The Everyday Person’s Guide to Upgrading With Miles!  This Week:  American Airlines

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One of the best things about being a miles & points enthusiast is helping friends and family experience Big Travel with Small Money.  Just this year I took my family to New York and the Statue of Liberty over the holidays with Hyatt points.  And I’ve been helping my parents and aunt & uncle book a 3-week cross country train trip with points.

Nothing beats the look on someone’s face when you show them the $1,200 cost of a ticket they just booked for less than $100 out of pocket!

Lately I’ve been getting a lot of questions from friends about how to use airline miles to upgrade their seat.  And you know what, I don’t know the answer!

I’ve never had gazillion-miler-super-elite status with any airline.  And I’ve never actually used miles to upgrade a flight!  So I decided to do a little research and share with you what I find along the way.

This Week I’ll Cover How to Upgrade With Miles on American Airlines

Every airline has different rules for upgrading with miles.  And trying to figure out what they actually mean feels, to me, like learning Chinese.  So I’m going to do some homework and update this post every other week based on which airlines y’all want to learn about.

If you’ve got questions, let me know in the comments and I’ll add the information to the post!  Also, please share any tips you have!  Y’all shared some great money saving tricks on a recent post on how to save on car rentals.

My plan is to start by covering all of the major US airlines, and then move on to the major international airlines.  This week I’ve added details on upgrading with miles on American Airlines.

How to Upgrade Your Flight With Miles & Points

Upgrading with miles will cost fewer miles than booking an award ticket on the same flight in a “premium” cabin.  But you’ll be paying for the cost of a coach ticket, and you’ll usually pay a hefty fee on top of that, too.  So upgrading with miles probably isn’t very useful to the true budget traveler, because you’ll likely spend more cash than you would for a cheap coach flight.

But from my research so far, award upgrades are a potentially great way to use your miles to pay a lot less for Business Class seats.  They can also make sense if your travel dates aren’t flexible.  Because even if you’re not upgraded, you’ll still have a ticket to your destination.

Airline Upgrade With Miles
Don’t Have the Cash or Miles for a Business Class Seat? Then Using Miles to Upgrade Might Be the Solution for You!

Upgrade awards are similar to regular award flights (for most airlines) in that there must be an upgrade award seat available (and they can be limited!).  These awards are usually separate from other types of award seats.  So even if there is an open seat in Business or First Class you can book with cash or miles, you won’t always be able to use miles to upgrade to the same seat.

Also, finding an upgrade on partner flights can be more difficult.  And the partner upgrade award rules can vary with each airline.  I won’t be able to cover all of the partner upgrade award rules in detail.  So if you’ve had good (or bad) luck finding partner upgrades with a specific airline, please let me know and I’ll add the information to this post.

That said, if you have elite status with an airline, you’ll typically have a much easier time getting upgraded (i.e. potentially lower fees, higher priority on the waitlist, etc.).  Sometimes even without having to use miles or pay any extra fees!

For simplicity, I’m not going to cover the benefits of elite status in regards to being upgraded.  This one’s just for us “normal” folks.

Major US Airlines Upgrade Award Rules

I’ll start this project by covering the upgrade award policies of the major US airlines.  These miles & points are the easiest for most folks to earn and use.  So it makes sense to start there.

1.   United Airlines

You can use United Airlines miles to upgrade most fares paid with cash (you can’t upgrade a Basic Economy ticket) for United Airlines, United Express, and Copa Airlines flights.  But you can’t upgrade 2 classes with miles.

You can search for United Airlines upgrade awards on their website.  To start your search, go to the United Airlines homepage and click “All search options.”

Airline Upgrade With Miles
To Search for United Airlines Upgrades Awards, Click on the “All Search Options” Link on the Homepage

On the next page, select which type of upgrade award you’re looking for.

Airline Upgrade With Miles
Select the Type of Upgrade You Want to Book

When looking at the search results, you’ll notice little colored arrows above the upgrade award price.  A green arrow means there is an open upgrade award and you can book it.  A yellow arrow means you can be added to the upgrade award waitlist.  If you choose this option, you’ll have to pay the miles & cash for the upgrade, in full, up front.

If you aren’t upgraded, you’ll get a full refund of the miles & cash you paid for the upgrade.  But if you have multiple connections and even just a single leg of your flight is upgraded, you’ll likely be charged the full upgrade price.

And remember, you don’t have book an upgrade with miles at the time you make the reservation, you can upgrade later if you’d like.

Airline Upgrade With Miles
You Can Book Upgrade Awards or Be Added to the Upgrade Award Waitlist

If you see a red “Mixed Upgrade” note (like in the search above), one of the flights can’t be upgraded with a United Airlines upgrade award.  In this particular case, it’s because the flight is operated by a partner airline.

Miles Needed to Upgrade (One-way):

  • Domestic upgrade, including the US Mainland, Alaska, and Canada (but not Hawaii) – 7,500 to 20,000 United Airlines miles
  • International upgrades take up to 35,000 United Airlines miles.

Fees (One-way):

  • Domestic upgrade including the US Mainland, Alaska, and Canada (but not Hawaii) – Up to $250 copay
  • International upgrade – Up to $600 copay

You can see United Airlines’ upgrade award chart on pages 4 to 5 of this document (Star Alliance partner upgrade chart is on page 6).  Or you can search their interactive map.

Good Deal or Not:   For a round-trip domestic flight award upgrade you could pay up to $500 more, or up to $1,200 extra for a round-trip international upgrade!  That’s on top of the cost of the airfare!

But the price of a Business or First Class seat could easily be 3 to 5 times that amount.  And certain (more expensive) fares will require fewer miles and have a smaller (or no) co-pay.  So you’ll want to do the math and see if it makes sense for your particular situation.

Airline Upgrade With Miles
You’ll Pay More for Certain Fare Classes, but You Could End up Saving Because of the Lower Co-Pay

Because you can only upgrade one class with miles, in my opinion, it makes the most sense to upgrade from coach to Business Class.  Because if you want to upgrade with miles from Business Class to First Class, you’ll have to pay cash for an expensive Business Class ticket (i.e. $1,000s).  And that’s something I’m not going to do unless someone else is paying for it. 😉

Partner Upgrade Rules:   You can use miles to upgrade on some Star Alliance partners, but not all of them.  Partner award upgrades cost 10,000 to 60,000 United Airlines miles per one-way, non-stop flight.  There is no copay on partner upgrade awards.  But only the most expensive paid fares are eligible.  So either way, you’ll end up paying.  And there are extra restrictions with certain partners.

Tips & Tricks:   Reader RnC has had success upgrading with United Airlines miles by getting added to the waitlist and calling back to check on the upgrade status regularly.  RnC says the upgrade usually clears between 1 week and 12 hours in advance.

Have you had success upgrading your seat with United Airlines miles?  If so, what’s your secret?

2.   American Airlines

You can upgrade with American Airlines miles on any paid published fare class (in other words, no award flight upgrades with miles) on an American Airlines or American Eagle flight (except Basic Economy fares).   Mileage upgrades are valid for a single one-way trip with up to 3 segments.  And you can only upgrade 1 class.  So if you’re flying coach on a flight with 3 cabins, you may only upgrade to Business Class, NOT First Class.

If you are an Executive Platinum elite, you can see whether or not upgrades are available when you’re searching for flights on the American Airlines website.  But for less frequent travelers, like myself, the only way to find upgrade awards is to call American Airlines, or search for them using ExpertFlyer.

To search on ExpertFlyer, you’ll need an ExpertFlyer Basic ($4.99 a month) or Premium (~$10 a month or $99 a year) subscription to be able to search for award and upgrade seats.  Once you’re logged into your account, follow these steps to search for American Airlines award upgrades.

Step 1.   Click “Awards & Upgrades”

Under “ExpertFlyer Tools“, click the top link.

Click on “Awards & Upgrades”
Step 2.   Input Your Travel Information

Now you can enter the departing and arriving airport, dates, airline, and class of service you want to upgrade to.  If you have a Basic account, you’ll only be able to search 1 date and 1 class of service at a time.

Enter Your Flight Information and Select the Class of Service You Want to Upgrade to
Step 3.   Find Available Seat Upgrades

On the right side of the search results you’ll see the number of seats available (or “0” if none are open).

Each of These Flights has 2 or 3 Award Seats That Can Be Upgraded

Once you’ve found seats you can upgrade to with your American Airlines miles, go ahead and book your ticket.  Then once your ticket is issued, you’ll have to call reservations (800-433-7300) to apply the award upgrade.

If there are no available award upgrades on dates or flights you want, you can be added to the wait list.

Miles Needed to Upgrade (One-way):

  • Domestic upgrade, including the US Mainland, Hawaii, Alaska, and Canada – 5,000 to 15,000 American Airlines miles 
  • International flights – 8,000 to 25,000 American Airlines miles

Fees (One-way):

  • Domestic upgrades including the US Mainland, Alaska, Hawaii, and Canada – Up to $175 co-pay
  • International upgrades – Up to a $550 co-pay

You might also be charged a $75 fee if you requested the upgrade within 21 days of departure.  This fee is waived for certain American Airlines elites and some folks have been able to get it waived for asking nicely. 😉

Good Deal or Not:   It’s nice that American Airlines has a simpler award upgrade chart compared to United Airlines.  And the prices, both in miles and fees, look to be slightly less than what United Airlines would charge for the same type of upgrade.  And it looks like there are some deals to be had.

For example, it only costs 5,000 American Airlines miles (with no fee) to upgrade from a domestic full-fare coach or Premium Economy ticket to Business Class.  Of course you’ll want to do the math and be sure that the increased price for these fares are worth more than 10,000 American Airlines miles + $75.  Because that is what you would save in miles & fees compared to paying a discount coach fare.

American Airlines Has a Straightforward Award Upgrade Chart

If you’re not sure which American Airlines fare codes are discounted or full-fare, here is the list.

Use This Handy List of American Airlines Fare Codes to Figure Out How Much You’ll Pay for an Award Upgrade

And finding the fare class of the ticket you’re looking to buy is easy.  From the search results on the American Airlines website, just click “Details,” which is on the left below the flight’s departure and arrival times.

Click “Details” to Find Out the Fare Code of the Ticket You’re Looking at Purchasing

Then an information box, like the one below, will pop up with the information you need.

Once You Know the Fare Code (Booking Code), You’ll Be Able to Figure Out How Much Your Upgrade Will Cost

Partner Upgrade Rules:   You can use miles to upgrade on American Airlines partners British Airways and Iberia.  Partner award upgrades cost 12,500 to 70,000 American Airlines miles per one-way flight, with up to 3 segments.  There is NO copay on partner upgrade awards.  But only the most expensive paid fares are eligible.  And your upgrade will be subject to additional taxes & fees from the partner airline.  So either way, you’ll end up paying.

Check the American Airlines partner award chart to see how much it would cost for your flight.

Tips & Tricks:  Have you had success upgrading your seat with American Airlines miles?  If so, what’s your secret?

Bottom Line

While booking award Business or First Class flights with miles & points is usually the cheaper way travel, there are times when it makes sense to upgrade a paid flight with miles instead.  But the process for using miles & points to upgrade isn’t straightforward.  And the fees can really add up!

So, I’m going to be digging into each airline’s award upgrade rules (i.e. upgrading with miles) to figure out when it’s worth it to use miles to upgrade and when it’s not.

If you have any helpful tips or specific questions you would like answered, please let me know in the comments.  I’ll add the best ones to this post!

Which major US airline would you like me to cover next?