Since I’ve recently received many questions about the ridiculous amount of miles that the AAdvantage program is charging for some American Airlines award tickets, I thought that now is a good time to explain how award tickets work.
A few days ago, I received a message from a friend who was looking for flights to and from Brazil. Her question was about how to get flights on American Airlines without paying over 100,000 miles for a round trip ticket in economy. I knew that number seemed high since according to the AA award chart, it is 30,000 miles each way. I had a feeling it was because no saver level tickets were available. My suspicions were confirmed when I went to look at her dates. In this post, I will explain how AAdvantage award ticket pricing works.
I’ll post more about South America soon, but let’s just say you can certainly get there for way less!
Overview of American Airlines AAdvantage program
- American Airlines miles can be earned several ways including spend from their credit cards and shopping portals
- AA miles can also be transferred from the Starwood Preferred Guest program
- Or you can earn them the old fashioned way which is actually flying on a paid ticket (also known as butt-in-seat miles)
- AA is not a direct transfer partner of Chase Ultimate Rewards or American Express Membership Rewards BUT you can still book AA flights indirectly. Bonus: depending on the route, you may use less miles and points by booking using British Airways Avios and other partners.
- American Airlines is part of the OneWorld Alliance
- In addition to OneWorld Partners, AA partners with Air Tahiti Nui, Cape Air, Etihad Airways, Fiji Airways, Gulf Air, Interjet, Jet Airways, Alaska Airlines, and Hawaiian Airlines
Using American Airlines AAdvantage miles to book award tickets
- AA has a fixed award chart, meaning a set number of miles for different travel zones, depending on ticket type. This means that you will be charged the same amount of miles for a ticket from Seattle to Mexico as a flight from DFW to Mexico even though the DFW to Mexico flight is a much shorter distance.
- AA offers “sAAver” awards and “AAnytime” awards in economy, business, and first (on 3 cabin planes) class award tickets. The AAnytime awards are almost always available to book on any given route (If you’re booking an American Airlines flight with AAdvantage miles). As you will see below, it could cost a ridiculous amount of miles.
In addition to American Airlines flights, AAdvantage miles can also be used to book the following on AA.com
- Alaska Airlines
- British Airways
- Hawaiian Airlines
- Qantas Airways
- Royal Jordanian Airlines
Award tickets using AAdvantage miles on these carriers must be booked over the phone:
- Cathay Pacific
- Japan Airlines
- LAN Airlines
- Malaysia Airlines
- Qatar Airways
- S7 Airlines
- SriLankan Airlines
- TAM Airlines
- Air Tahiti Nui
- Cape Air
- Etihad Airways
- Fiji Airways
- Gulf Air
- Jet Airways
Fees that you may have to pay:
- Phone booking fee: $25-35, but if you are booking a ticket that cannot be booked online, this fee is waived.
- $75 if you’re booking within 21 days of the travel date
- Changing an award ticket: no fee as long as the origin, destination, and ticket type (economy, etc) remain the same
- Canceling an award ticket: The charge to reinstate miles is $150 per account for the first award ticket. Additional award tickets reinstated to the same account at the same time will have a $25 charge per ticket
You can book award tickets on American Airlines flights with other carriers
You do not necessarily have to have AAdvantage miles to book an American Airlines flight. I will go into more detail later in this post.
Why I broke up with American Airlines
Look, I get it. I used to love American Airlines too. In fact, I still fly American Airlines quite a bit since DFW, an AA hub, is my home airport. I just generally do not collect miles in their AAdvantage program anymore. Here are my main reasons:
- I can earn flexible (transferable) points with SPG and still transfer to AA if I need to.
- I can also book some routes by transferring American Express Membership Rewards or Chase Ultimate Rewards to other carriers.
- American Airlines has been pretty notorious lately for releasing little to no ‘SAAver’ award ticket availability, especially in business and first class. If the only miles I have are with American Airlines and there is no availability on AA or its partners for my date and routes, I have no other options.
- When award tickets are available on American Airlines, some of their routes cost less miles if you book the flight with miles from a partner. American Airlines had a devaluation last year and changed their award charts. This made some of the routes for which I previously used AA miles no longer the best value. For example, AAdvantage now charges 57,500 miles each way in business class from the US to Europe. This was previously 50,000 each way. Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan currently charges 50,000 miles each way on the exact same American Airlines flight.
Are you an American Airlines AAdvantage loyalist?
Well, now is a good time to consider collecting miles in other programs!
As I stated above, I prefer to earn flexible points that can be transferred to several different airlines and hotels. When I see AAdvantage shopping portal bonus offers and bonus offers that come in the mail and email, I will still sometimes take advantage of these. For the most part, I now try to put my everyday spending on cards that earn transferable points. What I am trying to say is that if you only have the Citi AAdvantage credit card*, you are limited to American Airlines and its partners when it’s time to redeem.
I am not trying to sit here and bash the American Airlines AAdvantage program. There are still some great routes for AAdvantage miles (if you can find availability)!
The goal of this section is to show that you should try to earn points that can be transferred to multiple programs. If you’re still set on using American Airlines AAdvantage miles, do yourself a favor and at least consider getting the SPG card! You can transfer starpoints to many airlines at a 1:1 ratio. American Airlines happens to be one of these airlines.
You can read more about the Starwood Preferred Guest program here
Annual fee: $95 (waived the first year)
- Earns Starwood Preferred Guest Starpoints
- For every dollar of eligible purchases, earn up to 5 Starpoints at participating Starwood hotels. That’s 2 as a card member on top of the 2 or 3 you can earn as an SPG member.
- Earn 2 Starpoints for every dollar of eligible purchases on the card at participating Marriott Rewards hotels.
- Earn 1 Starpoint for all other purchases.
- Redeem Starpoints for hotel stays at SPG or Marriott properties or redeem for airline miles
- Transfer Starpoints to Marriott Rewards at a 1:3 ratio
- Transfer Starpoints to airlines and earn a bonus 5,000 miles per 20,000 points transferred.
- No foreign transaction fees
*The Citi AAdvantage credit card is one card that I keep despite the annual fee of $95. I do not use it for any purchases. It literally sits in a folder in our safe with my other “sock drawer credit cards.” I only keep it for the perks.
- First of all, it comes with free checked bags for up to 4 people on my reservation. If Ryan and I fly once a year and each check a bag, that would cost $50 roundtrip for each of us or $100 total. We usually try to carry on our luggage, but for some trips such as a ski trip or a trip with our kids, it’s nice to check bags for free.
- By having this card, we also get a higher boarding group. This means that if we do not check bags, we will be able to board the plane while there is still room in the overhead bins for our carry on baggage!
- I get 10% of my AAdvantage miles credited back to my account when redeeming on up to 100,000 miles per year. So basically I can get up to 10,000 miles back per year. This is even if those miles are transferred from another program. For example, I transfer 80,000 SPG starpoints to AA to get 100,000 miles (because remember there is a 5,000 bonus for each 20,000 starpoints transferred to airlines). I then redeem those 100,000 miles with AAdvantage and I get 10,000 miles back in my account! So for transferring 80,000 starpoints, not only did I get a bonus 20,000 miles, but I also got 10,000 back.
- I get access to reduced mileage awards. I will post more about this soon.
Let’s talk about American Airlines award tickets
American Airlines offers 2 types of award tickets in each class (economy, business, and first). So there is the saver level and the anytime level. In the AAdvantage program these are called MileSAAver and AAnytime awards. When you are looking for award space on the AA website, you will see Economy MileSAAver, Economy AAnytime, Business/First MileSAAver, Business/First AAnytime, and then if it is a plane with 3 cabins you will see First MileSAAVer and First AAnytime.
Now is a good time to explain that airlines do not have an unlimited amount of award space on any given flight. In other words, just because you see that 50 seats are available on a flight, it does not mean that 50 award seats are available.
Different airlines release different amounts of award space. Also, every airline releases award seats at different times, so it is a little tough to predict when the best time is to search for availability. With that said, I always recommend starting your search as far out from your travel date as possible. It helps to be a little flexible on your dates, but I realize that is not always possible for everyone.
A good way to think about the American Airlines AAdvantage program is that the SAAver level is their award seat inventory. Not all airlines do this (some will just say no award tickets available) but American Airlines actually still lets you book a ticket on their own flights (it cannot be a partner flight) even if no award seats are available. These are the ‘AAnytime’ awards and as you can see below, they cost a lot of miles. Sometimes twice as much. To compare, a MileSAAver ticket from the US to Brazil in economy is 30k each way. AAnytime awards generally cost so many miles that it’s a horrible value for your points/miles. So, when you see an AAnytime award, AA is basically saying ‘we have no award seats available but we will still give it to you if you’re willing to pay a ridiculous amount of miles’. When you’re looking for award space on AA, it is generally only a good value for your miles if there is MileSAAver space available.
While economy award space on American Airlines is still pretty good for many different routes, there has been a lot of grief lately over business class availability at the SAAver level. My advice is to plan as far in advance as possible, especially if you’re wanting business class tickets. If you do not see the tickets you need at first, there is still hope. For example, last week American Airlines released lots of business class space to Europe for October through the spring of 2018.
A few tips:
- If you book a ticket in economy on American Airlines and then later find business class availability on your flight, you may be able to call and pay the difference in miles without paying a change fee. This is by no means guaranteed, but there are many reports of success so it’s worth a try.
- If you have a trip in mind, I suggest searching availability periodically even if you do not know your dates. This may give you a general idea of their availability patterns. For example (and this is only hypothetical), you may notice that an award ticket to Paris is usually available if you fly on a Tuesday or Wednesday. Another example: when I was searching for tickets to Brazil for the friend mentioned at the beginning of this post*, I noticed that there is generally good economy SAAver award ticket availability except for the months of December and January. Checking for availability patterns in the early phase of trip planning may help you figure out dates that work best for your schedule and for award ticket availability!
*Sidenote: I should also point out that I checked another AA partner for my friend, but it was also unsuccessful. While LATAM (a South American carrier) is an AA partner, those flights cannot be booked online with AAdvantage miles. If you do an award search on AA, LATAM will not show up as an option even if it’s available. The best way to check availability for LATAM flights is on British Airways. If you find availability on LATAM, you can call AA and book the flight with AAdvantage miles. As I said before I will do a more comprehensive post in the future on the best routes/programs/points/miles for South America and how to search availability!
To book American Airlines tickets with miles from other programs such as British Airways, there must be award space on American Airlines at the MileSAAver level
If you haven’t read my post about getting to Mexico on an American Airlines flight for half the amount of miles by booking with British Airways, read it now! In order to book these flights with partner airlines, American Airlines must have award space at the SAAver level. The easiest way to search for this is on the American Airlines website. Once you have found dates that work for you, you can then go to your account with whichever airline you’re trying to book the ticket (British Airways in this case). As always, never transfer points from Ultimate Rewards, SPG, American Express, etc., until you have confirmed availability for your dates.
I understand that many people have a certain airline they like, and that is fine. What I want people to take away from this is that an airline’s credit card may not be the most efficient way to earn and redeem miles, even if you plan to fly only on that airline.