Have you ever tried to book an American Airlines award ticket with AAdvantage miles only to have sticker shock when the redemption price is higher than expected? I’ll explain why the redemption price you’re seeing when running a search for an award ticket may not match the redemption price that is published on American Airlines AAdvantage’s award chart.
This post is actually one of the first posts ever on this blog, but I update it anytime the AAdvantage program makes changes that could affect award travel. I originally wrote this post after I received a message from someone who was looking for flights to and from Brazil. Her question was about how to get flights on American Airlines without redeeming over 100,000 miles for a round trip ticket in economy. I realized I needed to explain different types of award ticket pricing, as well as award seat availability.
According to the AA award chart, a flight between the continental US and Brazil (South America zone 2) requires 30,000 AAdvantage miles each way for a milesAAver ticket. The reason there were no tickets for 30,000 AAdvantage miles each way was because no saver level tickets were available.
In this post, I’ll explain why saver level tickets (and web specials, sometimes) are the only award tickets you should be booking with AAdvantage miles*. I’ll also explain why AAdvantage miles may not be the best award currency to collect even if you only fly American Airlines. This post will specifically address the AAdvantage program, but several other airline programs have the same method of pricing award tickets.
*Update: AA now has an additional type of award ticket called a web special. Redemption prices for Web specials may be priced even lower than a milesAAver ticket. Web specials can only be booked with AAdvantage miles. You cannot use a partner program’s miles to book a web special. More on that a little later.
Overview of American Airlines AAdvantage program
How to earn AAdvantage miles
- Welcome bonuses on AAdvantage co-branded credit cards
- Spend on AAdvantage co-branded credit cards
- Making purchases through the AAdvantage shopping portal
- You can earn miles 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:
*You cannot use AAdvantage miles to book flights from the US mainland to Hawaii on Hawaiian Airlines. You can use AAdvantage miles to book flights between Hawaii and Asia or the South Pacific, or for Hawaiian inter-island routes on Hawaiian Airlines
This means you can use AAdvantage miles to book flights operated by these airlines. Likewise, you can use the loyalty program of most of these airlines to book flights operated by American Airlines.
How many American Airlines AAdvantage miles do I need for an award ticket?
Unlike Delta and United, American Airlines publishes its award charts, which makes it easy to get an idea of how many AAdvantage miles you need for an award ticket.
For all award flights, AAdvantage has a region based (also called zone-based) pricing model. The entire world is divided into regions/zones and a fixed number of miles is required for travel from zone A to zone B.
This type of pricing model is different than that of some other programs we discuss on this site. For example, we often use the frequent flyer program of British Airways to book American Airlines flights. When we do this, the pricing is different because British Airways determines the redemption price and British Airways uses a distance based model.
With AAdvantage, the region based pricing means that the amount of miles required for a MilesAAver ticket from New York (contiguous 48 US states) to Cancun (Mexico) is the amount of miles required for a MilesAAver flight from DFW (contiguous 48 US states) to Cancun (Mexico). With British Airways, the redemption price could be different since the DFW to Cancun flight is a much shorter distance than a New York to Mexico route. Click here for more information about the different types of award ticket pricing.
AAdvantage has different pricing for award tickets operated by partner airlines, though the pricing type is still region based. I’ll discuss both scenarios.
Redeeming AAdvantage miles for partner airlines
For flights operated by partner airlines, you can refer to the partner award chart, which is pretty simple. There is only one price for each level of service (economy, premium economy, business, and first).
Note that there are off peak dates on US-Europe routes operated by partner airlines and those dates are January 10 – March 14 and November 1 – December 14.
These prices are similar to that of the milesAAver redemption prices for flights operated by AA, but remember, partner award flights are subject to availability and I’ll discuss that a little later.
Important update about partner availability: you can still use AA.com to search, but the search engine now looks different and it is sometimes tough to distinguish MilesAAver tickets from other types of AA tickets. The best way to search for AA availability to book with partner miles such as Etihad or British Airways is now with Qantas. I suggest searching Qantas (but don’t pay attention to pricing) to find space rather than trying to figure out what’s a saver ticket and what isn’t on AA. Click here for instructions.
Redeeming AAdvantage miles for flights operated by American Airlines
For flights operated by American Airlines, AAdvantage offers 2 types of award tickets in each class (economy, premium economy, business, and first). In the AAdvantage program these are called MileSAAver and AAnytime awards. There are actually 2 tiers of AAnytime awards, but that is kind of irrelevant and I’ll explain why.
When you are looking at AAdvantage award charts for flights operated by American Airlines, you will see 4 different charts, 1 for each class of service:
- Main Cabin
- Premium Economy
Each chart has 3 tiers of pricing, with the exception of main cabin (economy), which also has off-peak MilesAAver pricing. The 3 tiers are MilesAAver, AAnytime Level 1, and AAnytime Level 2.
Also, there’s this sentence on AA’s website suggesting redemption prices could occasionally get even higher for AAnytime tickets: “AAnytime award levels vary by date and region. There are select dates that require a higher number of miles (in addition to Level 1 and 2 awards). When you search for awards while booking, you’ll see the applicable award level.”
Award seat inventory
To understand the difference between MilesAAver and AAnytime tickets, it may help if I explain award seat inventory.
With the exception of fare based pricing models such as Southwest Rapid Rewards, most airlines allocate a set amount of award seats for any given flight. Most 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 seats are available to book with miles.
The amount of seats varies and every airline has a different way of doing this, but this post will turn into a novel if I try to get into all of that. The point I’m trying to make is that airlines do not make every seat available to book with miles.
A good way to think about the American Airlines AAdvantage program is that the milesAAver level is their award seat inventory. These are also going to be the seats made available to book with partner programs. In other words, if you’re trying to book an AA flight with the programs of British Airways or Iberia as we often do, AA must have milesAAver availability.
For some airlines, once that award seat inventory is booked, you’re kind of out of luck. Then there are some airlines that will still let you book, but at a higher redemption price. American Airlines actually still lets you book a ticket on AA operated flights (it cannot be a partner flight) even if milesAAver seats are not available. These are the ‘AAnytime’ awards and as you can see in the chart above and the photo below, they require a lot of AAdvantage miles. Sometimes twice as much as sAAver tickets.
The AAnytime awards are almost always available to book on any given route that is operated by American Airlines
A mileSAAver ticket from the US to Brazil in economy is 30k each way. There is no milesAAver space on this particular route for these dates, so you are looking at the AAnytime award prices. 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 redeem 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 (or a Web Special) available.
If you do not see the tickets you need at first, keep checking. American Airlines will sometimes randomly release extra award space, but there’s no way to predict if and when it will happen.
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.
In the past year, AA has rolled out one more type of award ticket: Web Special awards
Recently, AA has introduced a new type of award ticket called web specials. Web specials are award tickets that are priced differently than what is published on AA’s award charts for milesAAver and AAnytime tickets. Sometimes web specials are great deals and they are often priced lower than a milesAAver ticket on the same route. Web specials are exclusive to AAdvantage. You cannot use partner miles (such as British Airways or Iberia) to book web specials unless the seat is also available as a milesAAver ticket.
Web Specials are often great deals, but there is a catch: no changes are allowed. You can cancel and have your miles redeposited, but a fee may apply.
How to book award flights with AAdvantage miles:
For flights operated by AA and most partners, you can search for availability and redeem AAdvantage miles at AA.com:
- American Airlines
- Air Tahiti Nui
- Alaska Airlines
- British Airways
- Cape Air
- Cathay Pacific
- Fiji Airways
- Hawaiian Airlines
- Japan Airlines
- Malaysia Airlines
- Qantas Airways
- Qatar Airways
- Royal Air Maroc
- Royal Jordanian Airlines
- S7 Airlines
- Seaborne Virgin Islands
- SriLankan Airlines
To redeem AAdvantage miles on these carriers, you have to call the reservations department:
- China Southern Airlines
- Etihad Airways
- GOL Airlines
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.
- Changing an award ticket: no fee within North America 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 ticket
NEW: Through the rest of 2020, due to the pandemic, AA is waiving change and cancel fees for most award travel. Award tickets booked after January 1, 2021 continue to have more lenient change and cancel policies than in the past, but some fees may apply. You can read all of the terms here.
Can I upgrade from an economy milesAAver ticket to a business milesAAver ticket if it becomes available?
Technically, this is a redeposit ($150 fee), but some agents will allow you to change from an economy milesAAver ticket to a business milesAAver ticket without making you pay the fee. Some agents will charge only the difference in miles. This is only possible IF a milesAAver ticket becomes available.
If you switch from a milesAAver to any AAnytime ticket or vice versa, you will most likely be charged the redeposit fee. Again, agents have some discretion, so you could try to hang up and call again if you don’t like the first answer 🙂
Again, for the remainder of 2020, most fees that would normally apply are waived.
A few tips for booking American Airlines award tickets:
Look for availability patterns. 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, when I was searching for tickets to Brazil as mentioned at the beginning of this post, I noticed that there is generally good economy milesAAver award ticket availability any time of the year 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!
Don’t forget about partners that aren’t bookable on AA’s website. For example, LATAM (a South American carrier) is an AA partner, but 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 the British Airways website. If you find award availability on LATAM on the British Airways website, you can call AA and book the LATAM flight with AAdvantage miles.
There is no magic trick to make American Airlines release more award seats. But here are a few more tips:
- If you have transferable points such as American Express Membership Rewards and Chase Ultimate Rewards, you aren’t limited to American Airlines and Oneworld partners. Check other airlines that partner with American Express Membership Rewards and Chase Ultimate Rewards.
- Start your search as early as possible. You’re a lot more likely to find tickets if you are 6 months out vs. 2 months out.
- Check alternate dates if possible
- Consider flying into/out of other cities. For example, if Dallas to Paris is not available, try Dallas to another European city. Then either take a train or a cheap intra-Europe flight to Paris.
- Wait it out. This is risky, but sometimes airlines open more space as the departure date approaches.
You can book flights operated by American Airlines with several partner airline loyalty programs
You do not necessarily have to have AAdvantage miles to book an American Airlines flight. Frequent flyer miles with partner programs, such as British Airways and Etihad, can be used to book flights operated American Airlines flights as long as milesAAver award tickets are available.
This is important because it is how we are able to book American Airlines flights with transferable points such as Chase Ultimate Rewards points and Amex Membership Rewards points.
Here are instructions for booking American Airlines flights with British Airways Avios (miles). As always, never transfer points from Ultimate Rewards, American Express, etc., until you have confirmed availability for your dates.
Why I generally do not use credit cards that earn American Airlines miles
I fly American Airlines quite a bit since DFW, an AA hub, is my home airport. I generally do not use AAdvantage co-branded credit cards for everyday spending, though. Here are my main reasons:
- I prefer flexible (transferable) 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.
- 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.
- American Airlines can be 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 transferable points such as Chase UR and Amex MR, I can check other airlines for availability.
- When award tickets are available on American Airlines, some of their routes require less miles if you book the flight with miles from a partner. For example, AAdvantage requires 57,500 AAdvantage miles each way in business class from the US to Europe. Etihad, a non-alliance partner of American Airlines, currently requires 50,000 Etihad miles each way on the exact same American Airlines flight. I can transfer 50,000 Amex MR points to Etihad and then use the Etihad miles to book the American Airlines flight.
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The annual fee is $95, but the welcome offer alone is worth a lot more than that.
If you already have a Chase Sapphire Preferred card, click here for other Chase and Amex cards that earn rewards that I feel are more valuable than AAdvantage miles.
Are you an American Airlines AAdvantage loyalist?
I get it, I am too, but it doesn’t mean you should only collect AAdvantage miles. Overall, the American Airlines AAdvantage program and award chart is decent (for milesAAver tickets). There are 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 benefits, especially if you frequently fly AA.
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 card. First of all, the welcome bonus on American Airlines co-branded credit cards is often 50,000-60,000 AAdvantage miles. After the first year, keeping an AAdvantage card provides benefits that may 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.
I keep an AAdvantage co-branded credit card open year after year despite the fact that it has a $99 annual fee. I rarely use it for purchases. In fact, I don’t even use it for American Airlines tickets. Instead, I use my Chase Sapphire Reserve® for the trip protection benefits. My AA card 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 allows free checked bags for up to 4 people on my reservation. American Airlines raised its baggage fees for travel in the US and Caribbean to $30 each way (up from $25). If Ryan and I fly once a year and each check a bag, that would cost $60 roundtrip for each of us or $120 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.
Here are step-by-step instructions on searching for milesaaver 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 welcome bonuses and benefits. Opening an AAdvantage card is a great way to earn a free flight to places like Europe and South America! For everyday spending, there are other cards to consider. Now is a great time to open the Chase Sapphire Preferred. The welcome bonus is currently 60,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points.
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