Even if your company will only pay for an economy ticket on American Airlines – and the least-expensive economy fare at that – upgrading yourself to business class is actually easier than you might think.
For instance, you can upgrade from economy to business class for only 15,000 AA miles on journeys from Sydney to the USA, plus a cash payment of less than A$500 when travelling on those cheap-as-chips fares.
If you've notched up Executive Platinum status in the AAdvantage frequent flyer program, you can also score two completely free return business class upgrades from Sydney through to New York every year, while AA Gold and Platinum frequent flyers aren't forgotten either.
Whatever your status and wherever you're headed, here's how to swap that economy class ticket for a more comfortable bed in business class.
Using AAdvantage miles for AA business class upgrades
Using AAdvantage miles to move forward from American Airlines economy to business class is a terrific option, particularly on those long flights between Sydney and Los Angeles.
Better yet, the number of miles needed to upgrade from Sydney to New York via LA is the same as when upgrading only the Australia-LA portion of your ticket, so if you're flying right through to The Big Apple, one upgrade can cover your whole trip at no extra cost.
Whether flying purely between Sydney and Los Angeles or between Sydney and New York (via LA), you'd need only 15,000 AA miles to upgrade to business class from the highest-price ('Y') flexible economy tickets.
American Airlines also allows you to upgrade from all other paid, points-earning fares (includes those sold under the H, K, M, L, W, V, G, Q, N, O and S fare letters, plus discounted government fares sold under the Y banner): you'd need the same 15,000 AA miles but paired with a cash payment of US$350 (A$472) to secure the same.
In either case, you'd get a fully-flat business class bed aboard the airline's Boeing 777s from Sydney to LA, with space also to work and stretch out (below), and another fully-flat bed from Los Angeles to New York on AA's Airbus A321T service.
Keep in mind that AAdvantage mileage upgrades are all one-class, so while you can certainly upgrade from economy to business class, you can't upgrade from economy to first class where business class is sold, or from economy to business and then again from business to first on the same flight.
Miles also can't be used to upgrade a flight which was already purchased with miles, nor can frequent flyer points from partner airlines such as Qantas be used towards American Airlines flight upgrades, either.
But unlike Qantas, upgrades on all AA flights can be confirmed from the moment your booking is made, subject to availability.
Finally, requesting an upgrade within 21 days of departure incurs an additional US$75 (A$101) charge if successful, billed in addition to the usual cost of your upgrade – but which is waived for AAdvantage Gold members and above.
Using AA 'systemwide upgrades' for business class
Sure, you could use miles for your upgrade, but if you're an AAdvantage Executive Platinum cardholder you can instead make use of four free 'systemwide upgrades' (SWUs) each year to step forward from economy into business class.
As with mileage upgrades, one systemwide upgrade covers your entire one-way trip (up to three individual flights), including on journeys like Sydney to New York via Los Angeles.
In other words, those four systemwide upgrades can be used for two return business class upgrades between Sydney and New York, or four one-way upgrades between the same cities.
You'll need to request these upgrades over the phone by calling the number on the back of your card, but you can also use them to upgrade friends and family members instead, even if they're not travelling with you.
One SWU is required for every passenger you'd like to upgrade, but there's no need to book a flexible economy fare to move up: all paid and points-earning tickets are eligible for systemwide upgrades, except for discounted government tickets or when flying on a codeshare flight number.
Simply put, you can't use SWUs to upgrade on other airlines, on American Airlines when booked on another airline's flight number (such as a QF codeshare), or when travelling on a ticket which was already booked using points/miles.
If available, systemwide upgrades can be confirmed from the moment you book, but if an upgrade isn't available on your chosen flight, you can also choose to 'waitlist' your request for consideration closer to departure.
Using AA's 500-mile business class upgrades
On American Airlines three-class Airbus A321T flights within North and Central America – that is, a flight which offers economy, business class and first class – there's one more way to upgrade: using '500-mile' upgrade certificates.
(Most flights in these regions offer only economy and first class, not business class, in which case, read: American Airlines first class upgrade guide)
This instead covers US transcontinental three-class flights such as Los Angeles-New York, on which AAdvantage Gold and Platinum members can swap five 500-mile upgrades for one bump up to business class.
Every 12,500 elite-qualifying miles (EQMs) earned in the AAdvantage program delivers just one of these 500-mile upgrades, so you'd need to accrue 62,500 EQMs in a single membership year to earn the five certificates needed to upgrade from east to west.
(Top-tier Executive Platinum members instead receive complimentary space-available upgrades on these flights without needing to use 500-mile certificates.)
Another path is to purchase 500-mile upgrades for US$40 (A$54) a pop, but you won't be able to actually use them unless you're an AA Gold frequent flyer or higher, or are travelling with the same – so if you have no AA status to speak of, don't waste your money.
The key difference between these 500-mile upgrades and those funded by AA miles or SWUs is that they're not processed until much closer to departure: from 72 hours prior for Platinum members and from 24 hours prior for Gold cardholders, so even if you buy them, there's no guarantee you can successfully use them.
You can, however, request a 500-mile upgrade from any paid AA economy fare, but as always, not on flights which you'd already booked by using frequent flyer points.
- American Airlines Boeing 777 business class review: Sydney-Los Angeles
- Upgrading to first class with American Airlines
- Review: American Airlines Airbus A321T business class, New York-Los Angeles
Connect with other business travellers in our new airline discussion group