 each). For those 40,000 miles, if you book before March 22, you can get an off-peak round-trip to Europe!

Using 500-Mile Upgrades

First, 500-mile upgrades can only be used on domestic flights (including Hawaii) and between the US and Canada, Mexico, the Bahamas, the Caribbean, Bermuda and Central America.

500-mile upgrades can only be used on “American Airlines marketed and operated flights.” That means you can’t get an upgrade if you booked an AA-operated flight with a partner’s flight number. And, believe me, I’ve tried!

Thankfully, you can upgrade any American Airlines fare class. Even if you purchase a economy flight for $40 (i.e., on a route where AA is having to compete with Spirit), you can still use a 500-mile upgrade to get into first class.

Another limitation: You must be a current elite member to use 500-mile upgrades. If you’ve lost status and still have a few upgrades in your account, you must regain status to be able to use them.

AA 500-mile upgrade chart - under 500 miles
All AA elite status holders get free upgrades for flights under 500 miles.

Flights less than 500 miles: If you’re a Gold, Platinum or Executive Platinum member, you’ll automatically be added to the upgrade list; no need to use a 500-mile upgrade.

Note that any non-elite companions on your reservation won’t be auto-upgraded with you. If you have one non-elite companion on your reservation, you can use a 500-mile upgrade to upgrade them. If you’re traveling with multiple non-elite companions, unfortunately you’ll need to pick your favorite one and call AA to request the upgrade for them.

Flights more than 500 miles: Gold and Platinum members need to use one 500-mile upgrade for every 500 flight miles, rounded up to the nearest 500 miles. Executive Platinum members get free upgrades on all domestic flights.

Unfortunately for
Unfortunately for NYC-based SXSW attendees, it’ll cost you four upgrades to upgrade on JFK-AUS flights.

For example, Houston (IAH) to Chicago (ORD) is 925 flight miles. You’ll need two upgrades for a one-way flight between these airports. This is a pretty efficient use of 500-mile upgrades. However, if you’re headed from New York’s JFK to Austin (AUS) for SXSW, you’re going to need to use four upgrades for the 1,519-mile flight, practically wasting that fourth upgrade.

Great Circle Mapper is a great resource for quickly checking mileage between airports. But, American Airlines flight miles sometimes vary a bit from what you’ll see on Great Circle Mapper. If the mileage is within a few miles of that next 500-mile threshold, you’ll want to verify the mileage on AA.com. When you request an upgrade, AA lists the mileage and how many 500-mile upgrades will be needed.

AA 500-mile upgrade chart - over 500 miles

The priority for upgrades is based on elite status. Executive Platinum members’ auto-requested upgrades clear first (up to 100 hours before departure), then Platinum members (up to 72 hours before departure) and Gold members (up to 24 hours before departure).

The tie-breaker for elites at the same level is when you requested the upgrade. So, make sure to request an upgrade at booking for any flight you potentially want to be upgraded. Even if you don’t currently have enough upgrades, the system will add you to the list. Then, when upgrades are clearing, the system will check whether or not you have enough upgrades.

Already booked a flight and forgot to request an upgrade? You can pull up My Trips on AA.com and request the upgrade at any time.

I used two 500-mile upgrades to upgrade my IAH-ORD flight to this comfortable Embraer first class seat.
I used two 500-mile upgrades to upgrade my IAH-ORD flight to this comfortable Embraer first class seat.

If your flight is canceled after booking and you’re rebooked on another flight, your request date should transfer to the new flight. Unfortunately, there is no way of verifying this online, but you can call your AA elite reservation desk number to check the upgrade request date. If it didn’t transfer correctly, the agents have a way of backdating it to your original request date.

Finally, you can only use 500-mile upgrades for yourself and your travel companions booked in the same reservation. Unfortunately, you can’t apply them to flights booked by friends and family, no matter how generous you’re feeling.

Update: It appears that American does not actually deduct the 500-mile certificates until your flight departs, so you should be able to request an upgrade without having certificates in your account. If your upgrade clears and you don’t have 500-mile upgrades available, you’ll need to purchase them at check-in.

Bottom Line

The American Airlines 500-mile upgrade is an important part of the American Airlines AAdvantage program. While seemingly self-explanatory — heck, “500-mile” is in the name! — the system has a lot of quirks and things to keep in mind. Hopefully this guide will help you earn, purchase and use your 500-mile upgrades better than before!

What’s your favorite route to apply 500-mile upgrades?

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