Skip to content

The ultimate guide to getting upgraded on American Airlines

Sept. 21, 2022
12 min read
This post contains references to products from one or more of our advertisers. We may receive compensation when you click on links to those products. Terms apply to the offers listed on this page. For an explanation of our Advertising Policy, visit this page.

With the ever-increasing demand for premium flight seats, airline upgrades have become exceedingly difficult to obtain for the average passenger. You may even have airline elite status or want to use your points or cash to secure a higher cabin class on your next flight, but that may not be enough for a cushier seat up front.

Nevertheless, if you aspire to an upgrade on your next American Airlines flight, there are a few ways to increase your odds.

In this guide, we'll review how American Airlines flyers can score a seat upgrade, including learning about upgrade eligibility, priority and more.

Sign up for our daily newsletter

Searching for Upgrade Inventory

Your fare code makes a big difference in your shot at an upgrade. ZACH GRIFF/THE POINTS GUY

If you’re seeking an upgrade on your next American Airlines flight, one major factor you should be familiar with is finding the correct upgrade fare codes — also known as upgrade inventory. Just because there’s an open seat in business or first class, doesn’t mean that an airline makes it available for upgrades.

American has 26 different fare codes, covering its revenue tickets, award tickets and upgrade inventory.

For this illustration of finding the right upgrade inventory, there are only two fare codes you need to remember for the purpose of scoring an upgrade:

  • 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 (owned by TPG's parent company, Red Ventures) gives you a handy little cheat sheet as to what each fare class means.

EXPERTFLYER.COM

For example, when using ExpertFlyer's "Award & Upgrade" search functionality for American’s transcontinental flights between New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) to Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) next March, the screen shot below displays “A” and “C” fare class inventory. If the resulting number is greater than zero, it means there are upgrades available to the next cabin up on those flights.

EXPERTFLYER.COM

However, please note that you must search ExpertFlyer segment by segment to get accurate results for connecting itineraries. As an example, if you want to fly from San Francisco (SFO) to Orlando (MCO), you can't use SFO as your departure airport and MCO as your arrival airport. You must first search for SFO to your connecting point — like Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW) or Chicago-O'Hare (ORD) — and then do a separate search from your there to MCO.

Upgrade Priority

JT GENTER/THE POINTS GUY

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:

  • Elite status: 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.
  • Type of upgrade/ticket: Within a single elite status tier, American uses the type of ticket or upgrade certificate as a tiebreaker. Systemwide Upgrades (SWUs) and mileage upgrades get the highest priority, followed by complimentary upgrades on revenue tickets and complimentary upgrades on award tickets.
  • Something to note: The tiebreaker on the upgrade priority list between two elite members who have the same elite status and are using the same upgrade instrument boils down to which member has the higher amount of Loyalty Points in their account. As of March 1, 2023, the rolling 12-month Loyalty Points value used for upgrade priority will be solely composed of Loyalty Points.

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

Ways to upgrade on American Airlines

ERIC ROSEN/THE POINTS GUY

First, you should be familiar with the myriad of methods that can be used to upgrade to first class or business class with American Airlines.

They are:

  • Upgrading using miles or cash.
  • Use systemwide upgrades, or SWUs.
  • Earn complimentary upgrades for AAdvantage elite status members.
  • Upgrading through the airline’s small-business program.

Of the aforementioned upgrade options, non-elites — those who don’t have any elite status with American Airlines — can only upgrade to a higher class of service by redeeming miles or paying cash.

American Airlines elites, however, have an array of choices, including using systemwide upgrades or receiving a complimentary upgrade based on elite status level.

Upgrade using miles or cash

Since cash and mileage upgrades are available to all American Airlines customers traveling on qualified tickets — not just elite members — we'll start here.

American Airlines publishes a chart detailing how much it will cost you to upgrade a ticket to the next class of service. The upgrade amount is determined by your origin and destination.

If you’re flying on a discounted ticket and trying to upgrade, you’ll need to shell out miles and a cash copay, while those looking to upgrade on a full-fare ticket can simply pay extra miles — no copay required.

For example, an itinerary from the continental U.S. to Hawaii would cost 15,000 miles and $175 to upgrade to the next cabin of service.

AA.COM

While AA says these upgrades are to the “next cabin of service,” that currently does not include the carrier’s 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.

Apply systemwide upgrades if you have AA elite status

ZACH GRIFF/THE POINTS GUY

Platinum Pro and Executive Platinum elite members with American Airlines can choose from a selection of Loyalty Choice Rewards after qualifying for status.

Arguably, the most coveted gift — cherished by AA elites — is a systemwide upgrade certificate (SWU). These upgrade certificates allow you to upgrade any American Airlines-operated flight (including long-haul routes) from economy to business class (or from business to first).

American's top-tier Executive Platinum elite members can choose two SWUs as their Loyalty Choice Reward and Platinum Pro can choose one when obtaining their elite status — which can be used to upgrade any purchased American ticket for up to three segments (except for basic economy tickets).

Executive Platinum elites can earn additional systemwide upgrades by accruing Loyalty Points at the 350,000-, 550,000- and 750,000-point levels.

To apply these upgrade instruments to a ticket, you can read our guide to redeeming SWU, but there are a few things to note.

Before applying a systemwide upgrade to a reservation, “upgrade inventory” must be readily available. This is a specific fare class reserved for these types of upgrades.

Your upgrade clearing and being applied to your reservation solely depend on this inventory. You need to search and find “C” fare class inventory (economy to business or economy to first on domestic two-cabin airplanes) or “A” fare class inventory (for business to first on three-cabin airplanes) to have a chance at applying an SWU to your one-way itinerary.

Once found, you can instantly confirm your upgrade when your ticket is issued by calling the AAdvantage service desk and applying the SWU.

You can search for upgrade inventory by logging in to aa.com and looking for the "Systemwide upgrades" link to find flights with available upgrades. You will see “Systemwide upgrades” displayed if there are enough upgrades available on the flight for the number of passengers you request and if you have the appropriate number of upgrades in your account.

You can also search for the specific upgrade inventory you need using ExpertFlyer, before or after booking your flight.

Either way, you will need to speak with an AA agent to apply the systemwide upgrade manually to your reservation.

Complimentary upgrades with AAdvantage elite status

All American elite flyers qualify for complimentary upgrades on domestic and short-haul international flights. However, the exact nature of this process is determined by two primary criteria:

  • Your elite status.
  • The distance of the flight.

For starters, complimentary upgrades on eligible flights are processed in the following order:

  • 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.
  • AAdvantage Concierge Key: 120 hours before departure.

All AAdvantage elites are eligible for unlimited, complimentary upgrades on flights within the U.S. or between the U.S. and Canada, Mexico, the Bahamas, the Caribbean, Bermuda and Central America.

These upgrades are generally valid only on cash tickets, except for Executive Platinum and Concierge Key elites who will also receive them on award tickets.

Business Extra Upgrades

American also operates a separate loyalty program geared toward small and mid-sized businesses known as the Business Extra program.

When employees fly, they earn their individual AAdvantage miles, but businesses enrolled in this program also earn points that can be redeemed for travel awards, including free flights, elite status, lounge access and upgrade certificates.

You’ll earn 1 Business Extra point for every $5 spent on eligible AA and select OneWorld flights, in addition to frequent bonus offers.

At only 650 Business Extra points, you’ll earn a U.S. domestic one-segment upgrade, which is valid for travel within North America or between North America and Hawaii or the Caribbean.

AA.COM

Similar to the systemwide upgrade process, these upgrade certificates require confirmable upgrade space to be available. However, if available, using Business Extra points to upgrade your flight by one class of service can provide a stellar deal.

Related: Guide to earning and burning with American Airlines’ Business Extra program

Bottom line

There are numerous ways to receive an upgrade on an American Airlines flight.

The options range from using miles to outright paying for cash for an upgrade to a higher cabin or scoring a complimentary upgrade as an elite in the AAdvantage frequent flyer program.

Although having an American Airlines cobranded card won't get you an upgrade on your next flight, you can earn AA elite status from credit card spend alone, which could then result in you winding up at the front of the plane in the business or first class cabin.

FEATURED PHOTO BY ZACH GRIFF/THE POINTS GUY.

Featured image by ZACH GRIFF/THE POINTS GUY
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.

TPG featured card

Best Marriott card for Business Owners
TPG Editor‘s Rating
Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
3 / 5
Go to review

Rewards

2 - 6X points
6X6x points at hotels participating in the Marriott Bonvoy® program.
4X4x points for purchases made at restaurants worldwide, at U.S. gas stations, on wireless telephone services purchased directly from U.S. service providers and on U.S. purchases for shipping.
2X2x points on all other eligible purchases.

Intro offer

Earn 100,000 points75,000 points
Limited Time Offer: Earn 100,000 Bonus Marriott Bonvoy Points after spending $4,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months of Card Membership. Offer expires 11/2/22.

Annual Fee

$125

Recommended Credit

670-850
Excellent/Good
Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

Why We Chose It

The Marriott Bonvoy Business Amex is a stacked card with a rewards rate that will help you earn bonus points on everyday and business-related purchases. You'll earn 15 elite night credits each calendar year, and receive automatic Gold elite status. Finally, the free night award certificate with a redemption level of 35,000 points or less can get you hundreds of dollars in potential value each year.

Pros

  • 6x points on eligible purchases at hotels participating in the Marriott Bonvoy program
  • 4x points at restaurants worldwide, U.S. gas stations, wireless telephone services purchased directly from U.S. service providers and U.S. shipping
  • 2x points on all other eligible purchases
  • Earn a free-night award each card renewal month (up to 35,000 points)
  • Receive 15 elite night credits to jump-start status
  • Transfer Marriott points to 40+ airlines

Cons

  • Airline points transfer ratios are poor
  • Must spend $60,000 in a year for second free-night award
  • Limited Time Offer: Earn 100,000 Bonus Marriott Bonvoy Points after spending $4,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months of Card Membership. Offer expires 11/2/22.
  • 6x points at hotels participating in the Marriott Bonvoy® program.
  • 4x points for purchases made at restaurants worldwide, at U.S. gas stations, on wireless telephone services purchased directly from U.S. service providers and on U.S. purchases for shipping.
  • 2x points on all other eligible purchases.
  • Receive a 7% discount off standard rates for reservations of standard guest rooms at hotels that participate in the Marriott Bonvoy program when you book directly. Terms and Conditions Apply.
  • Receive 1 Free Night Award every year after your Card renewal month. Plus, earn an additional Free Night Award after you spend $60K in purchases on your Card in a calendar year. Awards can be used for one night (redemption level at or under 35,000 Marriott Bonvoy® points) at hotels participating in Marriott Bonvoy®. Certain hotels have resort fees.
  • Enjoy Complimentary Marriott Bonvoy Gold Elite Status with your Card.
  • Terms apply.
  • See Rates & Fees
Apply for Marriott Bonvoy Business® American Express® Card
at American Express's secure site
Terms & restrictions apply. See rates & fees
Best Marriott card for Business Owners
TPG Editor‘s Rating
Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
3 / 5
Go to review

Rewards Rate

6X6x points at hotels participating in the Marriott Bonvoy® program.
4X4x points for purchases made at restaurants worldwide, at U.S. gas stations, on wireless telephone services purchased directly from U.S. service providers and on U.S. purchases for shipping.
2X2x points on all other eligible purchases.
  • Intro Offer
    Limited Time Offer: Earn 100,000 Bonus Marriott Bonvoy Points after spending $4,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months of Card Membership. Offer expires 11/2/22.

    Earn 100,000 points
    75,000 points
  • Annual Fee

    $125
  • Recommended Credit
    Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

    670-850
    Excellent/Good

Why We Chose It

The Marriott Bonvoy Business Amex is a stacked card with a rewards rate that will help you earn bonus points on everyday and business-related purchases. You'll earn 15 elite night credits each calendar year, and receive automatic Gold elite status. Finally, the free night award certificate with a redemption level of 35,000 points or less can get you hundreds of dollars in potential value each year.

Pros

  • 6x points on eligible purchases at hotels participating in the Marriott Bonvoy program
  • 4x points at restaurants worldwide, U.S. gas stations, wireless telephone services purchased directly from U.S. service providers and U.S. shipping
  • 2x points on all other eligible purchases
  • Earn a free-night award each card renewal month (up to 35,000 points)
  • Receive 15 elite night credits to jump-start status
  • Transfer Marriott points to 40+ airlines

Cons

  • Airline points transfer ratios are poor
  • Must spend $60,000 in a year for second free-night award
  • Limited Time Offer: Earn 100,000 Bonus Marriott Bonvoy Points after spending $4,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months of Card Membership. Offer expires 11/2/22.
  • 6x points at hotels participating in the Marriott Bonvoy® program.
  • 4x points for purchases made at restaurants worldwide, at U.S. gas stations, on wireless telephone services purchased directly from U.S. service providers and on U.S. purchases for shipping.
  • 2x points on all other eligible purchases.
  • Receive a 7% discount off standard rates for reservations of standard guest rooms at hotels that participate in the Marriott Bonvoy program when you book directly. Terms and Conditions Apply.
  • Receive 1 Free Night Award every year after your Card renewal month. Plus, earn an additional Free Night Award after you spend $60K in purchases on your Card in a calendar year. Awards can be used for one night (redemption level at or under 35,000 Marriott Bonvoy® points) at hotels participating in Marriott Bonvoy®. Certain hotels have resort fees.
  • Enjoy Complimentary Marriott Bonvoy Gold Elite Status with your Card.
  • Terms apply.
  • See Rates & Fees