Earlier this week I provided a comprehensive look at upgrade policies on Alaska Airlines and United Airlines. Today we’ll cover the different upgrade types on American Airlines, which have less variety and are somewhat easier to find and redeem — although that can backfire in the sense that I’m sure a great deal is going on behind the scenes. Tomorrow we’ll wrap up with upgrades on Delta Air Lines.
- Ultimate Guide to Alaska Airlines Upgrade Rules
- Ultimate Guide to United Airlines Upgrade Rules
- Ultimate Guide to American Airlines Upgrade Rules
- Ultimate Guide to Delta Air Lines Upgrade Rules
Searching for Upgrade Inventory
American makes it very easy to search for upgrade availability on its own site and on third-party sites like ExpertFlyer. Domestic first class and international first class upgrades are in the A fare class, while international business class upgrades are in the C fare class. This means that you’ll need to switch between A and C if you’re trying to upgrade a coach fare, depending on where your travel takes you.
I personally find it easier to search for upgrade availability on ExpertFlyer. American will require you to log into your account first, and then it will display bold text below those segments that have upgrade space available. If you’re not logged in or an upgrade is not available, then no indicator appears. Either way you’ll still need to call an agent to apply the systemwide upgrade, so I normally place the ticket on hold and then call to book.
Knowing which flights have upgrade space before you book can be useful if you want to apply a systemwide upgrade, redeem miles, or just rest easy knowing that there are lots of seats available to improve your chances at a complimentary upgrade. Unlike many U.S. carriers, American does not permit free ticket cancellations within 24 hours (instead it provides a 24-hour hold). You wouldn’t want to book a ticket and only discover after the fact that you can’t upgrade it.
Upgrades for Full Fare Tickets
Unlike some carriers, American Airlines does not provide instant upgrades for full fare Y and B tickets at the time of purchase. However, it does give these fares priority when when the complimentary upgrades are processed.
There’s been some debate on this point in my earlier posts because, in all other cases, American doesn’t take fare class into account. I’ve continued to dig and some of the references I’ve seen (e.g., Flyertalk) confirm priority for full fare tickets but also include outdated information, such as priority for connecting passengers. I originally had a long spiel here about what I concluded, but fortunately I have found confirmation on American’s site that Y and B fares are given priority ahead of other upgrades.
Fares booked in Y and B are confirmed within each status level first, followed by all other fares.
So there you have it. Status matters first, then fare class (to a limited extent), and then the time of request.
Upgrades with Instruments or Coupons
American Airlines provides all elite members with upgrade instruments of some kind. Top-tier Executive Platinum members receive four systemwide upgrades upon qualifying for elite status. They have the ability to earn four more, two each time they earn an additional 50,000 elite qualifying miles (EQM) beyond the qualification criteria. Such upgrades can be applied to any one-way itinerary operated by American Airlines, including connecting flights, without minimum fare restrictions.
If you can’t confirm all segments of your itinerary at once, your upgrade request will be added to the waitlist.
Executive Platinum members also receive unlimited complimentary upgrades for all domestic travel, but other elite tiers must earn and redeem 500-mile upgrade “stickers.” I explain how domestic upgrades work in the section on Complimentary Elite Upgrades, but suffice it to say these cannot be used for most international travel. I bring them up here because they are technically an instrument.
Upgrades with Miles
Upgrades on American’s own flights require between 15,000 and 25,000 miles one-way. Most discounted fares also require a co-pay that ranges from $75 to $550. These prices are actually more reasonable than United’s. For example, upgrading from deeply discounted coach fares to business class between North America and Europe requires a mere $350 co-pay (United charges 20,000 miles plus $550).
Like we saw with United Airlines, using American Airlines miles to upgrade travel on a partner carrier requires that you purchase a full fare in economy class or other less discounted fares in premium cabins, including premium economy. The cheap, deeply discounted fares that you often see advertised are not eligible. There are no co-pays for partner upgrades, but you will be responsible for additional taxes and carrier-imposed fees associated with premium cabin travel. On British Airways, flying out of London, these can be considerable.
Note that even full fare economy class tickets can be upgraded with miles. Ordinarily full fare tickets receive priority for complimentary upgrades, but you still have to wait until the complimentary upgrade window opens. Redeeming miles (without a co-pay) allows you to confirm the upgrade at the time of booking.
Complimentary Elite Upgrades
Gold and Platinum members receive four 500-mile upgrade stickers each time they earn 12,500 EQM, or you can buy more for $40 each or redeem 40,000 miles to get eight upgrades. (These are the new prices effective March 1, 2016. Current prices are slightly lower.) Executive Platinum members do not earn any stickers because all of their domestic upgrades are complimentary, but they can still purchase them to redeem for a companion. Gold and Platinum members also receive free upgrades on segments under 500 miles.
Eligible routes include travel on American-operated and -marketed flights (i.e., an American plane and sold to you with American flight number) within the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Caribbean, and Central America.
You must request an upgrade using 500-mile stickers to add yourself to the waitlist. In theory, this restricts upgrades to those who want them, so even low-level elite members have a chance if they’re willing to shell out and someone else isn’t. Executive Platinum members, because their upgrades are always free, are added to the waitlist automatically. They still need to request an upgrade for a companion.
These upgrades do not need to be in your account at the time of the request, but you will need to purchase them before departure once/if you clear. Upgrade priority is assigned by elite status first and then by the time of request (typically the time of booking). Fare class is not a ranking factor except for Y/B full fares as described above. Companions will share the same status as the elite member.
Priority for Each Upgrade Type
Once on the waitlist, upgrade priority is determined by three factors: elite status, fare class, and time of request. I explained above my reasons for including fare class in this list, and it is only relevant for Y and B fares in economy class; for all other fares this factor is not relevant.
The type of upgrade you requested is also not relevant, so there is no priority, for example, that places a systemwide upgrade ahead of a complimentary upgrade. Systemwide upgrades and upgrades using miles do have priority in the sense that they can clear before the complimentary upgrade window opens. Once that window opens, however, there may be new competitors who requested their upgrades even earlier.
Here’s the upgrade waitlist priority as I understand it:
- Executive Platinum members and companions with full fare Y/B tickets
- Executive Platinum members and companions for all other upgrade types sorted by time of request
- Platinum members and companions with full fare Y/B tickets
- Platinum members and companions for all other upgrade types sorted by time of request
- Gold members and companions with full fare Y/B tickets
- Gold members and companions for all other upgrade types sorted by time of request
- Non-status members with full fare Y/B tickets
- Non-status members using miles or systemwide upgrades sorted by time of request
Note: Normally a primary traveler and companion will clear their upgrades together if processed in advance. However, American states that on the day of departure each traveler will clear according to his/her own elite status. I’ve seen agents override the list hierarchy for the companion of an Executive Platinum member so that they still clear together on the day of departure, but I’m not sure that they would do this for other elite members.