Are Tickets Purchased With Points Through a Bank Portal Eligible for Upgrades?

Mar 1, 2018

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“Reader Questions” are now answered twice a week — Tuesdays and Thursdays — by TPG Assistant Editor Brendan Dorsey.

Purchasing the right ticket for an upgrade can be confusing, time consuming and expensive. So, what’s one way to ease the burden? Buying a ticket with points through a bank’s travel portal, and then applying an upgrade to that “free ticket.” TPG reader Michael writes in asking if these tickets actually would be eligible for upgrades:

If I redeem my points from a credit card account such as the Chase Sapphire Reserve, Bank of America®️ Premium Rewards®️ Visa®️, etc., are these tickets considered “award tickets”? Will they be eligible for AA Systemwide Upgrades?

TPG Reader Michael

Great question Michael. Let’s talk about how systemwide upgrades (known as SWUs) work. SWUs are given to American Airlines Executive Platinums and Platinum Million Milers. They can be used on most paid American Airlines tickets to upgrade you or a friend from economy to business or from business to first class.

But exactly which tickets are eligible for upgrades? According to American, all fare classes are eligible except:

  • Codeshare flights, including flights marketed by American and operated by other airlines
  • Government or military fares
  • Fares ineligible for mileage credit (like award tickets)
  • Basic Economy fare tickets

So does purchasing an airline ticket through a bank’s travel portal — say, by using Chase Ultimate Rewards or Citi ThankYou points — count as an award ticket? Fortunately not, since when you book directly through a bank portal as opposed to transferring your points to an airline partner, you’re buying a revenue ticket and just using points instead of cash.

But before you buy the ticket, make sure you search to see if the flight has upgrade seats available. If you’re an Executive Platinum elite, you can do so by signing into your AAdvantage account before searching for flights, and will show you SWU availability. Otherwise, you’ll need to use a paid service like ExpertFlyer to find upgrade space. Once you’ve found the right ticket, purchase it through the portal, get your record locater and call American to apply the SWU to the ticket. Just beware that we’ve seen some frustrating experiences when customers try to make changes or cancel a ticket that’s been purchased through a portal after an SWU has been applied.

What about when buying tickets from other big carriers like Delta or United? For Delta tickets, all published fare classes are eligible for upgrades with the exception of basic economy “E” fares, so its basically the same situation as American. However, on United tickets, in order to apply a Global Premier Upgrade (GPU), the ticket will have to be in a “W” fare class or higher. You can call into the bank’s travel center and confirm what fare class you’ll be purchasing.

It’s also smart to look out for tickets coded as bulk fares, as those can sometimes affect upgrade eligibility on certain carriers. Most bank travel portals allow you to dig into the weeds to see if you’re purchasing a bulk fare — you’ll need to look for a section marked “Rules” or “Policies” when booking a flight and search for words such as “wholesale” and/or “bulk fare.”

Even if you’re not trying to apply an upgrade certificate, these tickets should still get you onto the upgrade list if you have elite status with an airline. Just make sure you add your frequent flyer number when booking (or after the fact if the portal doesn’t allow for that).

So booking a ticket directly with bank points can be a good way to keep your eligibility for an upgrade, since you can’t use upgrade certificates on award tickets. Thanks for the question, Michael, and if you’re a TPG reader who’d like us to answer a question of your own, tweet us at @thepointsguy, message us on Facebook or email us at

Featured photo by Squaredpixels/Getty Images.

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