Why American’s Upgrade System Is Best For Leisure Travelers

Filed Under: American

It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of American AAdvantage. While the airline as such isn’t operationally as good as Delta, the AAdvantage program is fantastic.

As an Executive Platinum member I receive unlimited domestic upgrades, eight systemwide upgrades per year (this year I’ve even received 12), access to international first class lounges whenever I travel internationally, a 100% mileage bonus, etc.

Access the Qantas First Class Lounge Sydney as a oneworld Emerald

Now the program might still be so good due in part to the merger. Since American and US Airways are integrating, the airline’s focus has been on making that go as smoothly as possible, rather than innovating too much. So it could be that American follows the lead of Delta and United in establishing a revenue based program and massively devaluing their award chart, but it hasn’t happened yet.

Perhaps the most significant benefit offered to Executive Platinum members is the upgrades. The systemwide upgrades are fantastic, as they can be used to upgrade any revenue fare on any flight by one cabin. And best of all I’ve yet to miss an international upgrade, though I should note that I plan my international flights very carefully.

Booking a ~$700 roundtrip fare to Hong Kong and flying American’s new business class on the ~16 hour flight is incredible to me.


When it comes to unlimited domestic upgrades, I’ve had great luck with American as well. I’d guess that top tier elite upgrades clear more regularly on American than Delta or United. In the hundreds of thousands of miles I’ve flown domestically on American, I’ve missed fewer than a dozen upgrades, which I’d say is pretty darn good.

But there’s something really interesting about how American processes upgrades, which I think is worth pointing out to those who aren’t familiar.

American prioritizes upgrades first by status, and second by the time added to the waitlist. Most airlines prioritize upgrades based on status and then fare class, and use time added to the waitlist as the tiebreaker.

But that’s not the case at American. And that’s a pretty significant thing to be aware of. What this means is that if you’re an Executive Platinum member and book when the schedule opens, you’ll virtually always be number one on the upgrade list. And that translates to almost always getting your upgrade. That’s ideal for leisure travelers who can book in advance.

It does seem a bit backwards, since business travelers booking last minute tickets and often paying higher fares would fall towards the bottom of the upgrade list, and will end up in economy much more often.


I know plenty of leisure Executive Platinum members who virtually never miss upgrades, while I know some Executive Platinum members who always book the day before and rarely get upgraded, so are quite frustrated.

How far in advance do you have to book to have a great shot at an upgrade? American revealed a while back that 90% of tickets are booked within 90 days of departure. My guess is that an even higher percentage of elite reservations are made within 90 days of departure, given that elite members are largely business travelers booking last minute.

So if you book at least 90 days before departure, you’ll almost certainly be in the top 10% of the upgrade waitlist, and possibly even further up than that. My guess is that on average people are booking international travel further out than domestic travel, so that’s worth keeping in mind.

Domestically, even booking more than two weeks out will make a huge difference in terms of your upgrade odds.

Bottom line

The reason I bring this up is because I’ve been booking my American tickets pretty last minute lately, and have noticed my upgrade success decrease significantly. For years I’ve benefited from American prioritizing upgrades based on time added to the waitlist, since I booked so far in advance. Though it can definitely go both ways.

If you are a leisure traveler, I think American’s policy is specifically worth noting, since it can make a huge difference in terms of your upgrade odds.

Do you think upgrades should be prioritized based on the time you’re added to the waitlist or fare class (after status, of course)? Which system would you benefit from more?

  1. Question: you say you book your international flights ‘very carefully’. What strategies do you use to select your flight when using systemwides other than trying to request the upgrade as far out in advance as possible? In my experience, business upgrades on int’l routes are rarely available outside the upgrade window. I typically look at how much F and A inventory there is for a given flight (I guess that more inventory means more likely to score an upgrade). Any other strategies you can suggest? American reservations doesn’t seem to know how many people are on the upgrade list/priority order (or at least they claim they don’t), which makes ‘guessing’ a little trickier.

  2. revise that title … it should be “AA upgrade is great for *EXP* who are traveling on leisure trips”

    there’s nothing great about it for GLD or PLT or the no-status person. On something like JFK-SEA, the no-status flyer trying to use miles has very little chance to clear since they have to come after every single EXP and every GLD/PLT using stickers or miles.

    In UA, at least the little guy has some shot of clearing since instruments always trump comp upgrades.

    Long story short – AA status is only amazing if and only if you hit all the way to EXP.

  3. While I agree that prioritization by fare may make more sense (i.e. business sense for the airline, not for the readers of this blog), I’m not sure how big of an issue this is in practice as Executive Platinum members who travel only for leisure would likely be quite rare (and I say that as a UA 1K with status obtained 100% from leisure travel).

  4. By fare class seems fairer as it’s revenue-based. However, I’m thinking the same thing as [email protected] I bet it’s pretty darn rare to achieve ExPlat as a leisure traveler so it seems a bit of a moot point. And when ExPlats are traveling for leisure and presumably on a lower fare it’s generally with a (typically non-ExPlat) spouse or other family, which lowers their upgrade priority anyway.

  5. Do you have previously written posts on AA upgrades in general (not specific to exec plats)? I would be curious to read how that works since I am a lowly Platinum.

  6. I believe it is by Status -> Fare Class -> Timestamp.

    An EXP in Y or B will have priority over EXP in O regardless of when they requested the upgrade.

  7. i love the way they do it now. as a PLAT who almost always books 90 days or more out, this is what keeps me at the top of the upgrade list (and actually got me upgraded on a transcon last week). if it becomes solely status and fare class, i’m out of luck on EXP heavy routes.

  8. As an USAir Platinum I was upgraded nearly 90% of the time out of DCA. Now as an AA Plat, I’ve got a ton of e-upgrades, but am never high enough on the list to use them since I book most of my travel a month or less out.

    I won’t make ExPlat this year (almost done re-qualifying for Plat), so I’m considering maybe doing a Delta status challenge. I was spending most of my time flying to the CLT hub anyway, so what’s another 25-minutes in the air to ATL.

    Lucky, what do you think of this strategy so that I can enjoy the front of the plane again?

  9. Is there any way to transfer MR points to AA miles.I have 1,307,020 MR points, 0 AA miles, & 635,000
    DL miles.
    I know AA is not a direct transfer partner of MR, but can I transfer MR points to BA or Iberia (one world partner) and then transfer those miles to AA.
    If such a transfer is possible is on a 1:1 basis.
    Any suggestion for a credit card to build up AA miles ?
    Many thanks for the great service you do for us.

  10. By executive platinum, you mean someone who has flown >100,000 miles that year and not someone that has a specific aa executive platinum credit card?

  11. The AA upgrade system seems to be a clusterf…. right now. My partner and I have done two trips recently (he’s Plat, I’m Gold/one PNR). We were upgraded a couple days before on one leg, but not on the connecting leg. Nothing unusual with that, except when checking with the gate agent, they have said neither of us were showing up on the upgrade list at all. Then how the heck did we get upgraded on the first leg?? It’s a mess.

  12. I wish AA let you see the upgrade list. This way, even a business traveler on a last minute flight, might be able to choose a slightly different time/routing, in order to be higher on the upgrade list. As well a transparency would make us feel that the system works as American Airlines says it does. It wouldn’t surprise me if agents or others sometimes did not upgrade in the right order.

  13. This whole post had no basis in reality, and the comments have pretty much established that. Another thing is that moving to the revenue system has not the least bit affected the upgrade success rate for UA elites. I was batting around 90% on systemwides before UA adopted the revenue system and that has not changed after they switched over to the new system…

    Upgrades are something that UA did especially well and that, at least, has not gone south with the rest of the airline’s operations and FF program.

  14. I would switch to a OneWorld Carrier/Alliance in a heart beat if they flew to GUM and offered good schedules. It’s a great benefit that you can access first class lounges even if flying international economy when your OneWorld Emerald. Guam just opened a new runway which can accommodate longer haul flights – come on OneWorld! 🙂

  15. Why American’s Upgrade System Is Best For Leisure TravelersMiles and Points Bloggers Who Can Make EXP

    Fixed that for you. 😉

    100,000 miles at an average plane speed of 500 mph means you’re spending 200 hours on planes not including any time at your destination or in transit.

    That means you’re spending over eight days of the year just on a plane before you get to any vacation (and since it’s unlikely you’re doing them over a full 24 hours all the time, that means you’re spending more like two weeks out of the year just on planes).

    There simply aren’t a lot of people who can do this who aren’t college students, independently wealthy and retired, travel bloggers. Working people with families, kids, spouses? 100,000 miles of flying without any work travel isn’t going to happen very often.

    So, that perspective is kinda skewed. Sure, AA’s system is great if you’re willing to commit lots of time to travel. But if you’re not…

  16. @ Lucky – “It does seem a bit backwards, since business travelers booking last minute tickets and often paying higher fares would fall towards the bottom of the upgrade list, and will end up in economy much more often.”

    So if it does seem backwards (which it is), then you have to expect it will change sooner rather than later…. right?

  17. I am really am tired of you bloggers who are exec platinum singing the praises of american. For gold and platinum it JUST isn’t so.

  18. @Robert, I have to disagree. Have never been EXP, only plat and gold and have received dozens of upgrades. Totally worth it. Of course it all matters from where you fly and when. As they say, YMMV.

  19. Thanks for the post. I’m one of the rare EXP leisure travelers who enjoys AA’s program as it is now. I fly mostly on weekends as I love to fly and visit other cities. Since I am able to book early I’ve been near the top of the domestic upgrade lists if I haven’t cleared in advance. I’m hoping a GRU to MIA systemwide clears in advance as the outbound JFK to GRU has already cleared booking trip 6 months in advance. Expecting status quo for upgrades in 2016 since merger troubleshooting may still be happening.

  20. But seriously Lucky, how many so-called “leisure travelers” are ever going to hit EXP status. When I think of a “leisure traveler,” I think of someone who rarely travels for work, and otherwise travels somewhat infrequently. Unless that type of traveler is flying in paid international J/F fares all the time, they aren’t going to hit EXP. So yes, the AA upgrade policy benefits those who book tickets well in advance, but how many of those people really are there?

    My idea of the “best frequent flyer program for leisure travelers” would be one where status isn’t terribly hard to attain, and you get some worthwhile benefits as a lower or mid-level elite.

  21. – If you’re an EXP who travels in the 55-65k EQM or 80-90 EQS range, it’s a good strategy to plan out your year with strategic domestic weekend vacations to help requalify. You’re just using the money you’d have to spend on stickers the following year.
    – Since I buy most work travel 10-28 days in advance, and most domestic leisure travel 14-90 days in advance, my upgrade rate was 95% through August 1 although it’s slipped recently as I haven’t had as much schedule flexibility. Failures are due to having to fly at “consultant” times (Mon AM/Thu PM) to high-consultant/lawyer/analyst cities (SFO/LGA), or flying on routes with a lot of connecting demand for paid international/Hawaii premium traffic.

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