Everything you need to know about American Airlines 500-mile upgrades
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Editor’s note: This post has been updated with new information.
If you’re an American Airlines elite looking to get upgraded on a flight within North America, you should 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 a set of conditions you’ll want to know about. For instance, unlike systemwide upgrades, these upgrades do not apply to long-haul flights.
Let’s take a closer look at how this program works, nuances and all.
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Earning 500-mile upgrades
Before we get into the nitty-gritty, as some background, American Airlines will completely change how 500-mile upgrades are earned when it overhauls its loyalty program in 2022. However, American hasn’t revealed the full details quite yet.
For now, American Airlines AAdvantage Gold and Platinum elite status holders receive four “500-mile upgrades” for every 12,500 elite qualifying miles earned.
On the other hand, AAdvantage Platinum Pro and Executive Platinum elites don’t accumulate 500-mile upgrades as these elites have unlimited complimentary domestic upgrades through the 500-mile upgrade system.
Unfortunately, there’s no prorating; you must cross the 12,500 EQM threshold to get the upgrades. However, elites have historically been able to able to request a proration of 500-mile upgrades when reaching Platinum Pro status for the first time, as progress toward the next batch of upgrades is lost.
One quirk is that the 12,500 EQM tally is based on the AAdvantage year — which currently 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.
As a quick refresher on elite qualifying mile earnings, you’ll earn 1 EQM per direct flight mile flown on American Airlines-marketed flights in economy, 1.5x in premium economy and 2x to 3x in business or first class. Unfortunately, basic economy fares don’t earn any EQMs.
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/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||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 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 every 500 miles of the flight. See the “Using 500-mile upgrades” section below for more info.
As American Airlines processes the payment itself, make sure to use a credit card that earns you bonus miles for travel or airfare purchases (returns are based on TPG valuations):
- The Platinum Card® from American Express: 5x Membership Rewards points (a 10% return) on flights purchased directly from the airline or through Amex Travel (on up to $500,000 per calendar year). Terms apply.
- Chase Sapphire Reserve: 5x Ultimate Rewards points on airfare purchased through the Chase travel portal (10% return), 3x points on other travel (6% return).
- Ink Business Preferred Credit Card: 3x Ultimate Rewards points on the first $150,000 spent in select combined purchases each account anniversary (6% return).
- Citi Premier® Card: 3x ThankYou Rewards points on air travel (5.1% return)
- Chase Sapphire Preferred Card: 5x Ultimate Rewards points on airfare purchased through the Chase travel portal (10% return), 2x points on other travel (4% return).
- Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite Mastercard® or Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite Mastercard®: 2x AA miles on eligible American Airlines purchases (2.8% return).
The information for the Citi AAdvantage Platinum has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.
Five-hundred-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 statement credits available, you may want to use one of the following cards when buying upgrades (enrollment is required):
- Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card: Up-to-$250 annual credit.
- The Business Platinum Card® from American Express: Up-to-$200 annual credit.
- The Platinum Card® from American Express: Up-to-$200 annual credit.
The information for the Hilton Aspire Amex card has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.
You can also “pay” 40,000 AAdvantage miles for eight upgrades. This is generally a 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 off-peak award to Hawaii.
Using 500-mile upgrades
First, it’s important to know where you can and can’t use 500-mile upgrades. They 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. Further, as of January 2021, you can use 500-mile upgrades on basic economy tickets.
One important restriction to keep in mind: 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 be 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, Texas (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.
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 enough 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.
If your flight is canceled after booking and you’re rebooked on another flight, your request 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.
Five-hundred-mile upgrades can’t be applied to award flights unless you’re a top-tier Executive Platinum elite. These 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.
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’s because you might be skipped if AA revenue management releases just one upgrade and you’re 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.
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?
Five-hundred-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. AA 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 the 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.
All American elite travelers are eligible for complimentary upgrades on domestic and short-haul international flights through the 500-mile upgrade program. Earning and redeeming 500-mile upgrade certificates is fairly straightforward, but remember that how you earn them will change under the new AAdvantage program next year. Luckily, any certificates you already have in your account will carry over and never expire.
Additional reporting by Benji Stawski.
Featured photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy.
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