Flying is not glamorous. You usually have to get up at an ungodly hour, drag a week’s worth of belongings with you in a tiny box to a giant airport where you will have (at a minimum) one of your civil rights violated; you’ll then be forced to find your way around a byzantine terminal, before you are finally herded into lines only to be unceremoniously squeezed into a giant metal tube, strapped to a chair, and hurdled through the sky at 500 mph. It is, however, the price we all must pay in order to travel and go on vacation. There are few ways to make the experience better, the main one being an upgrade. When you’ve been upgraded, you’ll at least spend the last part of the ordeal strapped to a bigger chair, that in some cases even turns into a bed. You’ll certainly be fed, and provided a steady stream of [alcoholic] beverages. You’ll find room for your stuff, and the flight attendants will usually be more pleasant – reminding you that you are, after all, a human being. For the sake of being thorough, an upgrade entitles you to be seated in the next best cabin of service from the one in which you booked your ticket. If you booked coach, you’ll be seated in business; if you book business, you’ll be seated in first; and if you booked first, they will let you fly the plane! (not really) On international and transcontinental flights, upgrades also give you access to lounges, priority boarding, and additional baggage allowances. The goal of this post will be to discuss the main strategies for getting upgraded on flights booked with American Airlines (AA). This will require some level of status, since without it, there should be no expectation of an upgrade barring any extraordinary circumstances.
American Airlines has two main types of upgrade instruments:
- 500 mile upgrade ‘stickers’
- system wide upgrades (SWU)
The 500 mile stickers are awarded to AAdvantage members that attain gold status (25K+ miles in one year). One the gold status is achieved, for every 10K miles flown after that, you earn four 500 mile stickers. The stickers can then be applied against flights you would like to be upgraded on. The number or stickers required is based on the length in miles of the leg on which you would like to be upgraded. For example, JFK-LAX is a 2,475mi flight, and would require 5 stickers for an upgrade. The upgrade stickers are only eligible on flights flown on AA metal (no codeshares) domestically, or between the US and Canada, Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean. If your account is short a few stickers, they can also be purchased online (for $30) or at check-in (for $35). Once you attain Executive Platinum (EXP) status, you stop accruing the 500 mile stickers, as EXP members automatically are upgraded for free on the flights where the 500 miles stickers are eligible. 500 mile stickers can only be used for yourself or your companions travelling with you on the same ticket.
SWUs are the holy grail of upgrade instruments for AAdvantage members. EXP members (100k+ miles in one year) are given 8 SWUs once they attain the EXP status, and outside of any rare milestones or super special promotions, there are no other ways get more until you hit 100k miles qualifying for the next year. SWUs are special in that they can be used to upgrade you to the next class of service on ANY AA flight (again, no codeshares) to anywhere that AA flies, up to 3 consecutive legs, regardless of the distance of the flight. So if you decide to book a flight from NYC to Chicago to Dallas to Hong Kong, it requires 1 SWU, and if it cleared, would get you more than 20 hours of flying in business class! SWUs can also be gifted to friends and family and you do not need to be flying with them in order to get them upgraded.
The dreaded waitlist. Chances are, when you put in the request for your upgrade, it will not clear instantly, and will be added to the waitlist. To give some background on this, the point of the upgrade is to reward frequent flyers by giving away seats that would have otherwise gone unsold. Every single upgrade request can’t be granted instantly, since that might cause the business cabin to fill up and leave no seats available for any legitimate business travelers wiling to pay for them resulting in a loss of revenue. However, sending the flight out with empty seats in the business cabin, and no space in coach means the airline could have probably upgraded someone earlier and sold a few more coach seats. There is a delicate balance here, and a bit of art that results in upgrades typically being trickled out as the day of departure approaches.
Back to the waitlist – ungranted upgrade requests go to the waitlist. This specific list is not published anywhere, and you can’t call up to request what spot you are in in line, but your spot is based on 2 main factors (there are others, but we’ll focus on the main ones for simplicity):
- status in the following order of priority: EXP > PLT > GLD > no status
- the time of your request
So if you’re gold, and regardless if you requested the upgrade 9 months out or 9 days out, you will be placed on the waitlist behind all EXPs and PLTs. Generally, you should request your upgrade as soon as you book and cross your fingers. If by the day of the flight your upgrade has still not cleared, then you transfer over to the airport waitlist, and then you can finally see where exactly you stand.
Pro Tip: If you’ve requested an upgrade, and there is a flight/schedule/equipment change, it doesn’t hurt to call up and ask to make sure the original time stamp of your request was maintained. Sometimes during these changes, the time stamp can get messed up and you can lose your place in line. It can be fixed by calling them however.
Travelling with a Companion:
As if all the details above weren’t complicated enough, things get even more complex when a companion is involved. Typically, if you book a flight for two and would like to use an upgrade, the companion would inherit your status for purposes of the waitlist. However, on the day of the flight, if the upgrade hasn’t cleared, the companion loses your status and you go your separate ways on the airport waitlist. This is not an issue if you both have the same status, but if not, then this is where you’d have to decide if you’re willing to split up or stay together. For example, if you wish to stay together, and you are #1 on the list and your companion is #5, then the only way you both get upgraded is if there are 5 seats available. If there are only 3, then #2,#3, and #4 clear the upgrade, and you and your companion don’t! If you chose to split up, #1, #2, and #3 would clear.
Pro Tip: If you both have the same status, I would suggest you request the upgrade at booking and call up the customer service desk to request that they “split the record” or “split the PNR.” This effectively breaks your ticket into 2 separate tickets, but since you both have the same status, you stay in the same place in line. This should improve your chances of the upgrade clearing as they trickle out the seats. When you were together on one record, there had to be 2 free upgrades available in order for both of you to clear at the same time, if only one seat was trickled out for an upgrade, you might get skipped over until the day of the flight since you need two seats.
Flight Selection Strategy:
So this goes without saying, but given that these upgrade instruments are fairly limited, you should consider carefully which flights you should apply your upgrade requests to. On the ~1hr, 350mi flight from NYC to Toronto, I don’t think the upgrade is worth it (unless you’re EXP and its free). I would rather save up my stickers and try to use them on longer flights. Keep in mind, however, that other people are probably thinking the same thing, so then you have to consider other factors like the popularity of the flight, your status, if there are seats available in the class you’d be looking to upgrade to, and the timing of the flight (flight at times popular for business travelers will have more competition for the upgrade). There is a lot to think about if you truly want to maximize the use of your upgrade instrument. As of the writing of this post, one of the best uses for an SWU is on AA’s newest flight from Dallas to Hong Kong. It is a 16hr flight (the longest flight AA currently flies) on their newest plane (777-300). Tickets in business easily got for well north of $8,000. So buying a coach ticket for less than $900 and then upgrading to business class is an amazing bargain! But remember, there will be a lot of demand, I’ve seen reports that on some days the airport waitlist had 20-30 EXPs on it – so there’d be no chance for PLTs an GLDs.
Just to wrap up, There is a lot behind the upgrade process, and if anything, I hope it has cleared up how it works so that if you have status, you’ll feel a bit better knowing how to use it to your advantage. This post dealt with upgrades on AA, and it will work differently for other airlines, but the principal is always the same: to reward frequent flyers, and maximize revenue where possible. Each airline will have its own rules and regulations about the upgrades, and in order to maximize them you’ll want to make sure you learn the specifics.