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How Can I Upgrade to First Class Using My Miles?

Dear Tim,

My husband and I are not very frequent flyers—we fly infrequently, but do belong to American’s AAdvantage program and have about 30,000 miles each—accumulated over several years. We had high hopes of using our miles (some of them) to upgrade our overnight flight segment between Kona and L.A. to first class.

After purchasing our tickets I was informed that we could not upgrade to first class because our tickets were on a discounted fare. I purchased them via the American Airlines website.

We had saved our miles for years for just this one upgrade, and now, found out we couldn’t use our miles to bump up to first class even though there were first-class seats available on the flight (they were willing to sell those seats to us at the airport, but my husband was not about to do that).

So, do you have any suggestions on just how we might be able to upgrade our tickets on a future flight to first class using our miles? Must we purchase a certain level of ticket in order to do so? Of course it will be another two years before we go back to Hawaii, but I would appreciate knowing what to do so that I don’t make this same mistake again.


Dear Colleen,

Most coach fares can be upgraded with miles, provided the airline has set aside seats in first class for mileage upgrades. Even though your flight departed with empty first-class seats, it’s likely that the limited allotment of upgrade seats had already been spoken for by other passengers.

In American’s program, upgrades for Hawaii flights are priced at two levels, depending on the type of coach fare purchased. If you buy a so-called “full” economy ticket—generally only used by business flyers who purchase tickets at the last minute and require the flexibility to change flights mid-trip—an upgrade will cost 7,500 miles in each direction, or 15,000 miles for the round-trip. If you’re traveling on a discount economy ticket—as are most non-business flyers—the upgrades cost 15,000 miles each way, plus a $150 cash payment.

Unfortunately, in American’s system you can’t tell whether upgrades are available when making reservations online. For your next trip, my advice would be to call American’s reservations center and work with a customer service rep. The agent will be able to tell you which fares are upgradeable, and which flights have first-class seats available for mileage upgrades.

You’ll be charged $15 for the privilege of booking by phone, but that’s a small price to pay if it results in successfully upgrading on the long flight to Hawaii.

Good luck.

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