Many travelers who earn frequent flyer miles aren’t always interested in booking an award ticket. Instead, they want to use their miles to upgrade a ticket they’ve already bought with cash. Upgrades and award travel have a lot in common, but the rules are unique for every loyalty program. This post discusses how to upgrade a ticket purchased with American Airlines.
There are two major rules for booking upgrades on American. It’s very important to understand these before you book a ticket as any mistakes could require expensive change and cancellation fees. Please ask your questions here or contact an American representative for clarification.
First, you must use American AAdvantage miles to upgrade your American-operated flight; any miles earned with another program like Alaska Airlines probably won’t be helpful. This same logic works in reverse: you normally can’t use American miles to upgrade a flight operated by another airline. You usually can’t upgrade codeshare flights, either, which may be operated by American but have another airline’s flight number. It helps to book your flight through the American Airlines website to avoid codeshares.
Second, upgrade inventory is limited. Just because there are business class seats for sale does not mean that you can upgrade your economy class ticket. Like award flights there are only so many for sale, and this number changes often. But because award availability is often limited, upgrades make it easier to secure travel on the flights you need when the destination and dates aren’t very flexible. You may need to fly even if your upgrade doesn’t clear and you have to stay in economy class.
Finally, some people don’t want to travel any more than they already do, or they need to continue booking paid tickets in order to earn the miles they need for elite status. Booking “extra” award travel doesn’t appeal to everyone.
Searching for Upgrade Inventory
American makes it relatively easy to search for upgrade availability on its own site and on third-party websites like ExpertFlyer. Domestic first class and international first class upgrades are listed in the A fare class, but international business class upgrades are listed in the C fare class. This means that you’ll need to switch your attention between A and C if you’re trying to upgrade a economy class fare, depending on where your travel takes you.
The ExpertFlyer approach is available to everyone, but it requires a paid membership. Once logged in you can search for upgrade inventory on individual flights.
Using the American Airlines website is only an option for individuals with top-tier Executive Platinum status since these members receive systemwide upgrades each year. When logged in, you’ll be able to see which international flights have upgrade inventory because bold text reading “Systemwide Upgrade” will appear underneath. Even if you do not want to redeem a systemwide upgrade, the same inventory can be used to upgrade with miles.
Upgrades can’t be secured online. Even if you find available inventory somewhere else, you’ll need to call an agent at some point to either upgrade the flight or place yourself on the waitlist. Some people may prefer to call the agent at the beginning of the search process to help find available flights.
Upgrade with Miles
American Airlines provides an opportunity to upgrade with miles if you are traveling in almost any fare class. The number of miles required ranges from 5,000 for short domestic flights to 25,000 for long international flights, and the cash co-pay ranges from zero to $550 in each direction. Generally any full fare ticket (Y, J, D, or R class) will not have a co-pay. Also be aware that co-pays are not waived for members with elite status. Here is a complete list of the current upgrade award chart:
Upgrading Flights on Other Airlines
It’s possible to use American Airlines miles to upgrade flights operated by other carriers, but only those operated by British Airways or Iberia. The vast majority of the oneworld alliance is excluded.
These upgrades require you to purchase a full fare ticket in economy class (Y fare) or in business class (J, D, or R class). In some cases it may actually cost more to buy one of these tickets compared to purchasing a discounted business class fare that doesn’t require an upgrade. Fortunately, no co-pay is required. Upgrades cost between 12,500 and 60,000 miles in each direction depending on where you travel. Here is just a partial list:
It may not be possible to use this method to upgrade your economy class fare to business class. Passengers may only upgrade from one cabin to the next, and many of British Airways’ flights have a premium economy cabin. That means even if you buy a full fare ticket in standard economy the best you can get with an upgrade is a little extra legroom and slightly wider seat–not a flat bed. You must purchase a premium economy ticket in order to upgrade to business class. Furthermore, you will be liable for any increase in taxes and fees, which are unusually high for premium cabin passengers in the United Kingdom.
Priority for Each Upgrade Type
If your upgrade cannot be confirmed immediately, you will be place on a waitlist, and the order you clear the waitlist will depend on your position within the hierarchy. Upgrade priority is determined by three factors: elite status, fare class, and the time of request. Fare class is only relevant if you book the most expensive Y or B economy class fares as just discussed; all other fares are processed after these passengers and are sorted by time of request only.
The type of upgrade you request is not relevant. There is no priority, for example, that places a mileage upgrade ahead of a complimentary upgrade, which means that someone with low status who tries to use miles could be outmaneuvered by a someone with high status who gets a complimentary elite upgrade.
However, using miles for an upgrade does have priority in the sense that it can clear much earlier. Complimentary elite upgrades are not processed until a few days before departure. If upgrade inventory becomes available weeks or months before departure, then only people using miles or a systemwide upgrade certificate will be able to process their upgrade.
Follow this process to determine your priority for an upgrade on the waitlist:
- Elite status is most important. Anyone with higher elite status will clear before others with lower or no elite status.
- Full fare Y and B economy class tickets will clear first within each group of elite members.
- All other fares will be sorted by the time of request (generally the time that you booked the ticket).
- If two people are traveling on the same reservation, the companion will generally clear at the same time as the person with higher priority. If there are more than two passengers on your reservation, it may be helpful to call an agent and split the reservation into smaller groups.
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.