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. As of mid-2016, American permits customers to cancel a ticket within 24 hours of making a reservation and receive a full refund as long as that reservation was made at least 2 days before departure.
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, buying full fare tickets may earn more Elite Qualifying Dollars (EQD), and those EQD can serve as a tie-breaker when two customers with the same status are both trying to upgrade.
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 although your total EQD in the last 12 months may be a factor. 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, upgrade type, and total EQD in the last 12 months. Elite status is the simplest to understand and follows this order:
- Concierge Key
- Executive Platinum
- Platinum Pro
Within each elite tier, the upgrade priority is sorted by the type of upgrade requested in the following order:
- Systemwide upgrades and upgrades using miles
- 500-mile upgrades on paid tickets (or complimentary upgrades for Executive Platinum members)
- 500-mile upgrades on award tickets (or complimentary upgrades for Executive Platinum members)
Remember, Executive Platinum members get complimentary upgrades, so they don’t redeem 500-mile upgrade instruments per se but their complimentary upgrades would be processed at that time.
If two members with the same elite status are trying to clear the same type of upgrade, then their 12-month rolling EQD balance serves as a tie-breaker. Say one person has earned 10,000 EQD in the last 12 months and another person has earned 12,000 EQD. Both are Platinum Pro members trying to redeem a 500-mile upgrade. The second person with 12,000 EQD would clear first.
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. If you’re at the airport and your upgrades haven’t cleared yet, you need to talk to an agent to re-connect you and your companion on the priority list. You must do this at every departure airport.