A reader wrote in to ask:
“Do you have to use 500 mile coupons for every upgrade?”
As an American Airlines Aadvantage Gold (GLD) or Platinum (PLT) member you need 500 mile upgrade coupons (more affectionately known as “stickers” from the days when they were actually stickers applied to your paper ticket) for most domestic upgrades. The exception being full fare tickets booked into Y or B class. International upgrades require miles and are subject of another blog post later.
After you have status, and you fly 10,000 miles, as a GLD or PLT you will be given four 500 mile upgrade coupons. As the name implies, you need one sticker for each 500 miles of your flight. So a flight from New York Laguardia to Dallas (LGA-DFW) at 1390 miles requires three stickers.
If you do not have enough stickers for a particular upgrade, you can buy more for $30 each. e.g. A flight from San Francisco to New York is approximately 2600 miles requiring six 500 miler upgrades. If you only have 4, you would have to buy two more for $60 total. (As an aside, flying from SFO-LAX-New York might be a better routing as you get an extra 500 redeemable miles LAX to SFO and LAX-NYC is only 2480 miles necessitating only 5 stickers instead of 6)
Once you are a GLD or PLT, you can request an upgrade at the time of booking on any domestic flight in any fare class. You do not need to have enough stickers in your account at the time of the request. You only need to have enough stickers once you checkin for the flight. In the past as a Platinum I often requested an upgrade, and if it cleared I would buy more stickers at the check in machine at the airport on the day of departure.
Admittedly this is one of the downsides of American. As a low to mid tier elite, the free domestic upgrades on Delta and United are more inviting. However it all depends on the routes you travel and your travel plans, if you can make it to Executive Platinum (EXP) then upgrades are free domestically (for yourself) so there is no need to buy any additional stickers. Go for EXP if you can!