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How to upgrade on American Airlines with Miles, Systemwides, and More

by on Tue March 21, 2017 • 16 Comments


With award space in Business Class on American Airlines flights hard to score, especially on long international flights, upgrades are an alternative if you want to sit up front. While they’re not as cheap as a good Saver award ticket, you’re often better off than paying for a Business or First Class ticket outright.

The AAdvantage upgrade system can be confusing if you haven’t flown them for many years, so here’s a primer on how to get an upgrade using your miles or AAdvantage elite status.

How Can You Upgrade?

American Airlines has four different ways to upgrade: using miles, Systemwide Upgrades for Executive Platinum (which are the most coveted because they can be used on any AA flight), 500-mile upgrades for elite members, and Complimentary Upgrades, which are automatic upgrades that don’t require miles or any sort of certificate. Here’s a quick summary:

Who gets them?When can they clear?What routes are eligible?How many are needed for an upgrade?
MilesAny AAdvantage memberAnytime upgrade space is openAny AA flightMiles required vary based on the region you're flying.
Systemwide (SWU)Executive PlatinumsAnytime upgrade space is openAny AA flightOne SWU can upgrade any one-way trip.
500-MileElite members earn 4 for every 12,500 elite qualifying miles flownGold: 24 hours before departure, Platinum: 48 hoursFlights within the U.S., and to Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central AmericaOne 500-mile upgrade for every 500 miles of flight distance
ComplimentaryElite membersGold: 24 hours before departure, Platinum: 48 hours, Platinum Pro: 72 hours, Executive Platinum: 100 hours, Concierge Key: 120 hoursGold and Platinum: Flights 500 miles or less. Executive Platinum / Platinum Pro: Any flight distance within the U.S., and to Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America.None - they are complimentary

You can upgrade any paid ticket except American’s new Basic Economy fares.

What about companion upgrades?

You can use miles or a Systemwide to upgrade anyone you’d like, including a traveling companion.

500-mile upgrades can also be used to upgrade companions, but there are no complimentary upgrades for companions. When you request an upgrade for a companion with a 500-mile upgrade, the upgrade for both passengers will only clear in advance if 2 or more upgrade seats become available, so solo travelers might pass you along the way. 

What is the upgrade priority?

The most important factor in your upgrade priority is your elite status level, followed by the time of your upgrade request, so (at least until later this year when things change) requesting as soon as you buy your ticket is the best strategy.

If your upgrade isn’t confirmed when you request it, you’ll be put on a waitlist which will automatically process your upgrade if space becomes available. Checking your reservation on, you’ll see the word ‘requested’ next to flights that are waitlisted.


Note that fares booked in Y and B fare classes are confirmed within each status level first, followed by other fare classes. Companions are also upgraded with the same priority level of the elite member they are traveling with (though if an upgrade doesn’t clear before reaching the airport this might not apply).

The upgrade priority is as follows:

  1. Executive Platinum (Y or B fares)
  2. Executive Platinum (other fares)
  3. Platinum (Y or B fares) 
  4. Platinum (other fares)
  5. Gold (Y or B fare)
  6. Gold (other fares)
  7. Non Elites (Y or B fares)
  8. Non Elites (other fares)

If there are ties according to the above priority list, time of request is the tie-breaker.

Note: Later in 2017, upgrade prioritization will be changed.

Sometime this year (at a date not yet announced) upgrades will be prioritized first by your elite status level and then by the number of Elite Qualifying Dollars (EQDs) earned in the last 12 months. 

What if your upgrade doesn’t clear before check-in?

If your upgrade doesn’t clear before check-in you’ll be placed on the airport waitlist, and your place on that list will show on the AA smartphone app. If it doesn’t appear, ask at the airport to be added to the list and confirm your position.

Generally airport upgrades clear according to the same priority as the waitlist before check-in, but beware that passengers changing flights, and manual intervention by agents can cause things to change unexpectedly.

How much do mileage upgrades cost?

American charges miles plus a cash “co-payment” for most upgrades. The miles upgrade prices are as follows for one-way upgrades:

To / FromTo / FromFrom Discount EconomyFrom Full-Fare EconomyFrom Discount BusinessFrom Full-Fare Business
Contiguous 48 U.S. states, Alaska, CanadaContiguous 48 U.S. states, Alaska, Canada15,000 + $755,00015,000 + $17515,000
Contiguous 48 U.S. states, Alaska, Canada, Mexico, Caribbean*Contiguous 48 U.S. states, Alaska, Canada, Mexico, Caribbean*15,000 + $758,00015,000
Contiguous 48 U.S. states, Alaska, Canada, Mexico, Caribbean*Hawaii15,000 + $1758,00015,000
North AmericaCentral America15,000 + $758,00015,000
North AmericaColombia, Ecuador, Peru or Venezuela15,000 + $1508,00015,000
North AmericaArgentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay25,000 + $35015,00025,000 + $55025,000
North AmericaHong Kong, Japan, South Korea, China, Australia, New Zealand25,000 + $35015,00025,000 + $55025,000
North AmericaEurope, Middle East25,000 + $35015,00025,000 + $55025,000

If your upgrade doesn’t clear, you won’t be charged the co-payment.

Tip: “Full Fare” Economy prices only apply to flights booked in ‘Y’ class for Economy upgrades, and those are often as expensive or more expensive than buying a First Class ticket. Full Fare Business Class upgrade prices are good on J, D, and R Business Class tickets.

Beware: If you use miles for an upgrade, and decide you want to remove it, you’ll have to pay a $150 fee to redeposit the miles unless you’re an Executive Platinum member.

How to check for upgrade space

In order to be able to upgrade right away with miles or use a Systemwide Upgrade (SWU), there needs to be space available for an upgrade. 

You can search for upgrade space on if you’re an Executive Platinum level flier, or if you’re not, you can use a paid subscription to 

What fare classes are used for upgrades?

Upgrade inventory for 500-mile and Complimentary Upgrades isn’t visible to the public, so there’s no way to tell in advance whether your upgrade will clear on a flight.

But for Mileage and Systemwide Upgrades, the following fare codes are used for upgrade inventory:

  • A – First Class (3 cabin flights with both First and Business Class only)
  • C – Business Class and First Class on 2-cabin flights (which is most domestic flights)


To search on, you will need to log into your American Airlines account and will automatically display that upgrades are available on flights as you go through the booking process.

When you search for upgrade space on, you need to be logged into your account. We have completed a search from LAX to NRT which shows a price of $460 in economy. Check out the difference between flying AA27 and AA169. AA169 shows that there is space for “Systemwide Upgrades” while AA27 does not.


If you click on “Systemwide Upgrades,” will show more details on the space that is available. In this case, you can upgrade from the Main Cabin to Business Class, but you cannot upgrade from Business Class to First Class because there is not a higher cabin on the aircraft.


Searching ExpertFlyer

If you have a subscription to ExpertFlyer, you log into your account and navigate to the ‘Awards and Upgrades’ section. Then, fill in your search criteria and choose American Airlines as your airline. Then choose the upgrade that you are interested in – either Business or First (or both).


Expert Flyer will come back with a table of flights as well as how many seats are available in each upgrade class. In the example below, AA 169 LAX-NRT has 1 seat available for an upgrade. If space isn’t available for the flight you are interested in, you might want to set an alert up so that you will receive an email and can immediately call and apply your upgrade. Click the ‘!’ to set up an alert.


If there is space available on a flight you would like to book, you will need to call American Airlines to have a SWU applied to the reservation or use miles to upgrade.

How to book an upgrade

Mileage upgrades need to be requested on the phone by calling 800-882-8880.

Systemwide upgrades can be requested on while you’re booking your flight.

How to check your waitlist status

If an upgrade is only available for some of the flights in your itinerary, you will be placed on the upgrade waitlist for the flights that do not clear. You will be cleared from the waitlist according to the priority listed in the upgrade priority section.

If the flight you want isn’t available right away and you choose to waitlist for an upgrade on a flight, you might be interested in checking your waitlist status. On the day of departure, you can view the waitlist directly from the American Airlines app.

The best way to check your upgrade status prior to departure is to call.

Can you upgrade other people?

Yes, you can use miles or any upgrade in your account to upgrade family and friends. 

The one catch is that 500-mile upgrades can only be used on companions that are flying with you at the same time. SWUs and miles upgrades can be applied to any itinerary even if the person with status or the person who used the miles isn’t flying.

Can you upgrade to Premium Economy?

As of now, upgrades to premium economy with miles, SWUs, or 500-mile upgrades aren’t officially available. It is likely that it will be at sometime in the near future.

For now, if you have elite status, you can select premium economy seats for no additional cost.


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16 thoughts on How to upgrade on American Airlines with Miles, Systemwides, and More

  1. Joe

    I already booked 2 business class tickets from Hong Kong backed to US. I also booked 2 coaches for my kids and on waiting list for upgrade to business class. Would my chance of getting that filled if I was a Platinum AA member or it doesn’t matter. He reason I asked is Founders Card offers Platinum for 3 months if signed up with them and our trip will be during that 3 month window. Please advise if I should sign up for Platinum to increase my chances.


      @Joe – It shouldn’t give higher priority because you’re not the one on the waitlist. If you were the one on the waitlist then it could.

  2. Daniel Flinn

    I purchased tickets from New York to Ireland using chase ultimate rewards. Can I use miles to now upgrade my seat? I understand that British Airways is a companion to American. How could I get that seat upgrade using my Chase points?

  3. Amy Benishai

    I purchased a premium economy ticket using miles for the Coach and adding dollars for the Premium economy.
    I want to upgrade to Business on an Intercontinental flight.
    How do I do this?


      @Amy – Unfortunately there aren’t ways to do a double upgrade that we know of. But check your reservation on to see if you’re offered a buy up offer.


      @Kesh – You could pay more miles to get a business class award – though there would be a change fee.

  4. Garett

    Expert flyer told me there were 5 C class tickets available for a flight but when I called American, they said they only had paid upgrades available and that there were not miles upgrades available. I was just wondering why expert flyer would say there was 5 if AA is saying there are none? Just curious

  5. K J Delaney

    i checked with expert flyer and no upgrades are available. There are AAnytime Award upgrades available
    What does this mean?

  6. jon

    How does the actual upgrade process with miles work? I don’t see a way to do it at the time of booking. Do I have to wait until I purchase the ticket, and then take the risk that the upgrade is no longer available?

    For example:

    Say I can buy a JFK – LAX one-way ticket in coach for $200. ExpertFlyer shows that there is one seat available with the C code for this flight. What exactly do I do to be confirmed in business class for this flight? How do I actually pay the extra $175 and get the 15k miles debited from my account?

    Thank you!


      @jon – You need to call in to process a mileage upgrade. There’s a free 24 hour cancellation policy for cash tickets if your flight is more than 7 days out, so if the upgrade isn’t available when you call, you can always cancel. Tickets get issued pretty quickly though, about 10 minutes, but up to an hour.


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