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).
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.
- You can join the 40,000+ people who see these deals and analysis every day — sign up to receive posts by email (just one e-mail per day) or subscribe to the RSS feed. It’s free. You can also follow me on Twitter for the latest deals. Don’t miss out!