One of the best features of the American Airlines AAdvantage program, in my opinion, is that they allow upgrades from coach to business class, or business class to first class on all fares. This means that it’s possible to book the cheapest fare available and still upgrade to the next level of service. Many other airlines exclude their lowest fare classes from upgrade eligibility.
Now that AA will be introducing Premium Economy as a distinct product between coach and business, there is some fear that upgrades from coach will only take you to premium economy, not to business class. If that happens, AA upgrades will be much less valuable. For now, though, they’re well worth pursuing.
One of the most frustrating aspects of AA’s upgrade policy, though, is that international upgrades to business class are rarely available far in advance. The usual upgrade process goes like this:
- Buy cheap ticket
- Call to apply upgrade
- Get waitlisted for the upgrade since no upgrades currently exist
- Wait and hope for that upgrade
Top tier AAdvantage Executive Platinum elites are given 8 systemwide upgrade certificates (SWUs) each year (soon to be lowered to 4). Each certificate can be used to upgrade one-way travel for one person. SWUs can be applied to another person’s travel – they’re not limited to the Executive Platinum member themselves. So, if you have a good friend with status, you may be able to trade a favor to get yourself upgraded on a long flight or two.
Upgrade with miles
Upgrading with miles isn’t as lucrative as with systemwide upgrade certificates. One-way upgrades from discount economy to business class to many locations (Europe, Asia, Australia, etc.) cost 25,000 miles plus $350. That’s pretty expensive in both miles and dollars, but it can be well worth it for some routes.
If multiple people are waitlisted for the same upgrades, AA prioritizes the upgrades by elite status, then by whether or not you are a full-fare passenger, then by time of request.
According to Flyerguide, if two people travelling on the same PNR are on the upgrade list, then their upgrades won’t clear unless two upgrades become available at once. If only one upgrade becomes available at a time, the next single person on the wait list will get that upgrade.
Upgrade AA coach to business class, in advance
There are many reasons why it might be important to you to secure an upgrade at the time of booking rather than waitlisting and hoping for the best. Maybe, for example, you’re planning a special trip for your significant other (honeymoon? anniversary?). Or, perhaps, you or a traveling companion simply can’t stand the thought of a long trip in coach (I don’t blame you!).
It’s not easy, but it can be done.
To make it happen, you may need to be flexible with regards to dates of travel, number of connections, and more. Here’s a case study in how it can be done…
Let’s pretend that I want to take my wife to Europe next summer. I pick a week that looks promising for our schedules and find that we have a bit of flexibility. July 3rd would be the ideal departure date, but we could leave up to 3 days earlier or 3 days later. We would like to visit Switzerland, but we’re open to other experiences as well. Imagine that I’m hell bent on flying business class and using upgrade certificates on AA rather than booking business class awards outright.
Here’s how I would construct the trip…
Step 1: Identify likely North American gateway cities
There are several ways to do this. One option is to simply start with AA’s hubs: Charlotte, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Philadelphia, Phoenix, and Washington DC. In my case, I would want to limit to the hubs I can get to easily from my home airport (DTW). If I didn’t already have the list memorized, I would check Wikipedia for all non-stop AA flights out of DTW. The only hub not on the list is LAX. I would also eliminate Phoenix from consideration because it is so far west, and I intend to fly east.
I would also run a simple Google Flights search to see where I would naturally get routed when buying a coach ticket to Switzerland. I plug in Detroit to Zurich for my date of departure, limit flights to AA, and find this:
Most flights go through Philadelphia, so I’ll start looking for upgrade availability from Philadelphia. Keep in mind: I don’t care much about upgrade availability between Detroit and Philadelphia. I care most about upgrade availability for the overseas part of the trip, so that’s what I’ll search for first.
Step 2: Identify non-stop flights between Philadelphia and European destinations
Even though I’d like to fly directly from Philadelphia to Zurich (in this fictional scenario), I’d be willing to fly to just about anywhere in Europe and then separately travel by air or rail to Switzerland. I’d even be willing to give up on Switzerland for this trip if I found a nice alternative. So, since I identified Philadelphia as a likely international gateway airport for me, I want to look at upgrade availability between Philadelphia and anywhere in Europe that AA flies non-stop.
There are undoubtedly several ways to identify non-stop AA international routes. My approach was to bring up the AA Route Map, input Philadelphia as the departure airport, uncheck “Add AA Connections” and “Add AA Partners”, then sort the text results by distance. By scrolling to the bottom of the list, I easily found the longest non-stop AA flights from Philadelphia. Most of these happen to be European destinations. Perfect.
Step 3: Use Expert Flyer to find outbound upgrade space
Expert Flyer is a paid service available for $9.99 per month, or $99.99 per year for Premium service; or $4.99 per month for basic service (details here). You can use Expert Flyer to search award and upgrade availability across many airlines, setup seat alerts, and much more.
Via Expert Flyer, I setup a search for upgrade space on American Airlines between Philadelphia and Zurich. I entered my desired date of travel (7/3/16) and selected to search plus or minus 3 days. Out of curiosity, I included First Class Upgrades in the search, but I was primarily interested in Business Class:
The search results are displayed in separate tabs for each day. On my preferred travel day, I found that there were no seats available for business class upgrades. Expert Flyer also provides some multi-stop results, so I could see that I could upgrade to first class between Philadelphia and LGA, then fly coach to Zurich from JFK. No thanks. Or, I could fly to London and upgrade to first class if I bought a business class ticket. This flight is on British Airways, though, so I would have to buy the ticket from BA and upgrade with their program instead. Regardless, I was looking for an upgrade to business class, so this didn’t meet my requirements.
After clicking through the tabs for different departure dates, I find a couple of interesting options. On several days, 2 or more upgrades from JFK were available. And, on July 6th a single seat upgrade was available on the non-stop Philadelphia to Zurich flight.
Neither option was ideal: I wanted to upgrade two seats, not one, so the non-stop flight from Philadelphia wasn’t great. Since two or more upgrade seats were often available from JFK, that would have worked well, but there are very few non-stop flights between Detroit and JFK and none are on AA. Still, I’ll decided to keep that route open as a possibility. Worst case, we could fly to Laguardia then out of JFK. It would be a hassle, but it could be done.
Next, I clicked “refine search” and change the destination city and searched again. Using the list of destinations I found in Step 2, I repeated the search for every European destination from Philadelphia. Most had no business-class upgrade availability at all, but I did find a couple of great options:
Rome: Two business class upgrades available
Venice: Two business class upgrades available
A couple of other cities (Paris and Frankfurt) had a single upgrade available, but no other direct flights from Philadelphia had more than one. I could have then moved on to a different gateway city to repeat the steps above, but I had a pretty good list of options for my outbound flights.
Step 4: Use Expert Flyer to find return upgrade space
In the previous step, I identified a number of good options for outbound travel. I liked the idea of spending all or part of the trip in Italy, so I assumed that we would fly into either Rome (July 4th) or Venice (July 5th). That gave me an idea of which days to search for return upgrade space. Assuming we wanted to spend at least 6 days in Europe, we wouldn’t want to return until July 11th or later. So, I plugged in July 13th as the ideal travel return date, and added plus or minus 2 days to the search results…
As was the case on the outbound search, I could only find a single seat available for upgrades on the non-stop Zurich to Philadelphia route, so I searched other options.
Venice was again a good option with 2 business class upgrades available:
I checked all other non-stop flights from Europe to Philadelphia, but couldn’t find more than 1 upgrade seat on any other route.
If Venice hadn’t been available, I would have expanded my search to include other US Airports that I can get to easily (e.g. Miami, DC, Charlotte, Chicago, New York).
Step 5: Find economy tickets at a fair price
Based on the results above, I decided that we would fly into either Rome, on July 3rd, or Venice, on July 4th. And, we would fly home from Venice on July 14th. Google Flights easily pulled up the Venice round trip option:
$1,637 isn’t particularly cheap for a coach flight to Europe, but it’s way better than the business class option which priced at $4,911 per person. The flight into Rome and back from Venice priced a bit higher: $1830, per person.
If I had any trouble finding the exact flights I needed on Google Flights, I would have turned to ITA Matrix, or to Hipmunk to force the connection in Philadelphia. For more, see: Bet You Didn’t Know: Using Hipmunk to book ITA Matrix flights.
If this was not just a hypothetical experiment but a real trip, I would most likely book the Venice round-trip flight. To pay for the flight, I would book through the Citi ThankYou Rewards program. As a Citi Prestige cardholder, my ThankYou points are worth 1.6 cents each towards American Airlines flights. Fortunately, the ThankYou search engine was able to find the correct price for the flight:
Book, then upgrade
Once you find the flights you want, make sure to book flights both marketed and operated by American Airlines. If booking directly through AA.com, you can place the flight on hold then call AA to double check upgrade availability before paying for the flight. If you book through a 3rd party such as Orbitz or Expedia, you’ll have 24 hours to cancel if anything goes wrong with the upgrades. If you book through the Citi ThankYou Rewards program and you have the Citi Prestige card, then you can get your points back if you cancel within 24 hours.
Once you book the flights, call American Airlines to apply your upgrade certificates or apply miles + cash.
It’s not necessarily easy, but it is possible to find and confirm AA upgrades in advance, for more than one person, even during high-season travel. Often it would be easier to find saver level business class awards, but there are good reasons to look for upgrade space instead:
- You don’t have enough miles for business class awards; or
- You’re seeking elite status; or
- Your coach ticket will be reimbursed (by your employer, for example), and you’d prefer to fly in business class (obviously)
Hopefully this guide was helpful. If you have additional tips for finding upgrade space, please comment below.