American Airlines Sells The Cheapest International Upgrades

Over the holidays I saw reports of American Airlines selling upgrades from Los Angeles to Sydney (from coach to business class) for $350 and I thought that this must be a mistake. Lucky passenger!

However there are several data points of American Airlines selling long haul business class upgrades at this price. For instance, a passenger reporting receiving that offer both directions on a Dallas – Auckland, New Zealand trip.

Other data points include,

  • $400 per person for business class Dallas – Buenos Aires (“It was ~$2000 or so [per person] until 3 days before we left”)

  • $350 per person for business class Dallas – Seoul

Here are a couple of additional insightful comments on American’s paid international business class upgrade offers,

I can confirm that this is about in line with price upgrades I’ve seen and taken in the past, UA’s floor is about $1K, Delta about $600, AA about $350.

These appear to be some multiple of the premium economy (Premium Plus or Premium Select or whatever) that have floor offers of about $300 for both those versus the floor of $175 for AA

For years United Airlines has been known for selling cheap domestic upgrades. They were ahead of the curve in being willing to take almost any amount for a first class seat before awarding it as a complimentary upgrade on domestic flights. Their $59 upgrades are known as TODs or ‘Tens of Dollars’. The upgrades have even been marketed highlighting the number of people waiting for free upgrades you’d be jumping over.

But internationally it does seem that American is willing to take less for a seat the airline doesn’t expect to sell than competitors are. That’s great for passengers lucking into a flight with empty seats as travel approaches. It’s not great for elite frequent flyers looking to upgrade (systemwide upgrades) or AAdvantage members trying to use their miles. Sometimes confirmable upgrade space is offered when these cheap paid upgrades are offered, but not always.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Good for AA. If they can sell them for $1 versus the seat going empty it is incremental revenue. Elites don’t get free upgrades on long haul international flights (unless you use an SWU or do a mileage upgrade but those are the same as complimentary domestic free upgrades) so AA knows shortly before the flight leaves if there will be extra empty business class seats. I notice one person stated the upgrade was $2000 until 3 days before the flight when it dropped to a much cheaper price so they are holding out until closer to departure before deeply discounting the upgrades. Some may feel this cheapens the upgrade and isn’t “fair” to those that paid much more but frankly it is business. Doesn’t take anything away from others, is incremental income for the airline and makes perfect business sense.

    BTW, AA isn’t the only one that does this. My sister recently flew DL to Italy. She book economy and was planning to upgrade to Delta 1. Similarly it was priced at $2000 then dropped to $850 about a month before the flight (she jumped on it then). Price would likely be further reduced if capacity still existed before departure.

  2. I’m on a CLT – LHR next month. Upgraded to PE for $175.

    Return leg seeing $299 for PE and $475 right now for Business.

  3. I’m not complaining but this is a very dumb business practice. If you get people addicted to cheap upgrades they don’t ever pay full price.

    This also makes clearing evips much more difficult.

    It would be better to have a slightly higher mix of full paying customers and a couple free upgrades than giving away the farm to everyone.

  4. This is what plenty of airlines do including many of the premium product airlines. There are FB groups of travellers to South Asia who share the upgrade prices for the ME airlines on Emirates, Etihad, and Qatar – it’s been an open secret that if buy economy on cash, wait until check-in ~3 hours before, and pick a flight with reasonable business availability you will almost certainly get an upgrade to business cost of ~$600-700.

  5. And then there is Americans new roundtrip from Dfw to Brisbane
    A mere 900,000 miles for those also seeking bargains (roll eyes)
    The company’s pricing is a tragic mess
    I can easily book 8 round trips on an a 350 with another carrier in business class for aas extortion pricing
    AA trying to be the new sky pesos Delta on award tickets
    Than dumping upgrad

  6. This is a brilliant move by the airlines. It’s all incremental income. I’m surprised we haven’t seen more airlines implement a bidding model (similar to what Spirit does with their big front seats). I’m not buying the argument you are displacing full fare paying customers. Those that care, will still pay and not risk it. And the airlines couldn’t care less about your free upgrades.

  7. AA uses an algorithm to that updates as often as up to minute. I’ve received an upgrade offer from HND to LAX for $350 but I’ve seen offers as high as $3000. It fluctuates. I was offered $555 at Checkin today . No guarantees. I don’t think speculative upgrades are something guaranteed. I’ve seen 10 seats available in J before and no offer close to $350. I think people will still pay for J. A couple going on the vacation of a lifetime may see value in an upgrade offer of $800 each. Those unsold seats go out empty and will be filled with non revs.

  8. This is part of the reason why touting how full a flight is or even of any particular class is highly deceptive.
    All 3 US airlines use very dynamic pricing and it is far easier to add a few lower priced seats later in the booking process than discount too aggressively from the earliest the flight is for sale.
    And all of these accounts are anecdotal which means little in light of the thousands of seats any of these airlines have for sell even in business class.

    DL has long had some of the smallest business class which explains in part why it has some of the highest loyalty program redemption rates while UA has been at the opposite extreme. Since some passengers know that their chances of getting an upgrade are high on UA, there is alot of incentive to wait to buy up or wait for a day of departure upgrade while DL rarely even has flight time international longhaul upgrades.
    AA is somewhere in between depending on the aircraft type and configuration.

    I wouldn’t draw too many conclusions without extensive data which is very hard to get. Average yield on each global region is either provided by the big 3 as part of their quarterly earnings or can be calculated from that data and is far more meaningful.
    as is true on its domestic system, AA’s recent yield performance on its international system has been weaker than DL or UA’s.

  9. Premium Cabins, to some extent are veblin gooods. Part of their appeal is that they’re prohibitively expensive, which is why we jump through so many hoops to book them using miles.

    Even making domestic first class accessible via elite upgrades dilutes the product to the point that it kind of sucks these days.

  10. Is there a relationship to the underlying fare?
    Airline might be ok about selling a cheap upgrade to a pax that has paid full fare Y, but charge a higher price to someone in basic economy

  11. Going from Rio to NY last month I was offered a $350 upgrade from economy to business after I checked in on the app day before the flight. Thought it had to be a mistake, I jumped on it as soon as I realized it was legit. Hope AA keeps doling out these upgrades.

  12. By the way, if a customer has requested to use an SWU, they recieve NONE of these upgrade offers.

    AA needs to change it’s policies around SWU’s now. They should add more confirmable space, and add some sort of “window” where it can either clear or not. They also should offer some sort of extension OR trade in policy for more LP’s or miles for the following year if they can’t be used.

  13. As airlines have gone to a pure revenue model for elite qualification, one of the downsides of all of this is that discounted business class international flights no longer pack the same punch in terms of qualifying for status. You are on a plane for a while, you ended up purchasing business class, but you get no kind of extra multiplier of any kind, just presumably spend credit fr whatever you paid for the upgrade.

  14. Personally I love it. When work books my trips they pay $10k to get to Sydney. They won’t book economy and “hope” for a cash upgrade. So this biz travel isn’t cannabilized at all.

    When I fly for leisure I’ll book economy and hope to snag a cash upgrade (used to buy cash upgrades often on $500 economy tickets to Europe on Lufthansa at check in).

    Also I don’t agree with the people touting 450k award tickets on AA. There’s plenty of good awards to Australia on as for 86-90k miles.

  15. Just another finger (middle one of course) to EPs or Elite status as a mileage upgrade for long haul is $350 plus 25,000 miles each way (or $700 and 50k round trip) even then it’s standby only. So why bother with the miles if they are going to sell the seat for $350 anyway and lock out Elite upgrade requests….

  16. This is why I’m going to be stuck with 3 systemwide upgrades that are getting ready to expire next month.

  17. I wish they had half decent awards. This stuff of making you fly way past your final destination, wait forever for a connection and then back track is crazy.
    I’ve seen stuff like LHR-DFW-IAD taking 24-36 hrs.

  18. @Patrick McKlindon

    Nice use of the term “Veblen goods”! I had to look it up and I learned something today. Thanks.

  19. I thought mine was cheap at $150 for PE and $1400 for business since my OW hnd to lax was only $320, so I took the business class since AA was selling it at 4700 but now reading the.comments, I guess my price was expensive and I dont get the upgrade loyalty points since my travel is this month. Bummer!

  20. Great, like this you get a cheap trash backpacker next to a real estate ceo .
    I hope we soon get to these 15m cities where all the human garbage stays at home.
    Hatemails to N.from Paris ….

  21. I’ve had the following CLT -MAD $350 to biz with 3 passengers in my PNR about 7 days out.

    LAX -AKL $400 to PE and $700 to biz shortly after booking in Oct for a trip in Feb. 3 people in my PNR and I’m EP. Also another couple who are non status holders got the same offer.

  22. And Spirit sells the cheapest fares. Both for the same reason: the product sucks, and appeals only to the income-challenged.

  23. @Jake: not just income-challenged. I’d rather fly Spirit in their A321 to Miami than United/AMerican and their 737 Maxes. I’d void that plane like the plague any day and to be fair Spirit’s big front seat isn’t bad at all!

  24. Literally yesterday I nabbed an upgrade from Economy Comfort to Business on a DFW-LHR flight for $500.

    Last month when I booked the flight the price difference was $6000.

  25. Re Mick – Also I don’t agree with the people touting 450k award tickets on AA. There’s plenty of good awards to Australia on as for 86-90k miles.

    In what universe are you living in? I have been saving my FF miles for a trip to SYD till I too saw they were 900k for business. Supposedly out of CLT they are 250k, but nowhere near what your reporting. Do tell what airport is that possible, Hawaii?

    Planning on going next year, so getting the info now would be great

  26. I recently booked JFK-CDG and almost immediately got an offer of 175 PE and 300 Business which I immediately grabbed. Looking forward to more of these in the future, especially when they start earning Loyalty Points “soon” like AA teased.
    My friend booked the same trip at the same time in basic economy and did not get any offer.

  27. I paid a reasonable amount for an upgrade to first once on a cross country red eye to get a comfortable seat to sleep in. I have no idea if there were any perks since I medicated to knock myself out.

  28. @jeff there def are lots of 450k options that show up, especially for the direct legs (eg syd to lax). Tacking on a flight very often brings down the cost.

    Eg I just booked my wife and daughter from rdu to syd with a stop in lax in biz for 86.5k miles in May. The lax syd leg when searched alone was triple.

    When I search to the USA I start with syd lax, then I usually have to add lax to phx to get an idea where the 90k fares are.

    Try some other cities to syd eg phx or dfw or rdu and use the month long view. I don’t book way out, only a month or so ahead usually. Often get Fiji airways options too.

    It’s def not foolproof eg the syd to ord flights that I need in May are all 450k right now. Might book 50.5k options in economy and hope for a cash upgrade price as per this article. Remember that it’s cancelable as well so if cheaper points options pop up I’ll rejig into biz.

  29. For eg I chose a random date to lax. March 14 (a month away). 276k to lax from Sydney but 118k to Phoenix, including that exact lax leg. I don’t know which city you are based in but it may be worth a short domestic to a close airport that has the cheaper price.

    It’s not always perfect but I’ve booked 4-5 flights to the USA in the last year this way including flying in first for 96k miles.

    That’s the universe I’m in 🙂

    Noting I also use a lot of aa miles to fly to Asia from aus (40k).

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