I earned elite status for the first time in 2022 … on accident. I just didn’t think elite status would be that valuable given my limited flying each year, and it’s never been a priority for me.
Oh, how I was wrong.
Throughout the last year, I got upgraded on roughly one-third of the American Airlines flights I took with my Gold elite status — including an upgrade in December during the holiday travel season. That’s more often than many of my friends and co-workers who have top-tier elite status with American Airlines, Delta Air Lines or United Airlines (all of which have a similar complimentary upgrade policy for elite travelers).
It just goes to show that you don’t have to have the highest tier of elite status for it to add a lot of value when you travel — even if you aren’t flying exclusively with one airline or taking dozens of flights every year.
American Airlines elite status upgrades
As an American Airlines Gold status holder, I get the following benefits when I fly American:
- 40% status mileage bonus on American and other select partner airlines.
- Priority check-in and boarding.
- One free checked bag.
- Same-day standby priority.
- Priority phone line.
- Complimentary access to preferred seats (at booking) and Main Cabin Extra (within 24 hours of departure).
- Partner benefits (including automatic Oneworld Ruby status and additional benefits with Alaska Airlines and JetBlue).
- Complimentary upgrades to first class on domestic and short-haul international flights (when available).
I’ve gotten a shocking amount of value out of my Gold elite status thus far, even though I haven’t flown an abundance of American Airlines flights over the past 12 months. But the benefit I’ve definitely enjoyed the most is the ability to score complimentary upgrades.
All American Airlines elite travelers are automatically eligible for complimentary upgrades from the main cabin up to the next class of service on all American-marketed domestic flights along with flights between the U.S. and Canada, Mexico, the Bahamas, the Caribbean, Bermuda and Central America. (You can read the full terms for complimentary upgrades on American Airlines here.)
Of course, upgrades are granted in order of status tier — so if I were on a standby list for a flight upgrade along with a Platinum status holder (the second tier of status), the Platinum status holder would get priority for any available seats before me.
You might be thinking, “Then what’s the point in having status if you’re last in line for upgrades?” Even with the lowest tier of status, I’ve still received more than my fair share of upgrades compared to many co-workers and friends who have higher status tiers — thanks to a little luck and a few travel habits that boosted my chances of getting an upgrade.
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Factors that help me score upgrades
Let me start by saying that there is no strategy or hack to guarantee an upgrade — I’m not going to advise you to wear nicer clothes or bribe gate agents with chocolate in the hopes of scoring a seat up front. However, there are a few travel habits I’ve adopted that give me a little leg up in terms of my chances of scoring an upgrade, even with Gold status.
My home airport is Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR) just outside of New York City. EWR is a major United Airlines hub, so there are fewer American Airlines flight options. You would think this would lower my chances of getting upgraded (fewer flights means more competition for coveted upgrade slots on those flights, right?). However, I’ve found that flying out of an airport without a major American Airlines footprint has actually improved my chances — especially when I’m flying from EWR to an American Airlines hub such as Charlotte Douglas International Airport (CLT) or Dallas Fort Worth International Airport (DFW).
Many travelers who are based near EWR likely prioritize United elite status, since there are far more flight options with that airline, better lounge options and nicer terminals (at least until the new Terminal A opens). In that same vein, many American elite members in the New York area likely favor John. F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) and LaGuardia Airport (LGA), since American Airlines has a much larger footprint at both of those airports.
If there are fewer elite members vying for upgrade slots, my chances go up — even as a lower-tier elite status holder.
Another habit of mine that may help is booking the first flight out of the day as often as possible, especially on weekends. A 6 a.m. flight isn’t exactly the most convenient flight, especially if you’re a leisure traveler on a Saturday morning. But I genuinely enjoy flying early — less chance for a delay due to runway traffic, shorter security lines, less traffic on the way to the airport, etc.
Plus, if there are fewer passengers interested in flying out at sunrise, there’s a higher likelihood I could get upgraded. I don’t pick earlier flight times with this in mind, but it certainly doesn’t hurt.
Of course, at many airports, early hours are peak flying time for business travelers on weekdays or leisure travelers looking to maximize time at their destination. But I’ve found Terminal A at EWR to be on the calmer side when I’m on an early-morning flight.
I want to reiterate — these habits are definitely not foolproof hacks for getting a complimentary upgrade. But in addition to some beginner’s luck during my first year of elite status, I think they were likely a factor in how I managed to get upgraded as often as I did in 2022.
Other perks I’ve enjoyed
But the value I got from Gold status goes beyond the upgrades I received. Here’s a list of how I saved hundreds of dollars and eliminated a lot of travel stress over the last year.
- Extra Legroom seats on JetBlue, which made a huge difference on transcontinental flights in 2022.
- Priority boarding, which helped me avoid having to check my carry-on when overhead space was limited.
- A free checked bag, which was a lifesaver during my annual two-week trip back to Arkansas for the holidays.
This is proof that you don’t have to have the highest levels of elite status in order for it to be valuable or worthwhile.
Related: How I earned American Airlines Gold status without taking a single flight — for an all-in cost of less than $100
Elite status has never been a real travel priority of mine. I know I don’t currently travel enough or spend enough on cobranded cards each year to hit top-tier status with any airline, and I didn’t think the benefits of lower-tier status were worth going on mileage runs. But I got a shocking amount of value out of my Gold status last year, especially with complimentary upgrades.
In fact, I am already planning ways to use the Loyalty Points system to help me bridge the gap to maintain my Gold status (something I swore wasn’t worth it for me last year).
If you’ve been contemplating trying to hit elite status but worry you won’t get much value from the lower status tiers, this is your sign to go for it in 2023. You might even manage to get more complimentary upgrades than your higher-status friends.