Few things are more disheartening than getting on an airplane and walking through a business-class or a first-class cabin on the way to your seat in the back of a plane. As passengers sip on their welcome cocktails, you begrudgingly wheel your carry-on suitcase in front of you praying there’s space for it in the overhead compartment.

What if we told you that you can be one of the people sipping on a drink as others pass you by down the aisle?

The first thing you must know about upgrades on American Airlines is that there’s no single best way to get an upgrade on your flight. It’s true that in most cases, you have to be an elite flyer. However, mere mortals without status can secure a seat upfront, too.

We’ll discuss the differences between complimentary upgrades and systemwide upgrades, as well as how to use the Business Extra program to your advantage. Finally, we’ll talk about upgrading cash fares with American Airlines miles and whether you should do it or book a mileage ticket outright.

Once you learn how to upgrade to first class on American Airlines, you’ll never walk to the back of the plane again (unless you choose to, of course).

American Airlines Upgrade Flagship Business class

Photo Credit: American Airlines Flagship® Business – International

How to Upgrade to First Class on American Airlines

To upgrade to first class on American Airlines, you have a few options, including using systemwide upgrades, being an elite status member through American Airlines’ AAdvantage program, and using miles or cash to pay for an upgrade.

Before we dive in head first, let’s establish how exactly American Airlines upgrades work on domestic and international flights.

How the Upgrade System Works

When flying on a domestic route, you get the following options for cabins of service: basic economy, main cabin and first.

If you’re an elite flyer or hold an eligible co-branded American Airlines credit card, you keep upgrade privileges on basic-economy tickets, which normally aren’t upgradeable. Based on elite status, you can get upgraded to a complimentary preferred seat in the main cabin, such as a seat with extra legroom.

Otherwise, if you booked your original seat in the main cabin, you’re eligible for an upgrade to first class on a flight within the continental United States (we’ll discuss your upgrade options below).

On flights to Alaska and Hawaii, as well as on international flights, aircraft are configured with more classes of service: main cabin, premium economy, business and sometimes first class. For this reason, the upgrade hierarchy may be confusing.

Keep in mind that you can get upgraded to the next class of service only. If a plane is configured with economy, premium economy and business classes of service, you can’t get upgraded from economy straight to business.

So, if you were to book your original seat in the main cabin, then your upgrade gets you into a premium-economy seat. Booking a premium-economy seat can qualify you for an upgrade in business class. Similarly, if you booked a seat in Flagship Business class on a long-distance flight, you could be eligible for an upgrade to Flagship First.

Access Complimentary Upgrades

Of course, complimentary upgrades are the ultimate way to get upgraded on an American Airlines flight. It’s also the least guaranteed. Take a look at the American Airlines upgrade chart for elite flyers.

American Airlines Upgrade Chart

When it comes to complimentary upgrades on flights, all elites are eligible for unlimited, auto-requested complimentary upgrades on American marketed and operated flights within the U.S. (including Hawaii), and between the U.S. and Canada, Mexico, the Bahamas, the Caribbean, Bermuda and Central America. Executive Platinum members get upgrades confirmed as early as 100 hours before departure.

Platinum Pros get notified as early as 72 hours before departure. Platinum members receive a 48-hour notice, and Gold members know 24 hours in advance.

Executive Platinum members are also the only elite flyers who could get bumped up a cabin on award tickets. Both Executive Platinum and Platinum Pro members are eligible for upgrades on Alaska Airlines as well, as early as 120 hours before departure if seats are available.

Although complimentary upgrades are unlimited and are available to all elite flyers, the competition is strong on every flight. The lower your elite tier is, the less of a chance of receiving an upgrade you have.

So, if you’re not sure about whether your upgrade based on your elite status would clear, it’s best to ensure you’re getting upgraded one way or another. Luckily, AA offers its flyers many opportunities to fly like a rock star.

Apply Systemwide Upgrades

American Airlines top-tier elites can use systemwide upgrades (SWUs) for one-way travel for up to three segments on an AA-operated flight anywhere the airline flies. Codeshare flights, government fares and award tickets aren’t eligible.

These confirmed upgrades receive top priority and are good toward the next class of service for most fares. Most economy tickets can be upgraded to premium economy. Similarly, most business-class tickets can be upgraded to first class.

american airlines first class upgrades

Photo Credit: American Airlines

Systemwide upgrades are earned based on the number of loyalty points you earn. After earning 125,000 loyalty points, with a minimum of 30 eligible flight segments, you’ll get to choose one Loyalty Choice Rewards. You can choose from a number of options including one systemwide upgrade. Once you’ve earned 200,000 loyalty points you can choose up to four upgrades. At levels three, four and five, you can choose two systemwide upgrades. If you reach level five, you’re eligible to choose a total of 11 systemwide upgrades.

You don’t have to use systemwide upgrades on flights for yourself. You can apply these to anyone’s ticket whether you fly together or not.

Keep in mind that systemwide upgrades expire after one year and must be used before their expiration date. Make sure to contact the elite service desk to apply a systemwide upgrade to your trip. The upgrade must be confirmed before the expiration date.

American Airlines Business Class Review

Upgrade Your American Airlines Flight Using Miles

Use AAdvantage Miles for Upgrades

No matter your elite status, all AAdvantage members are eligible to upgrade their revenue AA flights using AAdvantage miles. As in other cases mentioned above, only single-class upgrades are available for mileage upgrades. In other words, it’s not possible to receive a first-class upgrade on an economy ticket.

The cost of an upgrade varies based on your itinerary and the initial class of service purchased. Fortunately, even discount tickets are eligible for upgrades with AAdvantage miles and a cash copay. Unfortunately, the upgrade space isn’t always available.

  • Discount economy: G, H, K, L, M, N, O, Q, S, V
  • Military or government: Y
  • Full-fare economy: Y
  • Discount premium economy: P
  • Full-fare premium economy: W
  • Discount business: I
  • Full-fare business: D, J or R

The rates are as follows:

To request a mileage upgrade, contact American Airlines reservations and have your passenger name record (PNR) number ready. If an upgrade isn’t available at the time of calling, you’ll be added to the waitlist, which clears based on your elite status level, the type of an upgrade requested and the number of Elite Qualifying Dollars (EQDs) on your account during a 12-month rolling period.

Use British Airways Avios for Upgrades

If you don’t have any AAdvantage miles, British Airways Avios are the next logical option as they’re easier to obtain. You can get your hands on these miles by transferring them from American Express Membership Rewards (1:1), Chase Ultimate Rewards (1:1) and Marriott Bonvoy (3:1).

Whenever there’s availability, you can upgrade a cash booking to the next class of service using Avios. It goes without saying that business-class seats can’t be upgraded on aircraft without a first-class cabin.

How to Book With American Airlines AAdvantage Miles

Business class on American’s Airbus A330-300.

You can request an American Airlines seat upgrade with Avios either at the time of booking or later on, depending on if there’s availability. There must be an award seat available on the flight for the upgrade to clear.

The cost of an upgrade is calculated based on the following formula:
Avios for the cabin you wish to fly – Avios for the cabin you purchased = Avios required to upgrade per way (plus fees and taxes when applicable).

For the upgrade with Avios to be possible, you must purchase your American Airlines-operated flight through British Airways. The following fare codes are upgradeable:

  • Full-fare economy: B or Y
  • Full-fare business: C, D or J

Unfortunately, the fare codes listed above are for the most expensive tickets, and it might not make a lot of sense financially to purchase this type of fare just so you could try to upgrade.

Upgrade with Cash

Paid flights can be upgraded with more cash if you choose to shell out more money for a more comfortable seat.

If you booked a flight and want to see your options, go to Find Your Trip and fill in blank cells with passenger information and your PNR. Once your reservation comes up, scroll to the bottom and check your cash upgrade options.

american airlines upgrade

If your ticket type is eligible for an upgrade, you’ll see the cost there. It’s going to be up to you to decide whether the upgrade cost is reasonable.

How to Earn American Airlines Upgrades with the Business Extra Program

Small-business owners are free to join AA’s Business Extra program to earn points toward future upgrades, among other perks.

The Business Extra program rewards both the individual passenger and the company for which he or she travels. Simply add your Business Extra number when employees book travel and earn more rewards for the same trip.

As a program member, you earn 1 Business Extra point for each $5 spent on eligible American Airlines and partner flights, including those taken with British Airways, Iberia and Japan Airlines. Finnair and Qantas flights marketed and sold by American Airlines are also eligible for point accrual.

Business Extra one-segment upgrades start at 650 points, which means that spending at least $3,250 as part of the program can score you or an employee an upgrade on a domestic or a short-haul international flight. Long-haul international upgrades start at 1,200 points on full-fare tickets and at 3,100 points on discounted fares each way.

New AA 777 Business Class

Aside from upgrades, Business Extra points also can be redeemed for Admirals Club day passes, AAdvantage Gold elite status and free flights.

Rewards earned via the Business Extra program don’t expire for two calendar years and can be used for any employee in the company.

Consider This Before Upgrading

Whether or not you should upgrade a flight after booking depends on your personal preferences and financial circumstances, but here are some important caveats to consider before choosing to upgrade a flight. 

Upgrading Award Tickets

In select cases, American Airlines flyers can get airline upgrades on award tickets.

First of all, to score an upgrade on an award ticket, you must be an Executive Platinum elite member. It’s the only status tier that can receive complimentary upgrades on award tickets.

Those without status or flying internationally are better off redeeming AAdvantage miles to score that coveted seat in the premium cabin.

Skip the Upgrade: Booking an Award Ticket with Miles

The only way to guarantee you fly in a cushy seat with nice amenities, especially on a long-haul international flight, is to pay for the ticket up front. This is the only foolproof method to fly in a premium cabin for those without airline elite status.

Of course, we at 10xTravel rarely pay for business-class tickets with cash, if ever, so miles to the rescue.

American Airlines is a Oneworld partner, which means you can use plenty of programs to book AA flights with miles, including British Airways Executive Club, Iberia Plus, Qantas Frequent Flyer, Qatar Privilege Club and Alaska Mileage Plan. It goes without saying that American’s own program, AAdvantage, is quite useful for booking award flights as well.

Depending on your itinerary, some frequent-flyer programs might be better than others. We suggest searching for award flights with multiple programs to check all the redemption options and find the best rate.

Evaluating the Worth of an Upgrade

Well, the answer to this question depends on what you expect from your flight. Do you expect a lie-flat seat and bottomless champagne? Or do you simply need to get from point A to point B?

If you’re an elite member and receive a complimentary upgrade from your status, then yes, the answer is quite obvious—you should take the upgrade. Similar logic applies to systemwide upgrades. If your American Airlines upgrade expires soon and you have a trip before it does, why not use it to secure an upgrade to a higher class or service?

american airlines seat upgrade

However, if you have to shell out extra money or even miles for an upgrade, ask yourself if you really need it. Do you have a physical condition, such as a broken leg, that would help you feel more comfortable in a lie-flat seat? Are you tall enough for others to ask if you play basketball and need the extra legroom? Do you need to arrive in your destination ready to attend a business meeting? Then yes, you should probably secure that upgrade on a long-haul flight.

Unless you’re an elite American Airlines flyer, the best way to secure that upgrade is by redeeming miles for a business-class seat right out of the gate. Otherwise, upgrading a cash ticket will either require purchasing a significantly more expensive ticket, cost you a hefty fee on top of that or not be possible at all based on the fare code you bought.

Final Thoughts

Flying upfront is a desire for many travelers, especially those traveling long distances. Who hasn’t thought about getting a taste of that bougie life even for a moment? Luckily, it’s possible to achieve an American Airlines upgrade by either holding elite status or having access to some frequent-flyer miles.

Although the options are abundant and the process is different for every type of an AA seat upgrade, you’re now familiar with how it all works before you plan your next trip (whenever that may be).

Frequently Asked Questions

Can you upgrade to first class on American Airlines?

Flyers can get an American Airlines upgrade to first class using a systemwide upgrade by paying miles and cash to upgrade from a business fare or by holding an elite status with AAdvantage.

Is American Airlines upgrade to first class free?

Non-elite members have the option to upgrade to first class by paying with miles, and depending upon the original fare bought, flyers may need to pay with miles and cash to upgrade to the next level of service.

American Airlines AAdvantage elite members can upgrade paid premium economy or main cabin tickets to the next service class (business or first class) on flights greater than 500 miles within North America.

How much does it cost to upgrade to first class on American Airlines?

For non-elite members, American Airlines charges 15,000 AAdvantage miles plus $75 to upgrade to first-class from a domestic economy fare.

Can you upgrade to first class on American Airlines after purchase?

Yes, airline passengers can purchase an upgrade to first-class after their initial flight ticket purchase. One of the cheapest ways to get a business class or first class ticket is to buy an economy fare then purchase an upgrade.

How do I Upgrade my Class on American Airlines?

To request an upgrade to first class on your American Airlines ticket, follow these steps:
  1. Log in to aa.com and make sure you have systemwide upgrades available in your AAdvantage® account.
  2. When booking your flight, look for the Systemwide upgrades link to find flights with airline upgrade seats available.
  3. Call your AAdvantage® status service desk to confirm your upgrade.