What You Need to Know When Booking American Airlines Award Tickets (2018)

Note: Some offers mentioned in this post are no longer available. Click here for an updated list of current credit card sign up bonuses. 

American Airlines Award ticket, book American Airlines with avios

An American Airlines direct flight from DFW to Vancouver is the best route for us to get to Whistler, but we can save miles and points by using a partner to book!

Updated July 2018

Since I often receive questions about the amount of miles that the AAdvantage program charges for some American Airlines award tickets, I thought that I should explain how American Airlines AAdvantage 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 than 100,000 miles roundtrip!

Overview of American Airlines AAdvantage program

Earning Miles
  • 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.
Partners
  • American Airlines is part of the OneWorld Allianceoneworld alliance aadvantage miles
  • 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 redemptions cost a fixed 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, or first (on 3 cabin planes) class. 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
  • Finnair
  • Hawaiian Airlines
  • Iberia
  • 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
  • Interjet
  • Jet Airways
Fees that you may have to pay for American Airlines AAdvantage award tickets:
  • Phone booking fee: $25-35, but if you are booking a ticket with a partner 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 generally do not American Airlines miles

I 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:

  1. I prefer flexible (transferrable) points such as American Express Membership Rewards and Chase Ultimate Rewards.  That way, I have several airline transfer options when I am ready to redeem my points.
  2. I can book AA flights by transferring American Express Membership Rewards or Chase Ultimate Rewards to partner airline programs.  Neither of these directly transfer to American Airlines, but they transfer to programs that I can use to book AA flights.
  3. American Airlines is stingy with ‘SAAver’ award ticket availability, particularly in international 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.  But with transferrable points such as Chase UR and Amex MR, I can check other airlines for availability.
  4. 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.  For example, AAdvantage charges 57,500 miles each way in business class from the US to Europe.  Etihad, a non-alliance partner of American Airlines,  currently charges 50,000 miles each way on the exact same American Airlines flight. I can transfer Amex MR points to Etihad and then use the Etihad miles to book the flight.

Are you an American Airlines AAdvantage loyalist?

Overall, the American Airlines AAdvantage program and award chart is decent.  There are still some great routes for AAdvantage miles (if you can find saver availability)! For example, you can book a roundtrip award ticket to Italy for 45,000-60,000 miles (depending on peak and off-peak dates).

As I stated above, I prefer to earn flexible points that can be transferred to several different airlines and hotels.  If you only use an AAdvantage credit card to collect miles, you are limited to American Airlines and its partners when it’s time to redeem.

With that said, AAdvantage credit cards should not be overlooked when it comes to the best cards for sign-up bonuses and benefits.

Is an AAdvantage credit card right for you?

If you fly AA more than twice a year, it may be a good idea to open an AAdvantage credit card.  First of all, the sign-up bonus on American Airlines co-branded credit cards is often 50,000-60,000 AAdvantage miles.  Also, having an AAdvantage card provides benefits that outweigh the annual fee, even if you do not use it for everyday spending.

There are two banks that issue AAdvantage credit cards, Citi and Barclay.  Since neither of these are issued by Chase, you should make sure you have the Chase 5/24 cards you want prior to opening one of the AAdvantage cards.  You can read more about that here.

The Citi AAdvantage credit card is one card that I keep despite the annual fee of $99.  I rarely use it for purchases.  It 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 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.American Airlines aadvantage anytime awards

While economy award space on American Airlines is still pretty good for many 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.  American Airlines will sometimes randomly release extra award space, but there’s no way to predict if and when it will happen.

A few tips for booking American Airlines award tickets:
  • 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.  If you only see AAnytime awards, you will not be able to use a partner’s program to book the flight.

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).  British Airways site is occasionally glitchy with AA awards. If you find sAAver space on AA.com and the flight does not show up on BA.com, you will have to call BA to book.  British Airways is aware of the glitch and will waive any phone booking fees.

As always, never transfer points from Ultimate Rewards, American Express, etc., until you have confirmed availability for your dates.

 Conclusion

Here are step-by-step instructions on searching for saver availability.  Award space availability at the saver level is essential for maximizing credit card miles and points.  This is true for any airline program, not just AAdvantage.

Using an airline’s credit card may not be my favorite for everyday spending, but airline credit cards are great for sign up bonuses and benefits.  Opening an AAdvantage card is a great way to earn your first free flight!

Note: Some offers mentioned in this post are no longer available. Click here for an updated list of current credit card sign up bonuses. 

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12 thoughts on “What You Need to Know When Booking American Airlines Award Tickets (2018)

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  6. Can you buy an anytime award ticket in business with lots of miles, and if a mile saver appears swap out and get a refund of miles with no penalty?

    Also, can you buy a business milesaver award with high BA/LHR charges and fees, and swap out if a better connection opens with low taxes and fees and get a money refund?

    • Great questions! I might need to address this in a post!
      The official policy is that you would have to pay the redeposit fee of $150 to get the difference of the miles refunded, but a phone agent may be able to waive that. I’ve seen many reports of AA not charging anything on a MilesAAver economy ticket that is changed to a MilesAAver business ticket (except the extra miles of course), but I am not sure about changing AAnytime tickets to MilesAAver.

      You are supposed to receive a refund of fuel surcharges if you change. I don’t have any personal experience but I know when I looked into this not too long ago there were several reports of people fighting AA to get fuel surcharges refunded in this situation. So to answer the question, yes you should be refunded, but it may be a pain and require several phone calls to receive the refund!

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  9. Wow, great post! I’m currently trying to learn the ins and outs of americans program before i call and book our outbound flight for my honeymoon and this almost everything i needed!

  10. Pingback: How To Book American Airlines Flights With British Airways Avios (2018)

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