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What to do with expiring airline upgrade certificates

Sept. 30, 2019
7 min read
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In the world of points and miles it's important to have a plan for how you're going to redeem your rewards before you start blindly opening new travel rewards credit cards or pursuing a higher tier of elite status. This is partly because, with a handful of exceptions, most points, upgrade certificates and even free night awards have an expiration date on them.

While you can easily extend the life of most of your points and miles by maintaining a small amount of qualifying activity in your account, upgrade certificates usually have a fixed expiration date forcing you to use them or lose them. Today we're going to take a look at some of your options for dealing with expiring airline upgrade certificates, including gifting them to friends and family when applicable.

American Airlines

While American Airlines offers complimentary space-available upgrades to all of its elite members on flights under 500 miles, it also offers two types of upgrade certificates that can be applied to longer flights. The first is Systemwide Upgrades, which are reserved for top-tier elites:

  • Upgrade type: Systemwide Upgrades (SWUs).
  • How to earn: Earn four SWUs when qualifying or requalifying for Executive Platinum status. You can also choose to earn two additional SWUs as a reward after flying 150,000 EQMs, 200,000 EQMs and 250,000 EQMs in a year.
  • Expiration policy: Upgrades are valid through Jan. 31 two years after eligible travel was completed. For example, SWUs earned in 2019 are valid through Jan. 31, 2021. All travel must be completed by the expiration date (though there may be a workaround).
  • Can they be gifted/transferred?: Per the American Airlines website: "You can share your upgrades with anyone you choose, whether you are traveling with them or not."

While AA has devalued the Executive Platinum status level considerably over the years, the four SWUs are still one of the best perks given to American Airlines' top-tier elites. Unfortunately AA is incredibly stingy when it comes to releasing the "C" space required for these upgrades to clear, so many Executive Platinum elites might find themselves with expiring upgrades they can't use. While AA will no longer extend the expiration date of SWUs, even for its ultra-secretive Concierge Key elite level, you can gift them to friends or family, or even strangers flying on eligible AA flights. Rather than letting your upgrades go to waste, hop over to the TPG Lounge and see if you can make someone's day by sharing your upgrade with them.

Related: The ultimate guide to getting upgraded on American Airlines

American Airlines 787 business class. (Photo by JT Genter/The Points Guy)

For North American flights over 500 miles, AA Gold and Platinum members need to manually request upgrades using their 500-mile upgrade certificates. You'll need to apply one certificate for every 500 miles of flight distance, so the ~620-mile flight between Washington, D.C. (DCA) and Chicago (ORD) would require two upgrade certificates.

  • Upgrade type: 500-mile upgrades.
  • How to earn: AA Platinum and Gold Elites earn four 500-mile upgrades for every 12,500 EQMs flown during the membership year, can purchase additional ones for $40.
  • Expiration policy: 500-mile upgrades do not expire, however you can only use them while you have AAdvantage elite status.
  • Can they be gifted/transferred?: Can't be transferred, but you can apply your upgrades to a companion traveling on your reservation.

500-mile upgrades are much less valuable than SWUs as they only apply to shorter domestic/regional flights and are very hard to clear. Since AA offers complimentary upgrades on North American flights to its Platinum Pro and Executive Platinum elites, the people using 500-mile upgrades tend to be pretty low on the priority list.

United Airlines

United Airlines recently overhauled its upgrade system, getting rid of separate Regional and Global Premier Upgrades (RPUs and GPUs respectively) in favor of a single, streamlined program termed "PlusPoints" which gives elite members more flexibility over when and how to use their upgrades, without devaluing the cost.

As of Dec. 4, all outstanding GPUs will be converted into 40 PlusPoints, and RPUs will become 20 PlusPoints. Then, moving forward, United elites will earn upgrades at the same rate that they do today — in other words, United Premier Platinum, 1K and Global Services (GS) members will all earn PlusPoints as follows:

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  • 40 upon reaching Platinum
  • 280 upon reaching 1K or GS
  • 40 for each subsequent 25,000 PQMs (1K and GS only)

Platinum members currently receive two RPUs a year. Moving forward, they can continue to use their points for two regional upgrades or splurge and spend them all on a single Polaris upgrade, a degree of flexibility they didn't have under the old program.

Make sure to check out TPG Editor-at-Large Zach Honig's post with full details of the United PlusPoints program, as well as TPG's Talking Points episode with United's VP of Loyalty Luc Bondar.

While the name and currency United elites use to upgrade has changed, the expiration policies haven't. This means that, similar to American Airlines, upgrades will still expire at the end of the January one full year after they were earned. PlusPoints earned in 2019 will be valid through January 2021. United also retained the ability to use your PlusPoints to upgrade other travelers, so again, if you have points that are expiring and no upcoming trips planned, make sure to ask your friends, family members or internet strangers if you can make their day with a free upgrade.

Related: The ultimate guide to getting upgraded on United Airlines

Delta Airlines

Delta offers its upper-level elites both regional and global upgrade certificates, though they have to select this as a choice benefit upon qualifying for Platinum and Diamond Medallion status and may opt for other benefits including a Sky Club membership, bonus miles, gifting elite status to a friend or more.

Upon qualifying for Delta Platinum Medallion status, the second-highest of Delta's four published elite tiers, members can select four regional upgrade certificates as their choice benefit. Then upon qualifying for Diamond Medallion status, they can choose again between the following options:

  • Four global upgrade certificates
  • Eight regional upgrade certificates
  • Two global and four regional upgrade certificates

While each type of certificate has different restrictions in terms of eligible routes and fare classes, they follow the same policies when it comes to expiration and gifting. Each certificate expires one year from the date of issue, and your travel must be completed by that date. This is an incentive to delay selecting your choice benefit as long as possible, to give you a few extra days before the clock starts ticking. While upgrades can't be transferred or gifted, you can apply them to a companion traveling on the same flight as you. They don't need to be booked under the same reservation, simply the same flight.

Related: The ultimate guide to getting upgraded on Delta

Bottom line

With short life spans and fixed expiration dates, it's important to keep an eye on your elite upgrade certificates to make sure they don't go to waste. If you find yourself coming up on the expiration date with no active plans to use them, both United and American will allow you to use your upgrades for anyone, even if you aren't traveling.

Featured photo courtesy of Zach Honig/The Points Guy

Featured image by Photo by Zach Honig / The Points Guy

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