*Editorial Note: The content of this article is based on the author’s opinions and recommendations alone. It may not have been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the credit card issuer. This site may be compensated through a credit card issuer partnership.
This article was last updated Mar 21, 2017. Terms and conditions may have changed. For the most accurate information, please consult the issuer website.
With award space in Business Class on American Airlines flights hard to score, especially on long international flights, upgrades are an alternative if you want to sit up front. While they’re not as cheap as a good Saver award ticket, you’re often better off than paying for a Business or First Class ticket outright.
The AAdvantage® upgrade system can be confusing if you haven’t flown them for many years, so here’s a primer on how to get an upgrade using your miles or AAdvantage® elite status.
In this article
- How Can You Upgrade?
- What about companion upgrades?
- What if your upgrade doesn’t clear before check-in?
- How much do mileage upgrades cost?
- How to check for upgrade space
- How to book an upgrade
- How to check your waitlist status
- Can you upgrade other people?
- Can you upgrade to Premium Economy?
How Can You Upgrade?
American Airlines has four different ways to upgrade: using miles, Systemwide Upgrades for Executive Platinum (which are the most coveted because they can be used on any AA flight), 500-mile upgrades for elite members, and Complimentary Upgrades, which are automatic upgrades that don’t require miles or any sort of certificate. Here’s a quick summary:
|Who gets them?||When can they clear?||What routes are eligible?||How many are needed for an upgrade?|
|Miles||Any AAdvantage member||Anytime upgrade space is open||Any AA flight||Miles required vary based on the region you're flying.|
|Systemwide (SWU)||Executive Platinums||Anytime upgrade space is open||Any AA flight||One SWU can upgrade any one-way trip.|
|500-Mile||Elite members earn 4 for every 12,500 elite qualifying miles flown||Gold: 24 hours before departure, Platinum: 48 hours||Flights within the U.S., and to Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America||One 500-mile upgrade for every 500 miles of flight distance|
|Complimentary||Elite members||Gold: 24 hours before departure, Platinum: 48 hours, Platinum Pro: 72 hours, Executive Platinum: 100 hours, Concierge Key: 120 hours||Gold and Platinum: Flights 500 miles or less. Executive Platinum / Platinum Pro: Any flight distance within the U.S., and to Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America.||None - they are complimentary|
You can upgrade any paid ticket except American’s new Basic Economy fares.
What about companion upgrades?
You can use miles or a Systemwide to upgrade anyone you’d like, including a traveling companion.
500-mile upgrades can also be used to upgrade companions, but there are no complimentary upgrades for companions. When you request an upgrade for a companion with a 500-mile upgrade, the upgrade for both passengers will only clear in advance if 2 or more upgrade seats become available, so solo travelers might pass you along the way.
What if your upgrade doesn’t clear before check-in?
If your upgrade doesn’t clear before check-in you’ll be placed on the airport waitlist, and your place on that list will show on the AA smartphone app. If it doesn’t appear, ask at the airport to be added to the list and confirm your position.
Generally airport upgrades clear according to the same priority as the waitlist before check-in, but beware that passengers changing flights, and manual intervention by agents can cause things to change unexpectedly.
How much do mileage upgrades cost?
American charges miles plus a cash “co-payment” for most upgrades. The miles upgrade prices are as follows for one-way upgrades:
|To / From||To / From||From Discount Economy||From Full-Fare Economy||From Discount Business||From Full-Fare Business|
|Contiguous 48 U.S. states, Alaska, Canada||Contiguous 48 U.S. states, Alaska, Canada||15,000 + $75||5,000||15,000 + $175||15,000|
|Contiguous 48 U.S. states, Alaska, Canada, Mexico, Caribbean*||Contiguous 48 U.S. states, Alaska, Canada, Mexico, Caribbean*||15,000 + $75||8,000||15,000|
|Contiguous 48 U.S. states, Alaska, Canada, Mexico, Caribbean*||Hawaii||15,000 + $175||8,000||15,000|
|North America||Central America||15,000 + $75||8,000||15,000|
|North America||Colombia, Ecuador, Peru or Venezuela||15,000 + $150||8,000||15,000|
|North America||Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay||25,000 + $350||15,000||25,000 + $550||25,000|
|North America||Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, China, Australia, New Zealand||25,000 + $350||15,000||25,000 + $550||25,000|
|North America||Europe, Middle East||25,000 + $350||15,000||25,000 + $550||25,000|
If your upgrade doesn’t clear, you won’t be charged the co-payment.
Tip: “Full Fare” Economy prices only apply to flights booked in ‘Y’ class for Economy upgrades, and those are often as expensive or more expensive than buying a First Class ticket. Full Fare Business Class upgrade prices are good on J, D, and R Business Class tickets.
Beware: If you use miles for an upgrade, and decide you want to remove it, you’ll have to pay a $150 fee to redeposit the miles unless you’re an Executive Platinum member.
How to check for upgrade space
In order to be able to upgrade right away with miles or use a Systemwide Upgrade (SWU), there needs to be space available for an upgrade.
You can search for upgrade space on AA.com if you’re an Executive Platinum level flier, or if you’re not, you can use a paid subscription to ExpertFlyer.com.
What fare classes are used for upgrades?
Upgrade inventory for 500-mile and Complimentary Upgrades isn’t visible to the public, so there’s no way to tell in advance whether your upgrade will clear on a flight.
But for Mileage and Systemwide Upgrades, the following fare codes are used for upgrade inventory:
- A – First Class (3 cabin flights with both First and Business Class only)
- C – Business Class and First Class on 2-cabin flights (which is most domestic flights)
To search on AA.com, you will need to log into your American Airlines account and will automatically display that upgrades are available on flights as you go through the booking process.
When you search for upgrade space on AA.com, you need to be logged into your account. We have completed a search from LAX to NRT which shows a price of $460 in economy. Check out the difference between flying AA27 and AA169. AA169 shows that there is space for “Systemwide Upgrades” while AA27 does not.
If you click on “Systemwide Upgrades,” AA.com will show more details on the space that is available. In this case, you can upgrade from the Main Cabin to Business Class, but you cannot upgrade from Business Class to First Class because there is not a higher cabin on the aircraft.
If you have a subscription to ExpertFlyer, you log into your account and navigate to the ‘Awards and Upgrades’ section. Then, fill in your search criteria and choose American Airlines as your airline. Then choose the upgrade that you are interested in – either Business or First (or both).
Expert Flyer will come back with a table of flights as well as how many seats are available in each upgrade class. In the example below, AA 169 LAX-NRT has 1 seat available for an upgrade. If space isn’t available for the flight you are interested in, you might want to set an alert up so that you will receive an email and can immediately call and apply your upgrade. Click the ‘!’ to set up an alert.
If there is space available on a flight you would like to book, you will need to call American Airlines to have a SWU applied to the reservation or use miles to upgrade.
How to book an upgrade
Mileage upgrades need to be requested on the phone by calling 800-882-8880.
Systemwide upgrades can be requested on AA.com while you’re booking your flight.
How to check your waitlist status
If an upgrade is only available for some of the flights in your itinerary, you will be placed on the upgrade waitlist for the flights that do not clear. You will be cleared from the waitlist according to the priority listed in the upgrade priority section.
If the flight you want isn’t available right away and you choose to waitlist for an upgrade on a flight, you might be interested in checking your waitlist status. On the day of departure, you can view the waitlist directly from the American Airlines app.
The best way to check your upgrade status prior to departure is to call.
Can you upgrade other people?
Yes, you can use miles or any upgrade in your account to upgrade family and friends.
The one catch is that 500-mile upgrades can only be used on companions that are flying with you at the same time. SWUs and miles upgrades can be applied to any itinerary even if the person with status or the person who used the miles isn’t flying.
As of now, upgrades to premium economy with miles, SWUs, or 500-mile upgrades aren’t officially available. It is likely that it will be at sometime in the near future.
For now, if you have elite status, you can select premium economy seats for no additional cost.