Everything you need to know about American Airlines 500-mile upgrades

Oct 25, 2019

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Everyone loves a free upgrade. And if you’re an American Airlines elite looking to get upgraded on a flight within North America, you’re going to want to understand how the airline’s “500-mile upgrade” system works. While it may seem self-explanatory — after all, “500-mile” is in the name — the system has quirks and conditions that you’ll want to know about.

So, let’s dive in and show you how this program works:

 

In This Post

Earning 500-mile upgrades

American Airlines AAdvantage Gold and Platinum elite status holders receive four “500-mile upgrades” for every 12,500 Elite Qualifying Miles (EQM) earned.

AAdvantage Platinum Pro and Executive Platinum elites don’t accumulate or use 500-mile upgrades as these elites have unlimited complimentary domestic upgrades through the 500-mile upgrade system.

There’s no pro-rating; you must cross the 12,500 EQM threshold to get the upgrades. However, elites have historically been able to able to request a pro-ration of 500-mile upgrades when reaching Platinum Pro status for the first time, as progress toward the next batch of upgrades is lost.

Related: What is American Airlines elite status worth in 2019?

One quirk is that the 12,500 EQM tally is based on the AAdvantage year — which runs from Feb. 1 to Jan. 31 — instead of a calendar year. So, keep this in mind when you’re getting toward the end of the calendar year; there’s no need to go on a mileage run to hit the next threshold by Dec. 31. Instead, you could consider a January mileage run if the upgrades are valuable enough to you.

As a quick refresher on Elite Qualifying Mile (EQM) earnings, you’ll earn between 0.5 EQM per direct flight mile (basic economy) and 3 EQM per direct flight mile (full-fare business/first class) for American Airlines-marketed flights. Except for basic economy fares, all AA economy fares earn 1 EQM per mile flown, premium economy earns 1.5x and most business/first fares earn at a 2x rate.

What does this really mean for you? In order to earn four 500-mile upgrades — worth up to 2,000 miles of domestic upgrades— you’ll need to fly:

Miles Required Booked in Flight number
4,167 Full-fare business/first class AA
6,250 Discount business/first class AA
8,333 Premium economy AA
8,333 Premium economy/business/first class Most partners
12,500 Economy (except basic economy) AA and preferred partners like Qantas
12,500 Full-fare economy Most partners
25,000 Basic economy AA
25,000 Economy (except full-fare economy) Many 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

If you need more upgrades for an upcoming flight, American Airlines gives you two ways of buying more.

First, you can purchase them for $40 each. That might not sound bad for a first-class upgrade, but remember you’ll need to buy one of these for each 500 miles of 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 (return based on TPG valuations):

The information for the Citi AAdvantage Platinum, Citi Prestige, Citi Premier has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.

500-mile upgrades can also be a good use of airline-fee credits. Almost all FlyerTalk reports have been successful in getting purchases of 500-mile upgrades reimbursed. If you’ve selected American Airlines as your airline and still have fee credits available, you may want to use one of the following cards when buying upgrades:

You can also “pay” 40,000 AAdvantage miles for eight upgrades. This is a pretty bad deal for most AAdvantage members. TPG values AAdvantage miles at 1.4 cents each, so you’d be giving up $560 in value for eight upgrades — essentially paying $70 each. I’d rather use those miles for a round-trip to Hawaii during the six months that the region is considered off-peak by AA.

Using 500-mile upgrades

First, it’s important to know where you can and can’t use 500-mile upgrades. 500-mile upgrades can only be used for travel within North America on eligible American Airlines marketed and operated flights. That means you can’t use 500-mile upgrades on Alaska-operated flights sold by American Airlines or American Airlines-operated flights sold by a partner.

The good news is that it’s not just for flights within the continental 48 states. You can use 500-mile upgrades on flights to Hawaii and between the U.S. and Canada, Mexico, the Bahamas, the Caribbean, Bermuda and Central America.

One important restriction to keep in mind: You can’t use 500-mile upgrades on basic economy tickets. You’ll have to weigh whether its worth the additional cost to buy up to Main Cabin for the potential to get an upgrade. With that said, besides basic economy fares, you can upgrade any American Airlines fare class. There’s no need to pay for a more-expensive fare class to be eligible.

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.

Flights less than 500 miles

If you’re a Gold, Platinum, Platinum Pro or Executive Platinum member, you’ll automatically be added to the upgrade list for flights under 500 miles. There’s 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 that they are added to the upgrade list.

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.

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-JFK to Austin (AUS), you’re going to need to use four upgrades for the 1,519-mile flight — meaning you’re practically wasting that fourth upgrade.

Great Circle Mapper is a good 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.

Note: This screenshot has been cropped for context.

Don’t have enough 500-mile upgrades? AA doesn’t require that you have enough 500-mile upgrades available in your account to request an upgrade, and the system doesn’t even check that you have enough upgrades when upgrades are cleared. If your upgrade clears and you don’t have 500-mile upgrades available, you’ll need to purchase them at check-in.

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.

First class seats in a Legacy American Airlines 737-800. (Photo by JT Genter / The Points Guy.)
First class seats in a Legacy American Airlines 737-800. (Photo by JT Genter/The Points Guy.)

If your flight is canceled after booking and you’re rebooked on another flight, your request date should transfer to the new flight. I’d recommend calling your AA elite reservation desk number or confirming at the airport that the request was transferred.

Award flights

500-mile upgrades can’t be applied to award flights. However, thanks to a recent change, Executive Platinum elites get free upgrades on award flights — even on Economy Web Special awards. However, Executive Platinum elites traveling on award flights will be prioritized lower than those flying on revenue tickets.

Companions

American Airlines elites can use their 500-mile upgrades for themselves and up to one companion traveling with them on the same flight. The good news is that your travel companion can be booked in the same reservation or in a different reservation — as long as they’re traveling on American Airlines marketed and operated flights. If your companion is booked in a different reservation, call your AA elite phone number to ask the agent to link the two reservations.

Just note that by adding a companion, you might miss out on an upgrade for yourself. That because you might be skipped if AA revenue management releases just one upgrade and you’re the next on the list. As a top-tier elite, I’ve confirmed that I’ve been skipped on the upgrade list by Platinum Pro, Platinum and even Gold elites when I’ve been traveling with a companion.

Related: Tricks to avoid being skipped on an American Airlines upgrade list

Unfortunately, no matter how generous you’re feeling, you can’t apply 500-mile upgrades to flights booked by friends and family when you aren’t traveling with them.

When do upgrades clear?

500-mile upgrades are processed at different times for different elite levels. American Airlines lists the following times when upgrades will start being processed:

  • Gold: 24 hours before departure
  • Platinum: 48 hours before departure
  • Platinum Pro: 72 hours before departure
  • Executive Platinum: 100 hours before departure.

However, don’t expect to be upgraded if you’re a Platinum elite and see empty first-class seats at 48 hours to departure. American Airlines revenue management needs to release upgrade space in order for these upgrades to clear. If you’re on a route with very low premium demand, elite upgrades may clear when the upgrade window opens, but it’s typically much later.

While “battleground upgrades” — upgrades that clear at the airport — were common for a couple of years, I have noticed that AA has been clearing most upgrades by 24 hours to departure. This is likely to be an effort to reduce the workload of the gate agents and lead to more on-time departures.

This is either good news or bad news depending on whether or not you use same-day flight change benefit. If you’re planning to take the flight you booked, elites benefit from the airline clearing the first-class cabin to just one empty seat at 24 hours — as that means you can be pretty sure whether or not you’ll be sitting in first class when you’re checking in. However, clearing almost all upgrades at 24 hours out means that elites that are hoping to hop on an earlier or later flight are practically giving up any chance of getting upgraded.

Featured photo by JT Genter/The Points Guy.

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