A Silver Lining to the AAdvantage Devaluation: Upgrades

One bit of good news for members in the AAdvantage program changes that I haven’t seen get any play is that mileage upgrade award charts don’t appear to be changing.

Delta made upgrades a lot more expensive this year. United has many more upgrade price levels, including some more expensive than AAdvantage. But American hasn’t changed their upgrade prices.

American Airlines Boeing 787 Business Class

Upgrades were once the best, most leveraged use of miles. But awards became more flexible (mix and match various alliance partners) while upgrades became more expensive (tons of miles and the introduction of cash co-pays).

United Will Charge You Up to $600 and 35,000 Miles Each Way

United introduced cash co-pays for upgrade awards in 2009. They actually matched American on this — American introduced cash co-pays first.

In mid-2011 United raised the cost of mileage upgrades and increased cash co-pays as well. They went from three fare categories — business class (except for discounted Z fares), full (Y or B) fare coach, and discount fares — to nine separate fare categories each with its own price in terms of miles and cash.

Here’s a portion of the upgrade chart for United flights:

Upgrades cost as much as 35,000 points and $600 each way.

Interestingly when United announced their brutal award chart devaluation in November 2013, they made some unpleasant tweaks to upgrade rules but didn’t change the upgrade chart.

Delta Will Charge You Up to 115,000 Miles Each Way — and Won’t Let You Upgrade the Cheapest Fares

Delta doesn’t permit upgrades on the cheapest fares at all. You have to buy at least a mid-tier K fare if you want an international upgrade. Here are one way upgrade prices with Delta:


  • Y/B/M Fares: 60,000 miles
  • S/H/Q/K Fares: 80,000 miles

US-North Asia:

  • Y/B/M Fares: 60,000 miles
  • S/H/Q/K: 80,000 miles

US-South Asia, Micronesia, Southwest Pacific

  • Y/B/M Fares: 80,000 miles
  • S/H/Q/K Fares: 115,000 miles

Buy an expensive coach ticket and still spend 230,000 miles roundtrip between the US and South Asia for an upgrade. You’re paying cash for the ticket and spending a ton more than a saver award costs for a ‘free’ ticket. And yet international upgrades on Delta are still super hard to get.

American Charges Up to $550 and 25,000 Miles — and That Didn’t Go Up

American has four levels to their upgrade chart — from discount or full fare economy to business and from discount or full fare business to first.

They don’t waive cash co-pays on domestic mileage upgrades for elite passengers, so they aren’t as friendly as United on this. On the other hand domestic upgrades on all except for premium transcon New York JFK – Los Angeles/San Francisco are usually available.

I’ve always hated cash co-pays, but American’s are a bit cheaper than United’s and the mileage cost to upgrade is lower for American flights than United flights. In fairness to United, American’s international route network is more limited.

Confirmed upgrades at time of booking can be tough of course. But that American’s upgrade prices aren’t changing as part of the AAdvantage revamp and new award chart going into effect March 22 seemed worth noting.

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 InsideFlyer.com, 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. AA will charge in addition to the published cash copay a $75 close in booking fee if within 21 days of departure for non elites for awards upgrades

    There shouldn’t be any close in fee for upgrades even UA not charging does fees for award upgrades

  2. I would not at all be surprised to see fare class restrictions introduced at some point. Fits in with the mindset of not releasing saver inventory even up to departure with loads of empty seats.

  3. Your idea of a silver lining is that what’s already an expensive transaction that’s already difficult to redeem didn’t get worse? If this travel blogging thing doesn’t work out I bet you’d make a great spokesman for Phillip Morris.

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