Getting upgraded is one of the best parts about traveling frequently. For the early morning or late night flights, having a few extra inches of legroom, seat width, and fee food/drink makes a big difference. Occasionally, if you are lucky enough to find domestic flights on larger aircrafts (767, 777, 787, etc.) an upgrade can put you in a fully lie-flat seat on a domestic route. Upgrades like those make all of the miles in economy worth it. I happened to chose American Airlines as my primary airline and today I want to share my experiences and tips at getting to the front of the plane.
Earning status with American Airlines opens the door to getting upgrade on domestic flights. I suppose its entirely possible that someone without status would be lucky enough to be put in first class without having status, but that would be an extremely rare these days. Today, most upgrades are handled by the computer system with very little input from anyone. As an AA Executive Platinum you are granted unlimited complimentary upgrades on domestic flights of any distance. Upgrades “clear” as far out as 100 hours prior to departure. Platinum and Gold members have to request upgrades on flights greater than 500 miles, using 500-mile upgrades, their upgrades clear 72 and 24 hours prior to departure, respectively. Upgrades generally will not clear prior to arrival at the airport for flights with heavy demand. Occasionally upgrades clear after everyone has boarded the flight, those are the best! If you do not have status of any kind, you are not even eligible to be upgraded, unless you are willing to pay for the first class seat outright.
500-Mile Upgrades also known as “Stickers” are the key for getting to the front of the plane with status below Executive Platinum. As an AA Gold Member or above, for every 12,500 Elite Qualifying Miles, you earn 4 500-Miles Upgrade stickers. Prior to the 2016 AA Devaluation, only 10,000 miles were required to receive the 4 upgrades. For flights greater than 500 Miles, Platinum and Gold members must “request” an upgrade. If the upgrade clears, the required number of 500-Mile upgrades are removed from your account. The number of stickers required for an upgrade is determined by the distance of the flight. A 2,000 mile flight requires 4 stickers to get upgraded to first class. Executive Platinum members also earn 500-Mile upgrades, but do not need to use them in order to get upgraded on domestic flights. Executive Platinum members can use earned stickers to upgrade a travel companion if both are on the same reservation.
Although he doesn’t go into too much detail about exactly how the upgrade system works, Casey Neistat put together a video several years ago explaining how he always gets to fly first class when paying for coach tickets.
Pay Full Price
Due to the economy, most companies will no longer allow employees to pay for first class seats. There is a unique opportunity to get around this policy. By booking a “full-fare” economy ticket (Fare Class Y or B) the ticket is complimentary upgraded into a first class seat. Interestingly enough, these full-fare economy tickets are often more expensive than paying for discounted first class, but because some company’s do not allow their employees to book a first class ticket, people do pay for these fares. Paying for a “Y” fare ticket from ORD to DFW is currently priced at $1,829, but paying for the first class seat directly is only $712. This trick usually is applied to international travel, where a flight from ORD to LHR in “Y” is just $4,398 compared to $6,268 when paying directly for Business Class. This form of upgrade does not guarantee that you’ll get upgraded, but if there is an available seat, you will be. It is best to check availability at the time of booking to make sure there is an open seat in the next class of service.
If it is a busy travel day, a flight is canceled, or weather is causing significant operational delays there is an opportunity to get into a first class seat. This isn’t the best way to get upgrade, but it happens. To receive an operational upgrade, you generally have to forfeit your seat on the flight that you are booked and get lucky enough that the only available seat on the later flight is in first class. Its rare, but it happens.
Pay for First Class
Airlines recently have really started to reduce prices on domestic first class seats. The airlines used to view first class as a loss leader, they were comfortable giving the seats to elite members as a reward for flying with their airline. First Class prices used to be significantly higher than a coach ticket and very few travelers would even consider paying the extra premium. Now airlines have found that if the price is only slightly higher than the price of an economy seat that many travelers will pay a premium. As with all airfare, prices are constantly changing, but more and more often its possible to fly in first class for less than some economy tickets on competitor airlines.
I hope these tips help you get upgraded when traveling, flying in the front of plane is a nice break from the cramped economy seats that most of us fly regularly.