I get a lot of questions on how to upgrade on American Airlines. No one likes to sit in the back of the bus, so everyone’s always looking for that trick to sit up front. In this case, the “trick” is a guaranteed way to sit in business class or first class, space available, using what’s known in the “upgrade world” as an instrument.
I’ll be referencing the strategy for upgrades post January 11, as that’s when all of the essential fare codes we’ll be talking about have changed on American, thanks to a massive schedule change.
How to Upgrade on American
Let’s go through the quick list of ways to upgrade on American…
- OPTION 1A: Anyone can upgrade with a $150 co-pay and 15,000 miles (space available)
- OPTION 1B: Elites can upgrade with a $75 co-pay and 15,000 miles.
- OPTION 2: Executive Platinums can use a systemwide upgrade
- OPTION 3A: Golds and Platinums can use 500-mile upgrade certificates to upgrade
- OPTION 3B: Executive Platinums (and soon to be Platinum Pros) can get upgrades for free, within 100 hours of departure
Most likely, if you’re the occasional or first time flyer, you’re looking to upgrade using option 1B above. Anyone – elite or not – can upgrade on American Airlines with the proper inventory.
What does “space available” mean?
Of course, the airline isn’t going to give away every seat for free well in advance of the flight, so upgrades are capacity controlled. Prior to January 11, upgrades from domestic economy to domestic First were much, much easier. Now that the fare codes have been updated, things are a bit more tricky, though it’s still possible. Airlines have different fare buckets that they sell tickets in, all assigned a letter to represent the bucket. As the plane gets more and more sold out, fare buckets become less and less available. Some of these fare buckets represent revenue seats, a seat you can outright purchase with cash, and some buckets represent awards or upgrades, where you can use miles or an instrument to upgrade or get a free ticket, but can’t necessarily use cash to buy the seat. In general, if you want to upgrade, you can always buy the seat for the full amount. You may not necessarily be able to use miles or an instrument to upgrade into it for reduced cost/free.
Upgrading from Domestic Economy to Domestic Business Class (3-class plane) or Domestic First Class (2-class plane) by Complimentary Upgrade
As I said above, Executive Platinums and Platinum Pros receive free upgrades on all routes, and Golds and Platinums get to use 500-mile upgrade certificates. On a domestic flight, these upgrades clear into “X” inventory prior to January 11, 2016 and “R” inventory after January 11, 2016. There’s no way for a passenger to view this inventory, even with a subscription service. American will release it if they feel they cannot sell the seat itself.
Upgrading from Domestic Economy to Domestic Business Class (3-class plane) or Domestic First Class (2-class plane) by Confirmed Systemwide Upgrade OR Miles/Cash Co-pay
If you’re an Executive Platinum with a Systemwide Upgrade or any customer with miles and a cash co-pay, you’re looking for:
- “A” inventory for Economy to First Class on a 2-class domestic plane, prior to January 11, 2016. After this, “A” will be used for Business to First Class upgrades on a 3-class equipped plane.
- “C” inventory for Economy to First Class on a 2-class domestic plane, after January 11, 2016.
- “C” inventory for Economy to Business Class on a 3-class domestic plane.
Fortunately, “A” and “C” inventory is searchable by the customer with a service such as ExpertFlyer. You can see this space using a third-party tool, or by calling American.
If you’re not an elite member and want to sit up front, then “C” inventory is going to be your best friend. You need this type of fare to be available in order for you to move up.
Upgrading from International Economy to International Business Class
Remember that “C” inventory from above? You’re looking for it again. “C” inventory will take you from economy to business class, and is searchable with a third party tool like ExpertFlyer, or by calling American. You won’t find “C” on every flight in advance, but there’s an occasional chance you might see it, though it’s few and far between. As it gets closer to departure, the chances of “C” inventory becoming available increases. On many flights, upgrade availability from economy to business class won’t be available until the gate at departure, in which case you’re waitlisted in priority order.
Tip: If using a service such as ExpertFlyer, and you see “C” inventory available, you can upgrade your flight immediately by calling American. You do not have to wait on the waitlist or in any order if this is the case.
Upgrading from International Business Class to International First Class
You’re looking for “A” space, which is visible on ExpertFlyer, and on AA.com.
How do I search for available upgrade space?
In the case of American, here’s my go-to process, in priority order:
- I first go to ExpertFlyer. Not to sound like a broken record, but this service is more than invaluable. It costs you about $99 a year, but you’ll be able to view upgrade space with a simple search. I’d recommend this if you fly more than 25,000 miles a year.
- If you don’t want to pay for an ExpertFlyer subscription, the next best bet is to call American and ask what’s available. It’s no secret, and then will tell you if the proper inventory is there for you to upgrade. American agents are already trained on which fare code goes to which upgrade, so there’s not necessarily a reason to tell them the specific fare code letters for any reason.
- Using AA.com to search for upgrade space is really only valuable if you’re an Executive Platinum, as the screen to show “systemwide upgrades” will only show for these top tier members. If you’re a Platinum Pro or below, you won’t see this screen. I do find that even as an Executive Platinum, sometimes this feature can be a bit broken and not always accurate.
How to actually upgrade your ticket?
When you’ve found the proper inventory that will allow you to upgrade, you’re best way to process the upgrade efficiently is to call. There should be no charge for the agent to do this process for you, and for those needing to pay a c0-pay along with their miles, the agent can take this information directly over the phone.
Before buying your next American Airlines ticket, seriously check out the current promotion on Founder’s Card, a non-credit card membership that gets you tons of benefits on not only American Airlines flights, but also other airlines, hotels, travel companies and more. Founder’s Card has previously offered 5-10% off on American Airlines flights, 3,000 Business Extra points (enough for a one-way First Class ticket), free upgrade certificates and complimentary Platinum status just for being a member. There’s a limited time only discount to get a Founder’s Card here.
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