How Getting an Upgrade on American Airlines Could Screw Up Your Reservation

With recent changes to American Airlines’ upgrade process, frequent flyers are running out of upgrade certificates faster than ever.

From Pizza in Motion:

  • Gold and Platinum members will earn 500-mile upgrade certificates (I still can’t help calling them stickers) at a slower pace, 4 every 12,500 qualifying miles flown.

These certificates let you upgrade a trip.  You need to use a certificate for every 500 miles.  So a 516 mile trip will cost you two certificates (I’m looking at you, DCA-ATL).  If you run out of certificates, you run out of free upgrades.  You can purchase additional 500-mile upgrade certificates for $40 a piece.


If you aren’t careful and keeping track of how many upgrade certificates you have left, you could potentially mess up your reservation if you go on the upgrade list.

Now, American Airlines won’t let you go on the upgrade list at check-in without sufficient upgrades.  You will have the opportunity to purchase upgrade certificates to get put on the list.

But even without upgrade certificates, you can still be on the upgrade list prior to the check-in period.

Getting an upgrade without sufficient upgrade certificates

What this means is that you are still eligible to get an upgrade.  So, what happens if you score an upgrade before the check-in period and you don’t have enough upgrade certificates?

This is where it gets tricky.

If you opted into upgrades on your reservation, you have the chance of getting an upgrade prior to the check-in period.  If you do not have enough certificates but are next on the upgrade list, American will still upgrade you into first.

First, I want to reiterate that this is for pre-check-in upgrades.

Once you are upgraded into first, you lose your seat assignment in coach.  But you don’t quite have first class yet–you don’t have enough certificates.

So you are neither in coach nor in first class at this point.  You can select a seat in first.  But you won’t be able to check-in without paying for all the certificates you need.

If you call up and ask to reject your upgrade, you may or may not be able to move into coach.  If your flight is sold-out, you cannot move back to your seat in coach.  If you reject your upgrade, you will go on standby for your own flight in coach.

So you’ll end up having to choose between paying for your upgrade or chancing it at the gate on standby if your upgrade clears ahead of time with no certificates.

american airlines

How to avoid it

One way is to avoid automatically sticking yourself on the upgrade list when you create reservations.  Instead, wait until a week out and add yourself to the upgrade list after checking your upgrade certificates.

If you already added yourself, check your certificate balance a week out and proactively remove yourself from the upgrade list.

Or, you can decide that you’ll pay for whatever certificates you need if your upgrades clear.

This is a weird in-between situation you can get yourself into with upgrades.  But gardening your reservations can help you avoid it.

About Jeanne Marie Hoffman

Former bartender, still a geek. One equal part each cookies, liberty, football, music, travel, libations. Stir vigorously. +Jeanne Marie Hoffman Jeanne on Twitter

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  1. Good info! Thank you.

  2. Of course time added to the upgrade list is the tie-breaker after elite status for determining who gets the upgrade. So waiting to request your upgrade reduces your chances of getting it.

    Basically if you’re a Gold or Platinum you need to be strategic in your upgrade requests — you have a certain number of free ones you earn, and they won’t all clear, so you have to deploy them judiciously or be willing to pay for the upgrades you get (but if you’re going to pay for 500 mile upgrades, in some cases the cost is about the same as buying up to first at the time of purchase now that first is sold so much less expensively than it used to be).

  3. Gary, I thought they changed the tie breaker to the trailing twelve months revenue, I’ve noticed the order on the list change the past month quite a bit.

  4. If I book at an ExPlat and have a companion who has Gold status. Who will be charged for the upgrade stickers? Me or my companion? We both have upgrade stickers from a few years back, but curious to know how that works.

    I agree with Gary, gotta be strategic. Sadly, only Delta offers a chance to upgrade at check-in. Granted, Delta doesn’t really offer the best value 90% of the time on said upgrades.

    This is the only part of US Airways I miss and ironically Delta brings back for their elites.

    *Insert long sigh here*

    Thank you.

    • Jeanne Marie Hoffman

      It can be both, but I’m speaking from the perspective of a non-ex-plat. So YMMV. I’ve had myself charged for someone else’s without requesting it. You use your own if you want someone to rank with you, and you use theirs if you want them to fend for themselves.

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