You do not need American Airlines AAdvantage miles to book American Airlines award flights
Earlier this year I found myself in need of some miles to book American Airlines award tickets for an upcoming trip. Ryan and I did not have enough AAdvantage miles. In the end, I was able to book the flights and I didn’t use a single AAdvantage mile. Instead, I found a great redemption option through a transfer partner of American Express Membership Rewards. Not only that, but I also may have a new favorite frequent flyer program.
I have redeemed British Airways Avios (transferred from Amex MR or Chase UR) for American Airlines flights more times than I can count. But that wasn’t an option here because the flights I was trying to book were to Japan. In business class. Long-haul business class is a no-go with British Airways Avios because the redemption cost is too high.
So my next move was to look at other airline programs that I can use to book American Airlines award flights. In particular, I was looking at programs to which I can transfer at a 1:1 ratio from my 2 favorite credit card reward programs:
- Chase Ultimate Rewards
- American Express Membership Rewards
First of all, let me give some basic info about the award currencies discussed in this post
- AAdvantage miles are the currency of American Airlines’ frequent flyer program.
- AAdvantage co-branded credit cards, Citi or Barclay AAdvantage credit cards, earn AAdvantage miles
- American Airlines AAdvantage miles are NOT transferable to any airlines. Or Amex. Or Chase.
- American Express Membership Rewards points (Amex MR) is the name for credit card rewards earned with certain American Express cards
- Membership Rewards are transferable to 17 airline programs
- Amex MR do not transfer to AAdvantage, but you can book American Airlines flights indirectly with other Amex Membership Rewards airline partners.
- Chase Ultimate Rewards points (Chase UR) is the name of credit card rewards earned with certain Chase Sapphire cards
- Ultimate Rewards are transferable to 9 airline progams
- Chase UR do not transfer to AAdvantage, but you can book American Airlines flights indirectly with other Chase Ultimate Rewards airline partners.
My search for the ideal American Airlines partner:
Chase Ultimate Rewards
Of the 9 airline transfer partners, Chase Ultimate Rewards has 2 airline partners to which you can transfer points and then use the airline frequent flyer program to book AA flights. One is British Airways and the other is Iberia. Distance-based frequent flyer programs like British Airways is not a good option for this flight. Iberia is out for the same reason. Both loyalty programs are excellent for booking certain AA flights/routes, but not the flights I
needed wanted. Click here for an example of an excellent British Airways redemption on an AA flight to Mexico.
Since British Airways and Iberia are ruled out, the only other option to book American Airlines flights with Chase Ultimate Rewards is to book them through the redemption portal.
This means that you are booking a paid fare using your Ultimate Rewards points as cash at a fixed redemption rate of 1.25 or 1.50 cents per point, depending on which Chase Sapphire card you have. For example, 50,000 Ultimate Rewards points are worth $625 or $750, depending on which card you have.
The advantage of the booking portal is that you don’t have to worry about finding award seat availability since you are using your points to book a paid ticket. It’s similar to cash-back cards. The problem is that a more expensive ticket means more points required. Because long-haul business class fares are expensive, booking through the portal would require wayyy more points than I care to redeem.
I had 2 more options:
- Search for award space on United or any other direct or indirect transfer partners of Chase Ultimate Rewards and forget about American Airlines. Chase Ultimate Rewards does have plenty of other great airline options to check.
- Use another reward currency that I have that can book American Airlines. American Express Membership Rewards has a few options.
American Express Membership Rewards
Like Chase UR, Amex Membership Rewards points DO NOT transfer directly to American Airlines. You can use Amex Membership rewards to book American Airlines flights indirectly, though. There are 4 American Express Membership Rewards airline transfer partners that you can use to book award tickets on flights operated by American Airlines. Amex points transfer to all 4 of these programs at a 1:1 ratio.
American Express has three Oneworld alliance transfer partners. Since American Airlines is part of the Oneworld alliance, miles in any of these programs can book American Airlines award tickets:
- British Airways (BA) Executive Club
- Iberia Plus (IB)
- Cathay Pacific (CX) Asia Miles
Etihad is the 4th American Express airline transfer partner that you can use to book American Airlines flights. Etihad is not in an airline alliance, but has partnerships with several airlines, including AA, for which you can redeem Etihad miles.
Important: When you book an American Airlines flight with a partner airline, you are subject to that airlines’s redemption prices, not the redemption charts of AAdvantage. If I use Etihad miles to book American Airlines flights, the redemption cost is determined by Etihad’s frequent flyer program. This can be a good thing.
With British Airways and Iberia already ruled out, I looked at my other options with American Express Membership Rewards. Those options were Cathay Pacific and Etihad. Cathay Pacific Asia Miles are great for some award tickets, but their program’s redemption cost for the American Airlines tickets I wanted to book was too much. Finally, I looked at Etihad’s redemption chart for American Airlines.
I realized that Etihad’s loyalty program was not only a reasonable option, it was a BETTER option than if I had the American Airlines AAdvantage miles needed.
- I would have had to redeem 60,000 AAdvantage miles per ticket.
- With Etihad miles, the cost of the exact same American Airlines flight was 50,000 miles each.
Long story short
- I confirmed that my flights were still available on AA.com, then I completed the booking using Etihad miles
- Since my Etihad balance was 0, I transferred 100,000 Amex Membership Rewards points to my Etihad Guest account
More details about Etihad’s program coming soon. Click here for step-by-step instructions for booking AA flights with Amex Membership Rewards points (or Etihad miles)!
Even if you mostly fly on American Airlines, their co-branded credit cards may not be your best option for everyday spending
You do not have to limit your earnings to only American Airlines AAdvantage miles, or only British Airways Avios, or only Etihad miles*, etc.
*Actually, there isn’t even a co-branded Etihad credit card that is available in the US. The point is, using credit cards that earn flexible points such as American Express Membership Rewards still gives you the option to book American Airlines flights. If you only use AAdvantage credit cards, you only earn AAdvantage miles.
Having American Express Membership Rewards points gave me the option to book American Airlines flights even though I did not have enough AAdvantage miles. If award seats had not been available on an American Airlines flight, American Express has several other airline partners that I could have used to book flights operated by other airlines.
So which Amex partner is best for booking American Airlines flights?
It depends on a few things, but in general you probably want to choose the airline partner that results in the lowest redemption cost. Each of the 4 programs that can book American Airlines flights prices award tickets differently.
Iberia and British Airways are distance-based programs. Generally, multiple flight segments and long-haul flights with these programs are going to cost more than what a program with a fixed/regional-based award chart charges. Some award tickets on flights operated by American Airlines are significantly less when using Iberia or British Airways, but some are exponentially more than AAdvantage.
Cathay Pacific has a few different ways of pricing award tickets, depending on your routing and which airlines are operating your flights. Asia Miles are great for certain flights, but no so great for others.
Etihad’s award ticket pricing is more comparable to AAdvantage’s chart. The chart for redemptions on flights operated by American Airlines is zone-based, which makes it an ideal program for booking most itineraries that are available on American Airlines metal. It seems that most of Etihad’s award chart for redemptions on American Airlines flights is similar to or better than American Airlines’ AAdvantage program.
There is no need to commit to one frequent flyer program if you have American Express Membership Rewards points
If you have American Express Membership Rewards, you can choose the partner that results in the lowest redemption cost on a case-by-case (flight-by-flight) basis. In other words, you can wait until you are ready to book your flight and then transfer the Amex points based on which partner has the best redemption rate.
This is one of my top arguments against airline and hotel co-branded cards for everyday spending. You are collecting miles with only 1 airline or hotel. If you only collect AAdvantage miles, you can only use AAdvantage to book award flights.
If you collect a transferable currency such as Amex Membership Rewards, you can choose the airline program that results in the lowest cost each time you are ready to book an award flight.
Any AA award flight that has milesAAver seats available can be booked with partner programs. In other words, Etihad, BA, Iberia, or Cathay miles can be redeemed for the American Airlines flight. If you find milesAAver award space on an American Airlines flight you want:
- American Airlines AAdvantage miles can book the flight (duh!)
- American Express Membership Rewards points can be used to book the American Airlines flight by transferring the points to one of these programs
- Etihad miles can book American Airlines flights
- British Airways Avios (miles) can book American Airlines flights
- Iberia Plus Avios (miles) can book American Airlines flights
- Cathay Pacific Asia Miles can book American Airlines flights
If flights are not available and you only have AAdvantage miles, you’re out of luck.*
*You can use AAdvantage miles to book OneWorld alliance and a few non-alliance partner flights. But if AA and AA partner flights aren’t available, there really aren’t any other options with AAdvantage miles.
If you have Amex Membership Rewards points and there are no American Airlines milesAAver award seats available for your dates and route, you still have options. You can check other American Express Membership Rewards airline transfer partners. There are 16 total, including at least one in each of the other 2 major airline alliances in the world.
Did I stumble upon a viable substitute for American Airlines miles?
To be determined, but it looks promising…
British Airways, Iberia, and Cathay Pacific offer great redemption potential on certain American Airlines flights. But for every great redemption with these programs, there is another redemption that is too high to even consider.
On the other hand, Etihad’s chart seems like a reasonable substitute for AAdvantage miles. Redemption costs using Etihad miles to book American Airlines flights seem very similar to AAdvantage redemption costs, but I need to compare the charts more closely to make a final decision. This discussion is to be continued in a future post…
Having Etihad as a 1:1 transfer partner adds to the value of American Express Membership Rewards points
I’m about to sound like a sales person but here we go. Why would you use a credit card that earns only AAdvantage miles if you have the option to earn a currency that:
- Still has the ability to book American Airlines flights at similar rates as AAdvantage miles
- Can potentially be redeemed for American Airlines flights for a significantly lower cost than AAdvantage
- Has the ability to book other airlines if American Airlines flights are unavailable
- I haven’t even talked about this yet but bonus categories on several American Express Membership Rewards earning cards mean you earn points (miles) quicker.
AAdvantage cards are great for sign up bonuses. In fact, several readers have booked flights to Europe with the signup bonus of just one AAdvantage card. But for everyday spending, I would rather earn points that are flexible.
You thought you were going to get through a post without a single mention of the damn merger…
In a post-SPG/Marriott merger world, American Express Membership Rewards are more appealing than ever. SPG used to be my go-to reward currency. SPG points were transferrable to AAdvantage at a 1:1 ratio.* With SPG points, I always had access to American Airlines miles.
*SPG/Marriott points still transfer to AAdvantage but not at a 1:1 ratio. That’s a whole other story that you can read about here.
Anyway, my other favorite credit card reward currencies are Chase Ultimate Rewards and American Express Membership Rewards. Neither Chase UR nor Amex MR transfer directly to American Airlines, but both have indirect partners that I can use to book American Airlines flights. Both transfer to British Airways and Iberia. Amex also transfers to Cathay Pacific and Etihad.
British Airways and Iberia are great for booking some American Airlines flights at a steal. But when a distance-based award program isn’t ideal for the flights I want, now I know to check Etihad.
The most important theme here is that you should focus on flexible reward currencies rather than a single airline’s miles. If you get a little creative with transfer partners, you can save lots of points and miles when redeeming. Plus, you have the option to book flights with multiple airlines.
This whole post was born because I transferred some credit card rewards points to a middle eastern airline’s frequent flyer program then used those miles to book business class tickets to Asia on a flight operated by American Airlines. I realize that was a run on sentence. What I did was actually pretty simple, though:
- American Express Membership Rewards—> Etihad Guest (Etihad Airways’ frequent flyer program)
- Etihad Guest frequent flyer miles—> redeemed for partner award tickets on a flight operated by American Airlines
If you want to use American Express points to book American Airlines flights via Etihad , I will have a post with step-by-step instructions to follow. Do not transfer any Amex points until you read that post. Your Amex points are better off in your Amex account until right before you are ready to book flights.
PS- If anyone has any Japan recommendations, send them my way! Our itinerary is pretty flexible right now.
The Platinum Card® from American Express
For more information about American Express Membership Rewards earning cards, click here.
- Bonus: 60,000 Amex Membership Rewards points
- Minimum spend for bonus: $5,000 in 3 months
- Annual Fee: $550
- Bonus Categories: 5 points per dollar on flights booked direct through airlines, 5 points per dollar on travel booked through amextravel.com
- Notable benefits: $200 airline incidental reimbursement per calendar year (click here for more info), $200 total in Uber credits annually, $100 reimbursement for TSA precheck or Global Entry enrollment, airport lounge access, 100$ total in statement credit for purchases at Saks Fifth avenue annually
Last year, I cancelled my Amex Platinum. I opened the Premier Rewards Gold Card to use for everyday spending (along with my Chase Sapphire). But the Amex Platinum is a great card to sign up for and keep for at least the first year if you’re eligible for the sign-up bonus (meaning you’ve never had it before).
Premier Rewards Gold Card from American Express
For more information about American Express Membership Rewards earning cards, click here.
- Bonus:25,000 Membership Rewards points
- Minimum spend for bonus: $2,000 in 3 months
- Annual Fee: $195, waived for the first year
- Bonus Categories: 3 points per dollar on flights booked directly with airlines, 2 points per dollar at US restaurants, gas stations, and grocery stores.
- Notable benefits: $100 annual airline incidental credit