How to upgrade your American Airlines flight using miles

Nov 22, 2020

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Despite what you may have read elsewhere, getting a first-class upgrade is a lot harder than saying two magic words or wearing the right clothes. Each airline has its own complicated set of rules about which flyers will get a coveted upgrade and which travelers are stuck flying in the cabin they booked.

American Airlines’ top-tier elites earn “systemwide upgrades,” which can be used — as you might guess — systemwide. For North American flights, AA elites earn and use 500-mile upgrades. Both of those programs are complex enough to justify having their own explainer guide.

However, if you’re not an elite — or traveling with an elite — there are still ways of getting an upgrade: using miles or paying for an upgrade at check-in. The latter option is pretty straight-forward. When you check-in online or at a kiosk, American Airlines might give you a chance to fill an empty premium cabin seat for a price. If you feel the price is fair, the upgrade is yours.

But, upgrading with miles is a bit more complicated. Let’s dive into the details of what you need to know if you’re looking to upgrade your American Airlines flight using miles.

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In This Post

Which American Airlines tickets can you upgrade?

All American Airlines-marketed and operated flights — with one big exception — are eligible to upgrade with AAdvantage miles. That exception: American Airlines basic economy tickets can’t be upgraded using any method.

If you book an American Airlines-operated flight through a codeshare partner, you can’t apply a mileage upgrade. So, make sure that your flight number and operating carrier are both American Airlines at booking if you’re hoping to apply a mileage upgrade.

Note that you can only apply mileage upgrades to up to three segments in a single direction of travel. That means you’ll have to clear separate upgrades for your outbound and return flights.

It’s important to keep in mind that your original ticket’s fare conditions will still apply — including mileage earnings, cancellation, and change fees. If you booked an economy ticket, you’ll only earn 1 Elite Qualifying Mile (EQM) per mile flown instead of the 2x EQM that you’d earn on paid business-class tickets.

Related: American Airlines Elite Qualifying Miles: What EQMs are and how you earn them

If you originally booked a flight using miles, you also have the option to upgrade to a higher class of service. This works a bit differently than the mileage upgrade system we are focusing on in this article, but here’s how it works. If you’re able to find saver-award availability in a higher cabin, you can call American Airlines to change your award. You’ll only need to pay the mileage price between the cabin you booked and the cabin you want to upgrade to, as well as any additional taxes or fees that might be associated with the higher cabin.

What does it cost to upgrade?

American Airlines has an extensive chart on its website listing the miles and cash copay to upgrade to the next cabin of service. However, much of it isn’t relevant to most flyers, as few travelers are paying for full-fare tickets. So, let’s break the chart down into more manageable bits.

First, we need to define “next cabin of service.” Currently, American Airlines doesn’t consider premium economy a separate cabin of service from economy. That means passengers can upgrade from either economy or premium economy into business class. There’s no way to use miles to upgrade into premium economy at this time.

For most economy (fare codes H, K, M, L, V, G, Q, N, O, S and military or government fares booked in Y) and premium economy (fare code P), here’s the cost to upgrade to business class:

To / from To / from Miles Cash
Contiguous 48 U.S. states, Alaska, Canada, Mexico, Caribbean Contiguous 48 U.S. states, Alaska, Canada, Mexico, Caribbean 15,000 $75
Contiguous 48 U.S. states, Alaska, Canada, Mexico, Caribbean Hawaii 15,000 $175
North America Central America 15,000 $75
North America Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Peru 15,000 $150
North America Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay, Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, China, Australia, New Zealand, Europe, Middle East, Africa 25,000 $350

American Airlines only operates Flagship First Class on two aircraft types, meaning there are a limited number of routes where you can upgrade from business class to first class. If you booked an “I” business class fare and want to upgrade to Flagship First Class, here’s the cost:

To / from To / from Miles Cash
Contiguous 48 U.S. states, Alaska, Canada Contiguous 48 U.S. states, Alaska, Canada 15,000 $175
North America Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay, Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, China, Australia, New Zealand, Europe, Middle East, Africa 25,000 $550

If you booked a full-fare economy (Y), premium economy (W) or business class (J, D or R) fare, there’s no cash copay to upgrade to the next class of service. You’ll only need to pay the following mileage amounts depending on the region and class of service you booked:

To / from To / from From economy
/ premium economy
From full-fare
business
Contiguous 48 U.S. states, Alaska, Canada Contiguous 48 U.S. states, Alaska, Canada 5,000 15,000
Contiguous 48 U.S. states, Alaska, Canada, Mexico, Caribbean Contiguous 48 U.S. states, Hawaii, Alaska, Canada, Mexico, Caribbean 8,000 15,000
North America Central America, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Peru 8,000 15,000
North America Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay, Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, China, Australia, New Zealand, Europe, Middle East, Africa 15,000 25,000

Note that in all of these charts, “Caribbean” includes the Bahamas and Bermuda and North America is defined as the entire U.S. (including Hawaii and Alaska), Canada, Mexico, Bermuda, the Bahamas and the Caribbean.

In addition to the copay amount in the chart above, you may also have to pay additional taxes and carrier-imposed fees as a result of upgrading to a higher class cabin. That’s particularly true for flights out of the United Kingdom, where premium cabin taxes are especially pricey.

Also, AAdvantage members without elite status have to pay an additional $75 fee for “mileage upgrades requested less than 21 days prior to departure.” It’s unclear if the fee would be charged if you request an upgrade more than 21 days before departure, but the upgrade doesn’t clear.

Related: What is American Airlines elite status worth?

Is it worth upgrading with miles?

Value is subjective. Some travelers are fine with shelling out thousands of dollars more to fly in a lie-flat seat for an overnight flight. Other travelers are going to turn down an upgrade costing just a few hundred dollars more.

But, let’s run some numbers. As a baseline, TPG values American Airlines AAdvantage miles at 1.4 cents each.

Domestic flights: You’re going to have to pay $210 worth of miles plus a $75 copay for upgrading domestic U.S. flights. For many flights, that’s not going to be worth it. However, these upgrades could be worth it if you’re able to upgrade into a lie-flat product for a coast-to-coast flight or if you’re flying a red-eye and the upgrade would make the experience a lot easier.

Hawaii flights: The copay is increased to $175 for flights between the U.S. mainland and Hawaii, plus the same $210 worth of miles. That’s going to be hard to justify on flights from the West Coast as the first-class product on these routes is just a standard recliner seat and the flight isn’t very long. However, if you’re able to snag an upgrade to a lie-flat product on the long flights between Dallas and Hawaii, it’s worth considering the upgrade.

Long-haul international flights: The cost to upgrade from economy to business class on almost all American Airlines long-haul flights is 25,000 miles (worth $350) plus $350. This is where the value gets really subjective. Some travelers will gladly fork over the around $700 in combined value for a lie-flat business class seat on these long-haul flights — especially if you can find upgrade space on AA’s longest flights to Hong Kong, Auckland and Sydney. However, it might be a price too high for other travelers.

Related: Choosing the best credit cards for American Airlines flyers

How to upgrade an American Airlines flight with miles

First, you’re going to need to find upgrade availability. For upgrades from economy or premium economy into business class — including domestic first class — you’ll need to find “C” availability. For upgrades from business class to first class, there needs to be “A” availability.

The easiest way of searching for this upgrade space is through ExpertFlyer’s Award & Upgrade Availability Search. Enter your origin and destination airport, date, select American Airlines from the list and select “Business – Upgrade (Including 2-Cabin Domestic First)” or “First – Upgrade (for 3-cabin flights only).” For the cleanest results, I’d recommend limiting to nonstop options — if you’re searching for one leg — and excluding codeshares:

Related: Beginner’s guide to award searches on ExpertFlyer

Once you find award availability, you’re going to need to request an upgrade from a reservations agent. Unfortunately, you can’t request a mileage upgrade online.

American Airlines notes that you can “contact American Airlines Reservations or visit an American Airlines Travel Center or an Airport Ticket Office for assistance with booking your mileage upgrade award.” For most of us, that’s going to mean calling American Airlines’ reservations phone number (800-433-7300) or your elite status phone number if you have AA status.

If your upgrade hasn’t cleared by the time you check in, you’ll automatically be added to the airport upgrade system as long as you have enough miles in your account 48 hours before departure.

Your chances of getting an upgrade (and a trick to help)

If you don’t have elite status with American Airlines and there isn’t upgrade availability at the time you’re requesting, your chance of getting an upgrade is pretty slim. That’s because the prioritization for upgrades on American Airlines is as follows:

Elite status Type of ticket / upgrade
Concierge Key Systemwide and mileage award upgrades
Concierge Key 500-mile upgrades on purchased tickets
Concierge Key 500-mile upgrades on award tickets
Executive Platinum Systemwide and mileage award upgrades
Executive Platinum 500-mile upgrades on purchased tickets
Executive Platinum 500-mile upgrades on award tickets
Platinum Pro Systemwide and mileage award upgrades
Platinum Pro 500-mile upgrades on purchased tickets
Platinum Systemwide and mileage award upgrades
Platinum 500-mile upgrades on purchased tickets
Gold Systemwide and mileage award upgrades
Gold 500-mile upgrades on purchased tickets
No status Systemwide and mileage award upgrades

That’s right. If you don’t have AA elite status, your upgrade will only clear once everyone else’s request has cleared. And, if you have a lower-tier status, you don’t have a much better chance.

However, there’s a trick that I’ve used for years to jump the list and clear systemwide upgrades before it’s my turn, and it’s how Katie and I are perfect at clearing systemwide upgrades on long international routes. The trick: ExpertFlyer‘s upgrade availability alerts.

As we mentioned above, there needs to be “C” upgrade space for you to get a systemwide or mileage upgrade. If there isn’t any space at the time you’re booking and requesting a mileage upgrade, you can waitlist your request.

When upgrade space opens, American Airlines would theoretically clear the upgrade requests according to the priority order laid out above. However, there’s usually a gap between when space opens and the list starts being cleared. If you’re able to find available upgrade space, you can manually request that American Airlines clears your upgrade request.

If you want to use this trick, you will want to use an ExpertFlyer account to set up an availability alert. The easiest way of doing so is to perform an Award & Upgrade Availability search. Then, on the results page, you can click the exclamation point next to the flight you want to set up an availability alert:

Then, once you get an email from ExpertFlyer about award space opening up, you’ll want to call as soon as possible to request the upgrade be manually processed.

Bottom line

Everyone loves an upgrade, but most upgrade options are going to cost you. If you’re looking to make your next flight a bit more comfortable, upgrading using American Airlines miles could make sense. Just make sure that you don’t purchase a basic economy ticket or a codeshare flight.

Then, use a tool like ExpertFlyer to search — and set up an alert — for upgrade space. That’ll leave you just a call, a mileage payment and probably a cash copay away from being confirmed into business or even first class.

Featured photo by JT Genter/The Points Guy.

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