Want a Free Upgrade to Main Cabin Extra or Preferred on AA? Try Not Selecting a Seat
Update: Some offers mentioned below are no longer available. View the current offers here: Citi Prestige
Like most airlines, American Airlines charges a premium for seats in economy that have extra legroom or are toward the front of the cabin, calling them Main Cabin Extra (MCE) or Preferred seats. These fees are often waived for elite customers, but average passengers are normally stuck in the back of the aircraft unless they are willing to pay — or often overpay — for a forward seat. However, I recently discovered that there are times when AA may actually assign a Preferred or MCE seat to a lowly status-less economy customer for free.
I encountered the scenario when I used ThankYou points from my Citi Prestige Card to book an AA reservation just before Citi lowered the redemption rate for American flights from 1.6 cents per point to 1.25 cents per point. I don't have any status with American, and the booking class was discount economy (S). I didn't bother selecting a seat when I booked, and when I checked in for my flight, the seat map showed the following seats available with the option to pay for an upgrade: MCE in orange ($33), Preferred in green ($9) and Standard in blue (free):
I decided not to pick a seat at check-in to see what I'd be assigned. And to my surprise, AA assigned me an MCE seat at no charge! As you can see, the post-check-in seat map is exactly the same as above, but with me in MCE seat 5D.
One minute before, if I had chosen 5D myself, I would have been charged $33. The most surprising aspect of this scenario is that there were actually Standard seats available. But instead of placing me in a Standard seat, American assigned me an MCE seat. At this point, if I changed my seat to another MCE or Preferred seat, AA would have charged me the same rate I saw at check-in. Even a downgrade from MCE to Preferred would have cost me $9. However, my boarding pass said seat 5D, and I wasn't about to change that.
A similar scenario happened on my connecting flight, however this time there were only MCE ($33) and Preferred ($9) seats available:
You can see that AA notes in this scenario when there are no Standard seats available: "If you don't want to pay for your seats now, we'll assign seats after check-in." So, obviously, you should complete check-in without picking and paying for a seat. However, I was pleasantly surprised again. I once again was assigned MCE seat 5D and its extra legroom as opposed to just a Preferred seat:
My experience wasn't unique to this reservation. Two weeks later, I had the same situation: During booking and check-in I didn't select a seat for either of my flights, with MCE, Preferred and Standard seats all available. On the first flight — on a regional jet — I was assigned a Preferred seat after check-in for free, which would have cost me $9 otherwise. The seat map to the left is from after check-in with my free Preferred seat. The seat map to the right shows what the seat next to me would have cost if I changed it at that point.
But the best upgrade of all was on my DTW-MIA flight. When I booked and when I checked in, no Standard window seats were available. To get a window, I would have had to pay a minimum of $28 for a Preferred seat. However, after check-in, I was assigned a Preferred window seat without paying any upgrade fee! While a few rows forward or backward on an aircraft doesn't make much difference to me, being able to lean against a window for a nap on a three-hour flight is a significant upgrade in my book.
On the left below is the seat map after check-in with my free Preferred seat 16A. Once again, if I had changed my seat to the window directly across the aisle (16F), I would have been charged $28 (seat map to the right). Needless to say, I didn't toy with the seats.
When Not to Try This
Obviously, my results are not dependable, so in some circumstances it may not be worth risking it. For example, if a Standard window/aisle seat is available when booking and you don't select a seat, there's a chance only middle seats will be left when you check in. If the AA check-in seat-assigner isn't as nice to you as it was to me, you may get stuck in one of those Standard middle seats unless you pay your way out of it.
Also, if your flight ends up oversold and you don't have an assigned seat, you could end up getting bumped. However, passengers are getting bumped much less frequently these days after the incident on United. Or, if you're like me, you hope your flight is overbooked so you can take advantage of voluntary denied boarding compensation. I've collected many, many thousands of dollars in vouchers over the years by booking flights I expected to be oversold and giving up my seat when they were.
When to Try This
If the only seats available at booking are middle Standard seats (or no Standard seats at all), you might as well hold off on selecting one. This is when it becomes a "nothing to lose" scenario. And if you haven't selected a seat yet at check-in, wait to see what AA assigns you. If you don't like what you're assigned, you're free to choose from the same selection of Standard seats that were available at check-in, and you still have the opportunity to pay for an upgrade. Or perhaps you'll luck out like I did on my last four flights and score a free upgrade to a Preferred or MCE seat with legroom like this:
For an in-depth look into other strategies on AA economy seat selection, check out A Beginner's Guide to Choosing Seats on American Airlines. Personally, I wouldn't pay what American charges for Preferred and MCE seats — I keep to a budget — but I'll take it if it's free. It's likely American will eventually adjust its system to stop giving away these seats, so like all things in the ever-changing points and miles landscape, take advantage of it while you still can.
Have you had any luck scoring a free Preferred or MCE seat on AA?