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Airline upgrades are getting much harder to come by, whether you’re leveraging an elite benefit or simply using your points or cash to move up to a higher class of service. This is why we always recommend booking the seat you want instead of relying on an upgrade which may or may not clear.

Still, the millions of passengers who fly with American Airlines every year have plenty of different tricks up their sleeve if they’re looking to upgrade. While most of these methods will be subject to available upgrade inventory, today we’ll walk through everything you need to know about upgrade eligibility, priority and more.

In This Post

Searching for Upgrade Inventory

One of the most confusing things about trying to score an upgrade — with any carrier — involves inventory. Just because there’s an open seat in business or first class doesn’t mean that an airline makes it available for upgrades. The below methods only work if American Airlines has designated one or more seats as eligible for upgrades. American has 26 different fare codes covering its revenue tickets, award tickets and upgrade inventory, but for the purpose of scoring an upgrade there are only two you need to remember:

A: First class upgrade inventory (three-cabin aircraft)
C: Business class/domestic first class upgrade inventory (two-cabin aircraft)

The good news is that if you forget, ExpertFlyer gives you a handy little cheat sheet as to what each fare class means.

American is often relatively stingy with its “C” space for business class upgrades (especially on premium transcontinental and international routes), but the carrier tends to be much more generous with “A” space on three-cabin aircraft featuring a true first class.

Upgrade Priority

Given how many different types of upgrades American offers, it’s important to understand where you’ll fall on the upgrade list to understand your chance of clearing. Here is how American assigns priority on the upgrade list:

  1. Elite status: Starting from the top down, American will rank all passengers on the upgrade list based on their AAdvantage elite status. Concierge Key members have the highest priority, followed by Executive Platinum, Platinum Pro, Platinum and lastly Gold elites. General members attempting to apply an upgrade certificate (more on that below) will find themselves at the bottom of the list.
  2. Type of upgrade/ticket: Within a single elite status tier, American uses the type of ticket or upgrade certificate as a tie breaker. Systemwide Upgrades (SWUs) and mileage upgrades get the highest priority, followed by complimentary upgrades on revenue tickets and finally complimentary upgrades on award tickets.
  3. 12-month rolling EQDs: That pesky revenue requirement doesn’t just apply to qualifying for elite status. If American needs a further tiebreaker on the upgrade list, the higher priority will go to the passenger who has accumulated the most Elite Qualifying Dollars (EQDs) over the previous 12 months.

Now it’s worth noting that there’s additional variation based on the type of trip you’re taking. For example, long-haul international flights aren’t eligible for complimentary upgrades, so the upgrade lists on these flights will typically be shorter to include just those travelers using certificates or miles to request a bump to first/business class.

Speaking of which, let’s dive into these upgrade types in greater depth.

Cash & Miles Upgrades

We’ll start with cash and miles upgrades, because these are open to any customer traveling on an eligible ticket — not just elite members. American Airlines publishes a chart telling you exactly how much it will cost to upgrade your ticket to the next class of service based on your origin and destination. If you’re flying on a discounted ticket and trying to upgrade you’ll need to cough up miles and a cash copay, while those looking to upgrade on a full fare ticket simply have to pay extra miles.

Note that while AA says these upgrades are to the “next cabin of service,” that currently does not include the carrier’s relatively new premium economy product. This means that if you’re upgrading from an economy ticket, you skip right over premium economy and land in business. Premium economy tickets also upgrade directly to business class.

Here are a few important terms and conditions to be aware of when using cash and miles upgrades:

  • Upgrades are subject to capacity controls (i.e. you need A or C inventory to clear an upgrade)
  • Upgrades are valid for a single one-way trip with a maximum of three segments
  • Basic economy tickets and award tickets are not eligible

And if you’re wondering what exactly American counts as a “discount economy ticket,” here are the relevant fare codes for each category of upgrade pricing:

  • Discount Economy with published fares booked in H,K,M,L,V,G,Q,N,O,S and Military or Government fares booked in Y
  • Full-Fare Economy with published fares booked in Y
  • Discount Premium Economy with published fares booked in P
  • Full-Fare Premium Economy with published fares booked in W
  • Discount Business with published fares booked in I
  • Full-Fare Business with published fares booked in J, D or R

If inventory isn’t available at the time of booking or the time of your request, you can be added to the waitlist. You’ll then clear in the priority order listed above.

Complimentary Elite Upgrades and 500-Mile Upgrades

Instead of spending miles, all American elite travelers are eligible for complimentary upgrades on domestic and short-haul international flights. However, there are two main factors that’ll determine exactly what this process looks like:

  • The distance of the flight
  • Your elite status

For starters, all AAdvantage elites are eligible for unlimited, complimentary upgrades on flights under 500 miles in distance within the US or between the US and Canada, Mexico, the Bahamas, the Caribbean, Bermuda and Central America. These follow the same priority rules mentioned above, meaning that Executive Platinums will see their upgrades clear before Platinum Pro elites and so on down the elite status ladder. These upgrades are generally valid only on cash tickets, except for Executive Platinum and Concierge Key elites who will receive them on award tickets as well.

On flights over 500 miles, your elite status dictates how you can score a bump to the front of the plane. Concierge Key, Executive Platinum and Platinum Pro elites will continue to receive unlimited, complimentary upgrades on these flights (for the same destinations listed above). However, AAdvantage Gold and Platinum elites will have to use 500-mile upgrade certificates to request an upgrade. You can check out our guide to 500-mile upgrade certificates for full details, but here’s a basic overview:

  • How to earn: AAdvantage elite members will earn four 500-mile upgrade certificates for every 12,500 EQMs earned during each membership year. You can also buy 500-mile upgrades for $40 each or redeem 40,000 miles for eight 500-mile upgrades.
  • What they cover: Each 500-mile upgrade certificate is good for 500 miles of upgraded flying experience. A 499-mile flight needs one, while a 501-mile flight would require two. To figure out how many you need for a flight, start at the Great Circle Mapper and enter your departure and arrival airports. Divide the total distance by 500, then round up. As an example, a flight between Reagan National (DCA) and Los Angeles (LAX) covers 2,311 flight miles. This means I’d need to redeem five 500 mile upgrade certificates in order to request an upgrade.

While 500-mile upgrades don’t expire, they can only be redeemed if you have AAdvantage elite status. If you don’t requalify for a year, the upgrades will stay in your account; you just won’t be able to use them.

I personally make a habit out of requesting to use my 500-mile upgrades every time I fly with American. As a lowly Gold elite, I don’t clear upgrades all that often, so I end up with many more certificates than I could possibly use. I see no benefit in saving them up when I’m not sure if I’ll requalify for my elite status.

Whether you’re requesting a 500-mile upgrade or relying on an auto-requested elite upgrade, here is when you can expect to see these complimentary upgrades start to clear:

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

Systemwide Upgrades

One of the most valuable benefits of American’s top-tier Executive Platinum status — and a serious incentive to consider a mileage run if you’re ending the year at only Platinum Pro — is the set of Systemwide Upgrades (SWUs) you’ll earn. Upon qualifying for Executive Platinum status, you’ll receive four SWUs which can be used to upgrade any paid ticket on American of up to three segments (except for basic economy tickets). You can also select two additional SWUs as a milestone benefit upon reaching 150,000, 200,000 and 250,000 Elite Qualifying Miles in a year. AAdvantage Million Milers will also get two additional SWUs upon reaching 2 million lifetime miles and again at each million thereafter.

You can check out TPG’s guide to redeeming SWUs here, but there are a few things you should know. Once again, these are dependent on upgrade inventory, but if you find a flight with “C” or “A” space, your SWU should clear instantly. SWUs also make a great gift, as you can use them to upgrade a friend or family member even if you aren’t traveling together. While these are about as good as it gets when it comes to American Airlines upgrades, TPG Editor Nick Ewen only values them at $300 apiece in his annual valuation of AAdvantage elite status, partly because of how stingy American is with its upgrade inventory. I fly between Shanghai (PVG) and the US frequently, and when I search for upgrade availability through ExpertFlyer, I’ll often go months at a time without seeing a single seat.

Business Extra Upgrades

One of my favorite hidden gems when it comes to American Airlines is the Business Extra program. This second loyalty program lets small businesses double dip and earn a second type of loyalty currency in addition to AAdvantage miles for a flight. There’s no verification process when you register, so while this program is geared to businesses, anyone should be able to make an account. You’ll earn 1 Business Extra point for every $5 spent on eligible AA and select Oneworld flights, in addition to frequent bonus offers.

Business Extra offers a variety of redemption options including free flights, Admirals Club passes and even AAdvantage Gold status, but one of the best values comes in using these points for an upgrade certificate.

At only 650 Business Extra points, you’ll earn a domestic or Caribbean upgrade certificate for every ~$3,250 you spend on American flights. These upgrades are priced the same whether you’re taking a short flight between Washington-National (DCA) and Chicago-O’Hare (ORD) or a transcontinental flight from New York-JFK to Los Angeles (LAX).

Arguably the best way to stretch your value here is to book a cheap business class fare on one of American’s premium transcontinental routes operated by a three-cabin A321T. Since first class upgrade space (“A”) is much more generous than business class upgrade space (“C”), you can use your Business Extra points to fly the only true first-class cabin operating within the United States. As an added bonus, you’ll get access to American’s incredible Flagship First dining facilities on the ground. Note that award tickets are not eligible, and fares booked into B, N, O, Q and S are also excluded.

The international upgrade certificates can represent a great value as well, and you can choose between upgrading a full-fare ticket or a discounted ticket. The cheaper, full-fare upgrade is valid only on tickets beginning with fare code J or Y, while the discounted upgrade certificate has the same restriction noted above (not applicable for B, N, O, Q or S tickets).

Bottom Line

While American Airlines doesn’t have a revolutionary business class product to rival United Polaris or Delta One suites, it does have comfortable, lie-flat business class seats on almost every long-haul plane in its fleet. When you add in AA’s uniquely luxurious transcontinental flights, scoring an upgrade becomes even more appealing. Thankfully you have plenty of options for going about this, whether you’re ready to cash in the benefits of your elite status or simply spend some extra miles or money to make it happen.

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