How to use American Airlines 500-mile upgrade certificates

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I have no airline loyalty. I fly the one that’s cheapest, whether with cash or miles. I’ll never really experience the wonders of airline elite status because I never intend to regularly pay for flights. With the right airline credit card strategy, you can earn an endless amount of airline miles for very little effort.

But as fate would have it, in the “Promotions” section of my American Airlines account, I found a head-turner: Free Platinum elite status for three months, plus 10 complimentary 500-mile upgrade certificates. All I had to do was click the “enroll” button. Yeah, I’ll have that.

For the first time, I’m looking curiously at 500-mile upgrades. Here’s a quick guide as to how they work — and how I’ve already blown mine.

You can use American Airlines upgrade certificates to get a better seat. (Photo by Bloomberg / Contributor/Getty Images)

What are American Airlines 500-mile upgrade certificates?

If you’ve got any tier of American Airlines elite status, you’ll receive unlimited upgrades on flights under 500 miles. For example, I’ve currently got AA Platinum status. If I were to fly from my home airport in Cincinnati to Chicago, I’d be eligible for an upgrade, because that flight is only 264 miles in duration. If I want an upgrade for a flight more than 500 miles long, I’ll need a 500-mile upgrade certificate.

These upgrades live in your online AA wallet, along with your travel credits and award miles.

Here’s how they work: Each 500-mile cert covers your trip for 500 miles of travel. You can request an upgrade for whatever domestic flight you want, but you must have enough 500-mile upgrades to cover the entire distance. These certificates only concern Gold and Platinum AA members, because any higher elite status tier gets unlimited upgrades on all domestic flights, anyway. Here are some scenarios:

  • If you’re flying from Boston to Philadelphia (a 280-mile flight), you won’t need an upgrade cert — your elite status will cover it
  • If you’re flying from Miami to Washington, DC, (a 921-mile flight), you’ll need two 500-mile certs to be upgraded
  • If you’re flying from San Francisco to New York (a 2,475-mile flight), you’ll need five 500-mile certs to be upgraded

The other thing to note is that American will prioritize your upgrade according to status tier:

  • Gold – Upgrades confirmed 24 hours prior to departure
  • Platinum – Upgrades confirmed 48 hours prior to departure
  • Platinum Pro – Upgrades confirmed 72 hours prior to departure
  • Executive Platinum – Upgrades confirmed 100 hours prior to departure

How to earn 500-mile upgrades

Earning 500-mile upgrade certificates is very straightforward — Gold and Platinum AA flyers earn four upgrades for every 12,500 Elite Qualifying Miles earned with American Airlines, between Feb. 1 and Jan 31 of each year. And anyone with American Airlines elite status can also purchase them for $40 each.

How to use a 500-mile upgrade certificate

These upgrade certificates are only valid when flying American Airlines or American Eagle. Also, you can use them in the following regions:

  • Within the U.S.
  • Canada
  • Mexico
  • Caribbean
  • Bermuda
  • Central America

Also, you can upgrade one companion on your reservation, though you’ll need enough certificates to cover their travel, too. It’s also worth noting that you can only upgrade one cabin up. Coach flights won’t be able to jump to first class in three-cabin planes (though sometimes AA markets these first class seats as business class, just saying).

Step 1. Find the ticket you want

Honestly, flying coach and flying domestic first class often aren’t that terribly different. Most domestic first class seats are slightly wider with more legroom, but they’re just recliner seats like their economy class variant. If you get a thrill from sitting closer to the front of the plane, perhaps you thirst for the premium cabin on smaller domestic airplanes.

I’m swinging for the fences with my 10 upgrades. My wife and I booked one-way coach flights from Los Angeles to Miami for next month (cash prices were like $50!), as this is a route that American flies one of its best planes, with “flagship” lie-flat business and first class seats. Also, there are currently over 50 empty business/first class seats available, so hopefully that’ll increase our odds of being upgraded. Just because there’s an open seat doesn’t mean there’s upgrade availability, however.

This flight is 2,342 miles long, meaning I’ll need five upgrades per person. If you want to assign a value to your upgrade certs, you can see how much AA would charge you to upgrade the same ticket with cash. My particular flight costs $406 to upgrade. Divide that by five, and there’s the value: $81.20.

In this case, buying 500-mile upgrades would be a way to potentially secure a business class seat for half price — though the upgrade wouldn’t be confirmed until a few days before my flight.

Step 2. Tick the “Request Upgrade” box

As you continue to book your flight, you’ll eventually find a “Request a 500-mile upgrade” section at the bottom of the page. It specifies that I’ll need 10 upgrade certificates to request this particular flight. Simply click the box under “Request Upgrade?” to continue.

Step 3. Book your trip

After you’ve checked out, your trip details will have this box specifying that your upgrade request has been submitted.

For my trip, I wanted to use flight credit from a previously canceled trip. However, the site would not allow me to apply them to an old trip — the option would only appear when reserving a brand new reservation. This was quickly resolved through the chat feature in the American Airlines app. The agent applied both my trip credits and my upgrade certificates to my desired route and put the flight on hold. I still had to call American to finish the reservation, as you can’t pay through the chat feature.

Bottom line

American Airlines 500-mile upgrades allow you to upgrade your travel beyond 500 miles. Think of each certificate as the ability to unlock 500 miles of your travel in business or first class. If you’ve got a 1,300-mile flight, you’ll need three 500-mile upgrades to cover your flight.

These certs can save you many hundreds of dollars on your upcoming flight, though I’d recommend not wasting them on planes that offer plain ol’ domestic first class recliners. I’m using mine for a transcontinental flight on American’s flagship product — I just hope I get confirmed!

Let me know if you’ve used AA 500-mile upgrades, and if there are any other tricks I should know about! You can subscribe to our newsletter for more how-to posts like this delivered to your inbox once per day.

Joseph Hostetler is a full-time writer for Million Mile Secrets, covering miles and points tips and tricks, as well as helpful travel-related news and deals. He has also authored and edited for The Points Guy.

Editorial Note: We're the Million Mile Secrets team. And we're proud of our content, opinions and analysis, and of our reader's comments. These haven’t been reviewed, approved or endorsed by any of the airlines, hotels, or credit card issuers which we often write about. And that’s just how we like it! :)

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