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A commonly held gripe among fliers is that American Airlines AAdvantage miles aren’t an easy currency to use economically and that they’re being left with hundreds of thousands of miles sitting in their accounts for which they’re struggling to find a good use.
With American making premium cabin saver awards harder and harder to find it has definitely become a lot more challenging to find great uses for AAdvantage miles in recent years (especially if you’re based in the US), but the lack of saver award space doesn’t have to mean that an AAdvantage balance is worthless or near-impossible to use effectively.
Using miles to upgrade flights can be a pretty good way to use your miles and, because American doesn’t link upgrade space to award space, using miles to upgrade can often be a lot easier than using mules to book awards on American’s own flights.
Key Things To Know
- American Airlines allows upgrades from Economy Class to Business Class even when the aircraft is operating with a Premium Economy Cabin.
- American Airlines upgrades are separate from American Airlines awards – just because awards are not available does not mean that an upgrade cannot be processed.
- Basic Economy fares and award bookings are the only fares booked direct with American Airlines that are not eligible to be upgraded using miles.
- Upgrades from a discounted fare category will require a cash co-pay
- You can’t book or request mileage upgrades online, you have to call in to American Airlines.
- You can’t easily see what upgrades are available just by using the American Airlines website – you either have to call in and ask a customer services agent to check for upgrade availability around the dates you can travel or you’ll need to use a paid service like ExpertFlyer (you’ll see screenshots from ExpertFlyer in this post).
The Cost To Upgrade
American Airlines publishes an easy to use chart for its mileage upgrades:
Considering it’s not all that difficult to find transatlantic discounted economy Class fares for under $500 some of the upgrade possibilities on long-haul flights offer fantastic value…especially for travelers originating in the US where great value Business Class fares are harder to find than if you’re based in Europe (for example).
When Can You Upgrade & How?
You can upgrade an eligible fare at any point before you travel. If an upgrade is available at the time of booking you can ask an American Airlines customer services representative to process the upgrade there and then or, should upgrades not be available, the agent can put you on a wait-list pending the release of upgrade inventory.
Should you happen to be using a site like ExpertFlyer which can notify you when upgrades become available, you can call in as soon as you receive the upgrade alert and ask an agent to move you up to your desired cabin.
Is It Easy To Find Upgrades?
Not always and especially not on some of the more premium-heavy domestic routes…but they’re a lot easier to find than premium cabin saver awards.
There’s no guarantee that American Airlines will release upgrade inventory on a given flight but, close in to departure, I frequently see the airline release Business Class award inventory on even it’s more high-profile routes.
Here’s a screenshot from ExpertFlyer showing upgrade availability for travel between New York and London next Tuesday (the “C” code denotes upgrade inventory):
As you should be able to see, there’s upgrade availability on all four American Airlines flights that day with 2 upgrades available on one flight and at least 7 upgrades available on the three other flights (7 is the highest number you’ll see ExpertFlyer go to even if there are actually more seats available).
A similar story can be seen on the Los Angeles – London route on the same day next week where one flight is showing 5 upgrades available and the other at least 7:
Interestingly, if I ask ExpertFlyer to show me what Business Class saver award inventory looks like on the same flights (depicted by the letter “U”) you’ll see that AMerican Airlines isn’t offering any:
American is happy to let passengers upgrade to Business Class (so it can earn extra revenue from the co-pays) but isn’t quite so happy to let flyers use their miles to book award seats – it’s a story I see repeating itself over and over again.
Also, be aware that although upgrades may be easier to snag closer to the dates of travel , this doesn’t mean that they’re not available further out.
If, for example, you wanted to book an LA – London trip with a outbound flight on 31 October and an inbound flight on 5 November you would be able to upgrade the flights in both directions as of today:
Note how once again American is happy to open up a good amount of upgrade inventory while not releasing award inventory on the same flights.
Is Upgrading Worth It?
The answer to this question depends on a variety of other variables:
- How much did you pay for you Economy Class fare?
- How many AAdvantage miles do you have?
- Could you use your AAdvantage miles to book award travel instead of using them to upgrade?
If you’re looking to upgrade discounted Economy Class fare on one of American’s longer flights (to/form Asia, Europe or Oceania) it’s going to cost you $350 in co-pays in both directions. It will also cost you 25,000 miles in both directions.
For a roundtrip that will be a total cost of $700 + 50,000 miles.
If you have more miles than you know what to do with or if you genuinely can’t really use the miles in any other meaningful way, the miles don’t really have a value so your total cost to upgrade will be $700 + whatever additional taxes you may have to pay for traveling in a premium cabin.
Unless you’ve truly overpaid for your Economy Class fare this is almost certainly going to be a very good deal as the cost of your fare + the co-pay + any additional taxes will almost certainly be a lot cheaper than the cost of buying a Business Class fare outright.
If you actually place a value on your miles (I value AAdvantage miles at no more than 1.25 cents each) the math can look a little different.
By my valuation, 50,000 miles are worth $625 so the total cost to upgrade in both directions will be $1,325 (miles + copay) and whatever additional taxes are due.
If you’ve managed to snag a great/good Economy Class fare (sub $800) then upgrading will almost certainly still be a lot cheaper than buying a Business Class fare outright…but it’s not exactly cheap.
The more you pay for your original fare the less of a great deal the upgrade becomes.
Earn Points When You Pay A Co-Pay
The presence of co-pays is annoying but unavoidable so you may as well get something back from them if you possibly can…and that’s where using the correct credit card comes in.
Personally, I’d use one of the following three cards to pay for any co-pays:
- The Platinum Card from American Express which will earn 5 Membership Rewards points/dollar for spending made directly with an airline
- The Chase Sapphire Reserve card which will earn 3 Ultimate Rewards points/dollar on all travel spending
- The American Express Green Card which will earn 3 Membership Rewards points/dollar on all travel spending.
At a time when its pretty hard to snag American Airlines premium cabin awards, using miles to upgrade discounted fares to Business Class can be a great way of extracting value out of your AAdvantage balance.
I’m not about to claim that upgrades are cheap or that they’re always easy to find but they’re definitely something to consider if you’re a traveler who’s having trouble using their AAdvantage miles – it’s how I plan to use the remainder of my miles as I complete my transition over to the British Airways Executive Club.