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How to upgrade your American Airlines flight using miles

November 29 2021
13 min read
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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 their booked cabin.

American Airlines’ top-tier elites earn “systemwide upgrades,” which can be used — as you might guess — systemwide. For North American flights, AA elites can earn and use 500-mile upgrades. Both of those upgrade options 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 straightforward. 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 can be yours.

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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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Which American Airlines tickets can you upgrade?

Most American Airlines-marketed and operated flights are eligible to upgrade with AAdvantage miles — with the biggest exclusion being basic economy tickets. Last year, the airline made basic economy tickets eligible for buy-up upgrades, complimentary elite upgrades and systemwide upgrades, but not mileage upgrades.

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

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 remember that your original ticket’s fare conditions will still apply — including mileage and elite earnings. When American switches to Loyalty Points next year, you'll earn them based on your original class of service.

Related: American completely revamps how you earn elite status with new ‘Loyalty Points’

If you originally booked a flight using miles, you may have the option to upgrade to a higher class of service. This works differently than the mileage upgrade system we are focusing on in this article, but here’s the gist. 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 difference in miles between the cabin you booked originally and the cabin you want to upgrade to. You'll also pay 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 pay 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 to 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 / fromTo / fromMilesCash
Contiguous 48 U.S. states, Alaska, Canada, Mexico, CaribbeanContiguous 48 U.S. states, Alaska, Canada, Mexico, Caribbean15,000$75
Contiguous 48 U.S. states, Alaska, Canada, Mexico, CaribbeanHawaii15,000$175
North AmericaCentral America15,000$75
North AmericaColombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Peru, Suriname15,000$150
North AmericaArgentina, Brazil, Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay, Hong Kong SAR, Japan, South Korea, China, Indian Subcontinent, Australia, New Zealand, Europe, Middle East, Africa25,000$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 / fromTo / fromMilesCash
Contiguous 48 U.S. states, Alaska, CanadaContiguous 48 U.S. states, Alaska, Canada15,000$175
North AmericaArgentina, Brazil, Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay, Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, China, Indian Subcontinent, Australia, New Zealand, Europe, Middle East, Africa25,000$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 / fromTo / fromFrom economy
/ premium economy
From full-fare
business
Contiguous 48 U.S. states, Alaska, CanadaContiguous 48 U.S. states, Alaska, Canada5,00015,000
Contiguous 48 U.S. states, Alaska, Canada, Mexico, CaribbeanContiguous 48 U.S. states, Hawaii, Alaska, Canada, Mexico, Caribbean8,00015,000
Contiguous 48 U.S. states, Alaska, Canada, Mexico, CaribbeanHawaii8,00015,000
North AmericaCentral America, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Peru, Suriname8,00015,000
North AmericaArgentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay, Hong Kong SAR, Japan, South Korea, China, Indian Subcontinent, Australia, New Zealand, Europe, Middle East, Africa15,00025,000

Note that in all of these charts, “Caribbean” includes the Bahamas and Bermuda. 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 cabin. One example is flights departing the U.K., where premium cabin taxes are significantly higher than economy.

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’ll pay $210 worth of miles plus a $75 copay for upgrading domestic U.S. flights. For short flights, that's not worthwhile for many of us. However, these upgrades could be worthwhile if you’re able to upgrade into a lie-flat product for a transcontinental flight or if you’re flying red-eye, and the upgrade would make the experience a lot more comfortable.

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. That's because 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 might be worthwhile.

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 there's available upgrade space on flights to Hong Kong, Auckland and Sydney. On the other hand, some travelers may want to save their miles for a future award ticket.

Related: Choosing the best credit cards for American Airlines flyers

How to upgrade an American Airlines flight with miles

First, you 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. You can use this space to upgrade with miles or a Systemwide Upgrade certificate.

The easiest way of searching for upgrade space is using ExpertFlyer’s (owned by TPG's parent company, Red Ventures) 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 your search to nonstop options and excluding codeshares.

(Screenshot courtesy of expertflyer.com)

Related: Beginner’s guide to award searches on ExpertFlyer

Once you find award availability, you 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 if 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 statusType of ticket/upgrade
Concierge KeySystemwide and mileage award upgrades
Concierge Key500-mile upgrades on purchased tickets
Concierge Key500-mile upgrades on award tickets
Executive PlatinumSystemwide and mileage award upgrades
Executive Platinum500-mile upgrades on purchased tickets
Executive Platinum500-mile upgrades on award tickets
Platinum ProSystemwide and mileage award upgrades
Platinum Pro500-mile upgrades on purchased tickets
PlatinumSystemwide and mileage award upgrades
Platinum500-mile upgrades on purchased tickets
GoldSystemwide and mileage award upgrades
Gold500-mile upgrades on purchased tickets
No statusSystemwide 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.

However, there’s a trick that I’ve used for years to jump the list and clear systemwide upgrades before it’s my turn: ExpertFlyer’s upgrade availability alerts.

As 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.

American Airlines would theoretically clear the upgrade requests when upgrade space opens 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 clear 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:

(Screenshot courtesy of expertflyer.com)

Then, once you get an email from ExpertFlyer about award space opening up, call American Airlines at 800-433-7300 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 or codeshare flight — these can't be upgraded with miles.

Then, use a tool like ExpertFlyer to search — and set up an alert — for upgrade space. Once you get the alert, all that separates you from business class or even first class is just a phone call, a mileage payment and probably a cash copay.

Additional reporting by Ryan Smith

Featured photo by JT Genter
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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