American Airlines: Refrain From Buying 500 Mile Upgrade Certificates And How To Handle Dormant Upgrades?


American AAdvantage is the only Frequent Flier Program in the U.S. that still uses a system of 500 mile based upgrade certificates that the airline either sells or gives away to their frequent fliers which supposedly never expire.

AA UG B737

All other carriers have switched to unlimited domestic upgrades for their Elite frequent fliers, American Airlines only offers these on flights of less than 500 miles distance and for their Executive Platinums.

Once a customer drops in status level the question might become relevant of what to do with these more or less useless, dormant upgrade certificates as the likelihood for those to clear as an AAdvantage Gold or even non status customer is pretty minimal.

Since I joined AAdvantage in 2002 I have accumulated just enough AA miles to reach Lifetime Gold status which is a perk of the 1 Million Miler status. Unfortunately these were all from flight activity since an AAdvantage credit card isn’t offered in my market. AAdvantage Gold is at the very low end of the food chain so to speak and you really need a flight that is a) Elite light and b) pretty empty in First Class to be able to actually clear the upgrade list.

Right now I have 29 of these upgrades sitting in my account that I’ve had for years since I pretty much stopped flying American and dropped from Executive Platinum to Platinum and eventually to Gold.

AA UpgradesAll my flights are credited to British Airways Executive Club nowadays as I think that they provide the best value for non-US domestic travelers in terms of benefits and ease to qualify for oneWorld Emerald.

Why is this matter with the upgrade certificates important? It isn’t if you got them for free through flight activity (you earn four with every 12,500 Qualifying miles – used to be 10,000) but American Airlines also sells these upgrades for 40$ each or in packages of 8 for 40,000 AAdvantage miles.

AA Buy e500Keep in mind there is absolutely no guarantee that these will ever clear, so I would strongly advise against investing money into upgrade certificates unless you are 1-2 short and want to gamble on a route where it’s worth it to upgrade and spend money on it. You need the entire required amount in your account to even request an upgrade which makes it even more difficult.

Especially when it comes to miles, this exchange is completely worthless as you can do domestic upgrades with AAdvantage miles (see their chart here) that are confirmed immediately if there is upgrade space available.

AAdvantage UpgradesUnless you are in full fare economy class (Y Class – previously B class was included as well) there will be a co-pay of 75$ for continental upgrades and 175$ for Hawaii plus 15,000 miles, but at least you are confirmed instantly and the upgrade includes all connections (up to three segments). Spending 40,000 miles alone for 8 upgrades makes no sense given the uncertainty of clearing the upgrade list even as Platinum member.

AAdvantage used to offer members residing overseas the ability to exchange the 500 mile upgrades back into miles if you only fly long haul; however they discontinued this option entirely not all too long ago. It used to be very lucrative as back in the early 2000s they gave members 10,000 miles for 4 upgrades and in recent years downgraded it to 500 per certificate. I should have taken them up on that when I last inquired 2 years ago because now they offer zilch as I learned today when I called them again.

I expect that American Airlines will do away with these certificates at some point and switch to unlimited domestic upgrades. I kind of liked this system because it sort of slimmed the upgrade competition on some routes (especially shorter ones) where people didn’t deem it worthwhile to burn a certificate such as Los Angeles to Las Vegas or San Francisco.

Back in the day as Platinum I had good luck using the certificates even on busy routes such as Dallas to LA or LA to Chicago and Washington Dulles but these days it’s hard for some reason. Maybe due to more Executive Platinum Members or because AA actually sells more domestic First Class?


There is really nothing you can do at this point with sitting upgrades except trying to request again and again in the hope of them clearing at some point. If you have a large amount sitting in your account maybe a Platinum Status Challenge would be useful to get back to a membership level where you have chances of clearing (even though I was able to score an upgrade as a lowly Gold on LAX-LAS last week).

Try not to purchase additional certificates if you can avoid it and most definitely don’t use any miles for them. Earning four e500 for 12,500 EQM miles got a bit stingy too. Thats a roundtrip from the West Coast to Asia just for the chance to upgrade a one way domestically to Chicago (1745 miles).

The promise of the e500’s never expiring is as good as saying there is a ‘Lifetime Status’ because as soon as a feature is eliminated entirely there goes the value of lifetime non-expiration.