You Can Get a First Class Upgrade Almost Every Time, Even If You Don’t Have Top Elite Status

Earlier this week I requalified for American’s 100,000 mile flyer status, Executive Platinum. As a top tier elite I usually get my first class upgrade, even on tough routes and flights.

Although even as an Executive Platinum I know that there are still tough upgrades out there. For instance, I’ve been number 14 on the upgrade list when the door closed on American’s Washington National – Dallas flight at 5:30pm on Thursday. So if I care about a first class upgrade, I still have to be a little bit strategic.

But once you start thinking strategically you realize you don’t have to be a 100,000 mile flyer to get a first class upgrade on domestic flights — even most of the time — provide you have a little bit of flexibility or are willing to spend some miles and money (but a whole lot less than actually buying the full first class fare).

    first class upgrade

The advice in this post isn’t brand new to readers of this blog, but I’m reminded of it because I didn’t follow it and am about to fly coach. (I don’t mind that sometimes, when I’m getting a great deal with British Airways points for a cheap domestic award… but I mind it when I’m not.)

Jump Ahead of All the Elites By Confirming Your First Class Upgrade With Miles

United and American will let you upgrade domestically with miles on any paid fare.

If you have elite status with United (25,000 mile status or higher) you can spend miles and they will waive the cash co-pay that’s charged in addition to miles.

General members of United’s MileagePlus, and all members of American AAdvantage, have to pay the cash co-pay when redeeming miles for the upgrade. United’s price is variable based on your fare, American’s is fixed (except for full fare tickets).

American will charge you $75 plus 15,000 miles to upgrade in one direction on a domestic ticket. So the miles from a credit card signup are enough for three one-way upgrades or more.

Just Buy the First Class Upgrade Seat… at a Discount

Airlines used to charge full fare for first class only, and didn’t discount. They sold fewer seats that way, and had more left over for upgrades.

Now they frequently sell the seats at a discount, and it’s worth looking to see what the price of first class is when shopping for flights.

If you were going to spend miles and cash to upgrade, it may be ‘cheaper’ to just buy the ticket. For instance on shorter flights I’ll often see American price first class at ~ $120 more than coach. I’d rather spend $120 than spend $75 plus 15,000 miles (because in that case the miles would only get me 3/10ths of a cent in savings).

Avoid Your First Class Upgrade Competition

If you’re eligible for a complimentary upgrade or to be bumped up to first class with e-upgrade stickets, you want to maximize your chances.

A 100,000 mile flyer will usually get their upgrade, a 25,000 mile flyer won’t… but the tables can be turned by picking and choosing your flight times.

Business travelers fly the most and have the highest status, usually. So flights that are popular for business travel have the most elite frequent flyer competition for upgrades.

That means you want to avoid flying when business travelers fly. Monday mornings and Thursday and Friday evenings can be toughest. There’s a not insignificant number of business travelers starting their weeks on Sunday nights, too.

  • Fly mid-day
  • Fly mid-week, or Saturday

The noon flight on Tuesday, Wednesday, or Saturday won’t encounter many business travelers, and thus won’t encounter many elites fighting you for your upgrade.

Pick Flights on Planes That Maximize Your Chances of the First Class Upgrade

More first class seats mean more upgrades, so pick the planes that have the most seats — or, more specifically, have the greatest percentage of premium seats.

You may not be in the top 6% of elites looking for a first class upgrade on a flight, but you might be in the top 12%. A cabin with 12% premium seats gives you a much better shot at the upgrade.


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. Why can you not publish something worthwhile, like AA/US mileage run instead of doing an Article that has no meaning.

  2. Thanks for the tips, Gary. And ignore stupid comments like Adi’s.

    You may good points that I guess are obvious to some people but I appreciate you making them. If I want to clear my upgrades as a mid-tier elite I should pay attention to the size of the first class cabin and try to fly at off-peak times.

    That’s good, simple, actionable advice for how to increase upgrade chances. If that isn’t worthwhile, I don’t know what would be!

  3. I thought this article was a fine piece for the intended audience. Also when people make snarky comments with poor grammar and syntax (and also a bad substantive suggestion), it only makes you look better.

  4. Juicy headline. I was trick to read another article and realized I just wasted 5min of my life. I’m closed to hitting the ignore button on you.

  5. I thought this was great. Like Dan said, perfect for the intended audience, even the headline said it was about strategizing on upgrades for those of us without top elite status.

    So those of you hardcore experts out there, move along, this one is appreciated by most of us (and there are a lot more of us without it..).

  6. For me, as an EXP, flights LAX to the East Coast in the mid-afternoon are the hardest to get upgraded to without an SWU in advance. Early morning or the RedEye, no problem. No problems flying East Coast to LAX.


    Obama lost all of his power, election is done. Go back to the ObamaBus.

  7. Could’ve added a little meat to this article by mentioning to take the next step and actually check FC inventory on the specific flights you’re looking at, rather than just guessing by day…EF, KVS, US/AA seat maps…

  8. @CW if you’re booking more than a few weeks out, seeing lots of availability won’t tell you much (though seeing very little far out will tell you something)

  9. Appreciate the article. I am EXP with AA, but debating whether to requalify next year. I have never upgraded with miles so this was informative…I went from no status to EXP when AA was offering bonuses a few years ago. I still do not understand the upgrading with miles on International flights and would have liked this info as well.

  10. With aa and ua can you upgrade as long as there are seats or are they capacity controlled? If controlled, are they from the same inventory as the saver seats or different?

  11. @Gary – Absolutely, just a way to eliminate poor choices and better the odds. And, by definition, anyone who wants to be in F and isn’t buying it outright is playing the odds. But if I’m a month out and I see F12 vs. F4 I at least know where I have a fighting chance.

    On AA, looking at MCE availability is a good proxy for guessing at upgrade demand, since most elites hoping to upgrade will preselect into MCE beforehand.

  12. Unfortunately, most of that is not helpful for a Delta flyer leaving from Atl. Damn near everyone on the plane has status and I have had more than one check in and gate agent smile at me very condescendingly when I inquired about the possibility of BUYING an upgrade. The gist of their replies is always “are you kidding?”
    : (

  13. On AA, everything changed on the LAX-JFK route when they switched from wide bodies to narrow bodies. I’m Platinum and haven’t been upgraded since, no matter what time of day or what day of the week. I keep earning stickers with no opportunity to use them, unless I decide to take a connection- ugh.

  14. Great post, Gary! I agree with you on all points. Back in the 90s I always used points to upgrade to business class but nowadays as an elite, I don’t mind flying in economy plus if I don’t get the upgrade but I have noticed that prices for discounted domestic first class are pretty good for certain routes.

  15. Hi Gary,
    To upgrade with miles on American, does there just have to be any first class seat open, or does there have to be an award seat available?

  16. @Jason – there has to be upgrade inventory available, domestic first class is “A” inventory and most first class seats are made available as A seats (outside of the JFK-SFO/LAX routes)

  17. @ED, please keep your politics out of obvious non-political venues.
    Or alternatively, please give your actual full name and city so I can avoid doing any business with you. And, for the record, I’m un affiliated and would have the same comment if a different @sshole had a similar nasty anti-Rep quip.

  18. Last couple of flights, day of flight it looked like there were lots of open F for upgrades but at the gate, the agent was trying to sell them. No complimentary upgrades were given, only sold. Hadn’t seen that with UA before. New policy?

  19. @Stacy,

    United would sell you SMI/J’s grandmother if they she could provide some additional revenue.

  20. As AA EXP for 8 years who travels frequently to Asia, I have noticed the USAirways Chairman Preferred are now competing for the AA upgrades with the EXP – one big happy family? The “problem” is UA has a good route system to Asia; whereas, AA has always had far fewer. Thus, the US top tier who had many more UA aircraft and routes to choose from are now on AA.

  21. Hi Gary. Thanks for the reminder. I do have a OT question for you. I recall reading in a comment that you would not take an award task for a certain country ( I think the destination was Iran). Is there somewhere a list of destinations you would not take the task for even though it may be legal for US citizens to travel there? Thanks

  22. @Marcus – I chose not to book an award to Iran that was a one-way ticket for a pre-teen girl. I do not publish a comprehensive list of awards I won’t book.

  23. And lets not forget the most important iconic upgrade tips of all time 🙂
    Without any elite status at all
    simply dress well and smile and politely ask for a complimentary upgrade
    And Do you know who I am?
    Certainly easy to bump those overly entitled 100k flyers 😉

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