American Airlines Upgrades: Our Detailed Guide (2021)

American Airlines Upgrades: Our Detailed Guide (2021)

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Tired of watching other travelers settle into cushy seats, stretch their legs and even sip a glass of bubbly as you jostle down the aisle hoping to find room to squeeze your bag in the overhead bin? The good news is that you have a much better chance of snagging an upgrade on American Airlines when you know how the process works.

American offers a variety of ways to get upgraded, but you'll need to do some legwork before you buy a ticket. You'll need to plan ahead, learn the rules and use all the tools, tips and tricks at your disposal to get an upgrade.

With American Airlines, it's easier to get upgrades on short domestic flights, but it's also possible to get upgrades on longer international flights. Read on to learn more about upgrades on American Airlines — soon other passengers will be looking at you with envy, wondering how you got that sweet seat.

American Airlines
American Airlines Boeing 787 Dreamliner first class interior (Image credit: American Airlines)

Types of upgrades on American Airlines

There are a few different ways that you can get an upgrade on American Airlines. Some of these options are available for any traveler, while others are only applicable to members who have elite status or an American Airlines credit card. In order to upgrade, you must have an eligible ticket and there must be space available. Upgrades are never guaranteed until they've been confirmed by the airline.

Here's an overview of the four main ways to get an American Airlines upgrade:

500-mile upgrades

500-mile upgrades are upgrades that are available to certain elite members of the American Airlines AAdvantage® program. All elite members, Gold or higher receive unlimited, automatic upgrades on flights 500 miles or less. For longer flights, your elite status determines your access to 500 mile upgrades.

Executive Platinum or Platinum Pro members receive unlimited complimentary 500-mile upgrades based on availability on all paid flights within the U.S. and between the U.S. and destinations in North and Central America. Gold and Platinum elites earn four 500-mile upgrades for every 12,500 Elite Qualifying Miles (EQMs) they earn each membership year. 500-mile upgrades can also be purchased by elite members for $40 per upgrade, or 40,000 miles for eight 500-mile upgrades. Non-elite members may not purchase 500-mile upgrades (although they may purchase regular upgrades).

If you are traveling with a companion or another elite member, you can request an upgrade for them on the same flight. Gold and Platinum members will need to spend additional 500-mile upgrades for their companions, while Platinum Pro and Executive Platinum members receive complimentary upgrades for their companions. Executive Platinum members also receive unlimited complimentary upgrades on award tickets as well.

Systemwide upgrades

Special upgrades, known as systemwide upgrades (SWUs), are available only to flyers with Executive Platinum status, the top level of American Airlines elite status. (Technically there is a higher level, ConciergeKey℠, but that level is by invitation only.)

AAdvantage members get four systemwide upgrade certificates each time they qualify or requalify for Executive Platinum status. You can also choose to get additional SWUs when you reach 150,000, 200,000 and 250,000 EQMs. If you are a Million Miler, you get four SWUs when you reach two million miles, and an additional SWU for each million miles after that.

Systemwide upgrades are good for confirmed upgrades to the next class of service for one-way travel anywhere American flies. Members can also give their upgrades to any other traveler, even if they're not traveling together. SWUs are great because you can use them on any route, and they get top priority. The disadvantage, of course, is that you need to achieve Executive Platinum status to get your hands on these valuable upgrade certificates.

Upgrade with miles

You can also use AAdvantage miles, or a combination of cash and miles, to purchase upgrades on American Airlines. The nice thing about this option is that you don't need AAdvantage elite status to get an upgrade. A miles upgrade also gets priority over complimentary upgrades and some other types of upgrades. You can check the cost in cash and miles on American's site.

Is it worth it to upgrade with miles?

Generally, upgrading with miles is not a great use of your miles. You cannot upgrade award tickets, and most discount fare classes are also not eligible for upgrading with miles either. You're usually better off just earning more AAdvantage miles and booking an award ticket on your own.

Business Extra upgrades

Small-biz owners and others can join the Business Extra® program for free to get points that can be used for upgrades. You can also use the points for free flights, AAdvantage Gold status, Admirals Club® passes and more. As a member, you earn one Business Extra point for every $5 spent on eligible flights. The cost of Business Extra upgrades range from 650 to 3,100 points. One advantage of these upgrades is that you earn these points on top of your regular AAdvantage miles, so it can be a good way to stack your rewards.

Upgrade priority: Who gets upgraded first?

Want to gauge your chances of scoring an upgrade with American? Here's how the airline prioritizes upgrade requests:

  1. Your elite status level: ConciergeKey members are at the top of the list, followed by Executive Platinum, Platinum Pro, Platinum and then Gold-level elites.
  2. Type of upgrade request: Mileage award upgrades and systemwide upgrades get priority over 500-mile upgrade requests. And 500-mile upgrades on purchased tickets get priority over those on award tickets.
  3. Number of elite qualifying dollars: If there are still ties between passengers after using the above methods to sort requests, American Airlines will go by the value of your 12-month rolling elite qualifying dollars, or EQDs, which is updated daily. Your "rolling EQDs" are based on the EQDs you've earned in the past year by purchasing airline tickets on American Airlines-marketed flights plus the EQDs you've earned through your spending on eligible AAdvantage Aviator MasterCard cards.
  4. Booking code on your ticket: Upgrade requests from business to first class (codes J, R, D, I and C) get first priority followed by upgrade requests from the main cabin to the next class (codes W, P, Y, H, K, M, L, V, G, S, N, Q, O and T).
  5. Date and time of your request: If there's still a tie, requests made first get priority.

How to upgrade on American Airlines

Knowing the ins and outs of upgrading on American Airlines can make the difference between sipping on champagne and sitting in the back of the plane. Here are a few tips and tricks for securing an upgrade:

How to check for upgrade space

One of the hardest things about getting upgraded is finding available upgrade space. Even though premium cabin seats may be available for purchase, it doesn't mean an upgrade is available. If you're an Executive Platinum member trying to use a systemwide upgrade, you'll see flights with SWU availability when you search for flights on aa.com. Otherwise, check out our tip below:

How to request an upgrade

Once you've confirmed that upgrade space is available, there are three basic ways to request an upgrade:

  1. Rely on auto upgrade requests. If you have elite status of any level, you can kick back and let the American Airlines system automatically request a complimentary upgrade for you on flights of 500 miles or less within the United States and between the U.S. and Canada, Mexico, the Bahamas, Bermuda and Central America. And if you've got elite status at the top two levels, you'll also get automatic requests for complimentary upgrades to these destinations on flights over 500 miles.
  2. Request an upgrade in advance. American Airlines offers various ways to request an upgrade before your trip. You can make an upgrade request when you book or any time afterward.
    • How to request a mileage upgrade: Call American Airlines reservations to request a mileage upgrade.
    • How to request a systemwide upgrade: First log in to your AAdvantage account at aa.com to make sure you have a systemwide upgrade available. When booking your flight, click on the systemwide upgrades link to look for flights that have available upgrades. After booking, call the American elite service desk to confirm your upgrade. If you want to request an upgrade any time after you have booked your ticket, call the American elite service desk.
    • How to request a 500-mile upgrade on an award ticket: Upgrades will be requested automatically if everyone on your reservation is eligible. Otherwise, you can go to aa.com or call the reservations line to put in a request.
  3. Pay for your upgrade with cash and/or miles. Elite members who want to upgrade but don't have a 500-mile upgrade available can purchase them with either cash or miles. The cost is $40 for one upgrade or 40,000 AAdvantage miles for eight. If you're not an elite member, you can even purchase upgrades for a traveling companion. Using a 500-mile upgrade does not increase your upgrade priority, but if others are upgraded ahead of you, you will keep your 500-mile upgrade to use on a future flight. For more detailed information, see the Upgrade priority section below

    Non-elite members have the option to purchase upgrades for miles and cash — the exact amounts depend on the route you're flying and the type of fare you've purchased. You can see the exact amounts in the table in the How to upgrade with miles section below.

    After you request an upgrade from American, it may be confirmed right away — if you're lucky. If an upgrade isn't available or can't be confirmed immediately, you'll be put on a waiting list. If your upgrade hasn't been confirmed by the time you check in for your flight, you'll be put on the upgrade standby list. Once it's confirmed, the American app will automatically update your mobile boarding pass.
Savvy traveler tip: How do you know if upgrade space is available on an American Airlines flight? Unless you're an Executive Platinum elite AAdvantage member who wants to request a systemwide upgrade or a mileage upgrade, you will have to call American to check upgrade availability. Another option is to use ExpertFlyer, a tool that makes it easier to search for upgrade availability on your own.

How to upgrade your companion

Traveling with a companion and want to make sure they're not left sulking in coach while you're living it up at the front of the plane? No worries — if you're an elite member, you can use your status to get an upgrade for your companion.

For mileage and systemwide upgrades in which you and a traveling companion are both wait-listed for the same type of upgrade, you can "sponsor" your companion so they receive the same priority level as you. They don't even need to be an AAdvantage member.

In order to "sponsor" your travel companion, you both need to:

  • be booked on the same flight, though you can be on different reservations.
  • use the same type of upgrade, either mileage or systemwide.

To request to sponsor a travel companion, contact American Airlines reservations.

For 500-mile upgrades, you and another AAdvantage elite member can get prioritized together on the wait-list with the higher-status member acting as the "sponsor." If upgrades haven't been confirmed by the time you get to the airport, each of you will be reprioritized according to your own status level. However, you can ask a customer service agent to reprioritize you and your companion together. If you both get upgraded, the 500-mile certificates will be deducted from the sponsor's account.

If you're an elite member traveling with a companion who isn't upgraded, you can request an upgrade for them using one of your 500-mile upgrades to pay for the upgrade. You can request the upgrade at aa.com or by phone. If they're on a different reservation, you'll need to call American reservations to link the two reservations. That way, both of you will be upgraded together.

Finally, if you're an elite member traveling with a lap baby or multiple companions, call American reservations to request upgrades.

How to upgrade with miles

You can use your miles to upgrade to the next class of service on American Airlines and American Eagle flights. You can also use your miles to get an upgrade for someone else, whether that's a travel companion, friend, family member or employee. Basic economy fare tickets and award tickets are not eligible for upgrades, but the following types of tickets can be upgraded to the next level:

  • Discount economy fares (coded on the ticket as H, K, M, L, V, G, Q, N, O or S)
  • Military or government fares (coded as Y)
  • Full-fare economy (coded as Y)
  • Discount premium economy (coded as P)
  • Full-fare premium economy (coded as W)
  • Discount business (coded as I)
  • Full-fare business (coded as J, D or R)

Here's a chart that shows how many miles (or miles plus cash) it will cost you to upgrade a one-way trip on an American Airlines flight:

from
To/from
From discount economy to premium economy
From full fare economy to premium economy
From discount business to first class
From full-fare business to first class
All U.S. states (except Hawaii) and CanadaAll U.S. states (except Hawaii) and Canada15,000 + $755,00015,000 + $17515,000
All U.S. states (except Hawaii), Canada, Mexico and the CaribbeanAll U.S. states (except Hawaii), Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean15,000 + $758,000N/A15,000
All U.S. states (except Hawaii), Canada, Mexico and the CaribbeanHawaii15,000 + $1758,000N/A15,000
North AmericaCentral America15,000 + $758,000N/A15,000
North AmericaColombia, Ecuador, Guyana and Peru15,000 + $1508,000N/A15,000
North AmericaArgentina, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay25,000 + $35015,00025,000 + $55025,000
North AmericaAustralia, New Zealand, China, Hong Kong, Japan and South Korea25,000 + $35015,00025,000 + $55025,000
North AmericaEurope, Middle East and Africa25,000 + $35015,00025,000 + $55025,000
Savvy traveler tip: If you think you might want to upgrade with American Airlines, avoid purchasing a basic economy fare ticket. Basic economy is the lowest-cost fare on American and comes with several restrictions, including the lack of ability to upgrade. All other types of tickets are eligible for upgrades. If you purchase a discount economy or discount business ticket, you will have to pay for an upgrade with miles and cash rather than just miles.

How to upgrade on a partner airline

You can use American Airlines AAdvantage miles to upgrade on select partner airlines. You can upgrade on American Airlines, British Airways and Iberia marketed flights that are operated by any of the three carriers. The cost in miles varies by the class that you're upgrading to and the region of the flights. It is 12,500 miles to upgrade from full-fare economy to premium economy on a flight to Europe, or 70,000 miles to upgrade from business class to first class on a flight from the U.S. to the South Pacific.

How to upgrade using Business Extra points

As mentioned, if you sign up for the Business Extra program, you can accumulate extra points in addition to your AAdvantage miles. You can then use those Business Extra points to get upgrades.

Here are the upgrades you can get for your Business Extra points:

Upgrade
Number of Business Extra points needed
One-segment upgrade within North America, or between North America and Hawaii or the Caribbean650
International one-way upgrade on a full-fare ticket between North America and Europe, South America, Central America, Asia or the South Pacific1,200
International one-way upgrade on a discounted fare ticket between North America and Europe, South America, Central America, Asia or the South Pacific3,100

What can you get with an American Airlines upgrade?

An American Airlines upgrade will typically allow you to upgrade to the next class of service. You do not have to buy a premium economy ticket because you can upgrade to business from a standard economy ticket. Second, the next class of service will vary by flight and whether the flight is domestic or international. If you have an economy ticket, the next class of service will be business or domestic first class.

Upgrades to first class

You can only upgrade to first class on American Airlines by using a systemwide upgrade or by paying cash and miles to upgrade from a paid business class fare. Also, 500-mile upgrades cannot be used to upgrade to "true" first class (on a plane with three distinct classes). Note that many smaller and shorter domestic American flights only have two cabin classes — on those flights, you can use 500-mile upgrades to upgrade from economy to what American calls domestic first class.

Upgrades to first class

To maximize your American Airlines upgrade to first class, you'll want to use it on as long a flight as possible, ideally in American's Flagship First Class. Systemwide upgrades are good for up to three segments on a one-way flight. Flagship First Class gives you priority check-in as well as access to American's Flagship® First Class lounges and Flagship® First Dining. While in the air, you'll get a "This Is Ground" amenity kit and Casper pajamas, lie-flat seating and chef-inspired dining.

Upgrades to business class

Most upgrades with American Airlines will be from economy class into either business class or domestic first class. The amenities you'll get from an upgrade depends on whether you upgrade to domestic first class or a true business class. On most shorter flights on smaller planes, you'll be upgraded to domestic first class. This means that you'll have a slightly larger seat with more legroom, and additional food and drink options. If you upgrade into a true business class, you'll have access to either the Flagship Lounge or Admirals Club before boarding. In the air, you'll also have either a larger seat or a lie-flat seat depending on the route and plane you're flying.

This upgrade can be done with SWUs, 500-mile upgrades or by paying cash and miles. One of the best uses of an 500 mile upgrade is to upgrade a paid economy fare into American's transcontinental Flagship Business. That is currently available on these routes:

  • Los Angeles (LAX) - New York (JFK)
  • San Francisco (SFO) - New York (JFK)
  • Los Angeles (LAX) - Miami (MIA) – traveling on Boeing 777-300 aircraft only
Upgrades to business class
An upgrade may give you room to stretch out in fully lie-flat seats (Image credit: American Airlines)

How status can get you upgrades with American Airlines

Once you've earned your status based on your activity during a year, you'll keep that status for the following year. There are many benefits to having status, including a discounted Admirals Club membership, priority check-in and boarding, free checked bags, free same-day flight changes and mileage boosts that let you earn extra miles on qualifying flights. One of the biggest perks: upgrade opportunities.

Here are the upgrade privileges you get from the different levels of American Airlines status:

Upgrade benefit
Executive
Platinum Pro
Platinum
Gold
Unlimited free auto-requested upgrades on flights of 500 miles or less to eligible locations (see above)YesYesYesYes
Upgrades on flights over 500 miles to eligible locations (see above)Unlimited free auto-requested upgradesUnlimited free auto-requested upgradesMay use earned or purchased 500-mile upgrades (will get four for every 12,500 EQMs earned during the year you get status)May use earned or purchased 500-mile upgrades (will get four for every 12,500 EQMs earned during the year you get status)
Free upgrades on award ticketsYesNoNoNo
Upgrade one travel companion on the same 500-mile upgradeYesYesYesYes
Upgrade may be confirmed this far in advance of departure100 hours72 hours48 hours24 hours
Systemwide upgradesReceive four SWUs every time you qualify or requalify for status, plus you can choose extra SWUs when you reach certain levels of EQMs (150,000, then 200,000 and 250,000 EQMs)NoNoNo

The 500-mile upgrades are available for flights within the United States (including Hawaii) and between the U.S. and Canada, Mexico, the Bahamas, the Caribbean, Bermuda and Central America.

Does having an AAdvantage credit card matter?

Simply having a credit card does not give you any extra access to upgrades — that comes from elite status or paying for upgrades. However, certain AAdvantage credit cards allow you to earn elite status faster.

The Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite Mastercard®, for example, allows you to earn EQMs through your total spending on the card. Two other cards issued by Barclays allow you to earn EQDs through your spending, which help you to qualify for status. One of these cards, the AAdvantage® Aviator™ Silver World Elite Mastercard®, is only available as an upgrade for now. The other, the AAdvantage® Aviator® World Elite Business Mastercard®, is a small-business card.

Card
Sign-up bonus
Annual fee
Status boost?
AAdvantage® Aviator® World Elite Business Mastercard®Not open for new sign-ups$95$3,000 Elite Qualifying Dollars (EQDs) by spending $25,000 in a year
Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite Mastercard®
  • On Citibank's Secure Website
Earn 50,000 American Airlines AAdvantage® bonus miles after spending $5,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening$45010,000 Elite Qualifying Miles with $40,000 in spending in a year
AAdvantage® Aviator™ Silver World Elite Mastercard®Not open for new signups$1955,000 EQMs after spending $20,000 and another 5,000 EQMs after spending an additional $20,000 Also $3,000 EQDs after spending $50,000 each calendar year
Savvy traveler tip: If you want to earn elite status with American, consider getting one of the AAdvantage cards that allows you to earn either EQMs or EQDs to help boost your chances of achieving status, or a higher level of status. Crunch the numbers to make sure you typically spend enough on your card each year to earn these perks

How to get on the American Airlines upgrade list

American Airlines has really tightened up their upgrade process in the past several years. Most upgrades clear within 24 hours of flight, so there aren't a lot of options to score extra upgrades. Because of the set priority list for upgrades on American Airlines, there aren't a lot of options to get on the American Airlines upgrade list unless you've earned it.

If you want to "skip the line" and get an upgrade on American Airlines ahead of someone with higher status than you, you'll need to pay. You can either pay with systemwide upgrades, 500-mile upgrades or using your cash and miles.

Can you upgrade an award ticket on American Airlines?

Executive Platinum elite members receive unlimited complimentary upgrades on award tickets. All other AAdvantage members can not receive complimentary upgrades on award tickets, including 500-mile upgrades.

How much is it to upgrade on American Airlines?

If you are an AAdvantage elite member with no available 500-mile upgrades, you can buy them for $40 each. Remember that you will have to use a 500-mile upgrade for each person and for each 500 mile segment of your flight. If you are not an elite member or don't want to purchase 500-mile upgrades, you can upgrade to the next cabin of service using cash and/or AAdvantage miles.

How do you get 500 mile upgrades on American Airlines?

500 mile upgrades are a perk of elite status with American Airlines. Executive Platinum and Platinum Pro members receive unlimited complimentary 500 mile upgrades. Platinum and Gold elite members get four 500-mile upgrades for every 12,500 EQMs earned each year. They can also buy additional upgrades for $40 each.

Can I upgrade to premium economy on American Airlines?

500-mile upgrades do not upgrade from economy to premium economy. Instead, using a 500-mile upgrade upgrades you from economy to either business class or domestic first class. You can also not currently upgrade to premium economy using cash and miles.

Does American Airlines upgrade to first class?

There are a few ways to score an American Airlines upgrade to first class. Executive Platinum members can use a Systemwide Upgrade (SWU) to upgrade a business class flight to first class. You can also pay using cash or miles to upgrade from business class to first class. You can also use these in addition to 500-mile upgrades to upgrade from economy to domestic first class.

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