American Airlines created the first ever frequent-flier program in 1981. A lot has changed since then, but the carrier’s AAdvantage program is still one of our favorites. Following a successful integration with US Airways, American is staying in line with its competitors and changing the earning structure of miles. Still, the program has some major advantages over the competition, including off-peak award discounts, the ability to redeem for international first class (which Delta doesn’t allow), and the cheapest short-haul redemptions of any U.S. carrier.
In this guide to the American Airlines Aadvantage program, we break down everything form how to earn miles, how to redeem them and how to get elite status. Plus, we lay out all the hacks and shortcuts that will keep your miles bank full and allow you to actually exchange those miles for your dream vacation.
Earning AAdvantage miles
Until mid-2016, fliers will continue to earn miles based upon actual distance flown on American Airlines flights. After the change, Aadvantage will transition to revenue-based mileage earning, meaning fliers will earn miles based upon how much money they spend with the airline, not how far they fly. Here’s a breakdown of how much fliers will earn based on their status:
Earning on Aadvantage partners
Photo credit, American
American is a founding member of the oneworld alliance, and in addition to its many alliance partners (see image above), it also has partnerships with carriers that are not part of the alliance, including Etihad Airways, Gulf Air, and Hawaiian Airlines. If you want to earn Aadvantage miles with a partner, always double check that you’ve requested to earn with American and that your American Airlines frequent-flier number appears on your boarding pass.
If you plan to earn miles with American’s partner airlines, the earning scheme will vary based upon the airline. For example, the cheapest economy class fare on a British Airways transatlantic flight would earn 25% of mileage flown compared to the 100% it used to earn. However, a similar transatlantic flight on partner Finnair will still earn 100% of mileage flown.
This flight is operated by British Airways, but has an American Airlines (AA) flight number, which means it will earn miles based upon American’s scheme of mileage earning (not the British Airways partner earning chart). Screenshot, American
Travel Hack #1: There is a way around this stipulation: if your flights have an AA marketing code in front of the flight number, you will earn miles based upon the American Airlines earning chart instead of its partner chart. Most booking sites are very clear about the marketing code of your flight, although it may be shown in different ways. In the example below, the flight is labeled as a British Airways flight, but in the fine print, it says it is operated by American. Here you’d get Aadvantage points even when flying British Airways. The following example shows the reverse: an American Airlines label on a flight operated by British Airways. Google Flights recently added a hack that will allow you to easily search for flights marketed by AAbut operated by other airlines.
Screenshot, ITA Matrix
So you’ve worked hard to earn miles, and you want to spend them on a dream vacation. While American’s increased award prices take effect March 22, 2016, the airline still offers a highly valuable program for those able to easily earn miles through flying or credit card spending.
The charts below list the number of miles required for one-way travel. Finding mileSAAver (the lowest price) award space can be difficult during busy times or busy routes, but ExpertFlyer will alert you when space becomes available.
The biggest sweet spot of American’s award chart is MileSAAver Off Peak awards, which offer discounts to specific destinations in economy during various periods of the year. For example, even in the updated chart for March, AA still offers 22,500-mile one-ways to Europe — a 25% discount — from January 10 to March 14, and November 1 – December 14.
If the award charts above are dizzying to you, check out American’sinteractive map. It is helpful and fun to play with if you don’t have a particular destination in mind.
Finding award availability
Screenshot, American Airlines
Searching for award seats can be tricky. American’s website offers a full calendar view (above), so you can see full availability and mileage costs by month, which is really useful if your flexible. The calendar view is available for all American flights, but unfortunately only a handful of partner airlines.
If you don’t have much experience booking awards, you might search aa.com for your intended destination and find nothing, but don’t panic. Only a handful of partners — like Air Berlin, Alaska, British Airways, Qantas and Royal Jordanian — will show up in online searches, so fliers must call American reservations to inquire about most others.
Travel Hack #2: Luckily, there are workarounds to finding award seats on oneworld partners without navigating the endless web of a reservations line: frequent American travelers should sign up for a British Airways Executive Club account (which is valuable in its own right) if for no other reason than to use it to search for partner award space. British Airways’ website shows award space for airlines like Iberia, Malaysia, Qatar Airways, and SriLankan Airways, none of which show up on AA.com, and all of which combine to open up a huge range of redemption options.
Once you find award availability, however, you’ll still have to call American Airlines to ticket the reservation. But if you have the specific flight information before you call, you’ll spend way less time on the phone.
Travel Hack #3: If award space doesn’t appear on BA’s website, try searching segment by segment. For example, let’s say you can’t find seats on a New York-Hong Kong flight. Try breaking apart the journey and first searching New York to Chicago, Los Angeles, or San Francisco (which are all Cathay Pacific gateways) and then from those cities to Hong Kong. To figure out potential layover cities, simply look for a revenue ticket first and take note of the routes that turn up before moving onto an award search.
Avoiding fuel Surcharges
Some partners (ahem, British Airways) charge outrageous fuel surcharges — as much as $1,000 on some roundtrips. That makes the whole concept of a free ticket seem crazy.
Travel Hack #4: You can avoid fuel surcharges and taxes by steering clear of BA and airports like London Heathrow. Redeeming miles on partners like Air Berlin and Cathay Pacific are always cheaper than redeeming on British Airways or Iberia with American miles.
Screenshot, British Airways
Earning elite status
American is also changing the way that fliers earn elite status, but thankfully, unlike other airlines (like United and Delta), there will not be a minimum spend/revenue requirement to earn status. Fliers will still earn status based on elite qualifying segments (each flight is one segment) or elite qualifying miles (earned based upon actual distance flown), but certain higher-priced fares will now earn more EQMs, which gives elites or potential elites incentive to buy tickets with higher price tags. See below for elite requirements:
Photo credit, American/RWV
The chart below compares how many EQMs will be earned for certain fares on American versus other carriers. Generally speaking, those who fly First Class or Business Class will earn more with American, but travelers who fly economy will earn the same on all three major U.S. carriers.
Travel Hack #5: One shortcut to becoming an elite is getting American Airlines-branded credit cards. The Citi Executive AAdvantage World Elite MasterCard, for example, offers 10,000 bonus EQMs for spending $40,000 within a calendar year.
Screenshot, American Airlines
Enjoying elite status benefits
So now that you’ve earned elite status what does that actually get you? Well, benefits of elite status include free checked bags, waived service fees, and access to premium cabin lounges when traveling overseas. Each level has its own benefits. Check out the charts below to see the breakdown.
*Courtesy of American Airlines
Scoring an upgrade
The most notable difference between American and other U.S. airlines is that American’s top-tier members, Executive Platinum fliers, are the only ones to receive unlimited complimentary domestic (and many Caribbean/Central American) upgrades.
Lower tiers like Gold and Platinum receive a certain number of upgrade certificates that they can apply to flights of their choice, and can earn additional upgrades based upon their travel patterns over the course of the year. Lower-level elites earn four 500-mile upgrade certificates for every 10,000 miles flown. Additionally, these upgrade certificates can be purchased for $30 per 500-mile upgrade certificate online or at a kiosk (tack on $5 if you buy it from an agent).
More details on American’s upgrade program can be found here. The good news is that on flights shorter than 500 miles, all elite members are eligible for complimentary upgrades (in order of status and time of booking) without the need to use electronic upgrade certificates.
Executive Platinum members now receive four systemwide upgrades(downgraded from eight) for one-cabin upgrades on any flight and any fare, including international, long-haul flights.
Don’t have enough miles for an award ticket?
American is fairly generous in that it lets fliers hold award seats for up to five days on many awards, giving them the chance to secure the needed miles to make a booking. If travel is less than two weeks away, award holds are typically only available for one day (same-day travel can only hold awards for two hours). But how do you get those extra miles?
American is always happy to sell you miles if you need more to top up your account, and there are often discounts and seasonal sales on miles. However, this is rarely a good value unless you really just need a few thousand extra miles for an upcoming trip.
Photo credit, Starwood
Several hotel companies allow you to transfer their points to American miles, but the conversion is usually not favorable. The big exception is Starwood Preferred Guest, which transfers at a 1:1 ratio, and gives you a bonus of 5,000 miles for every 20,000 hotel points you transfer at the same time.
Taking advantage of credit-card partnerships
Using credit cards are the easiest way to rack up miles for leisure fliers since cheap fares will no longer accrue buckets of miles as they did before. These cards all offer Aadvantage miles or points that transfer to American:
Citi/AAdvantage Platinum Select MasterCard
Citi/AAdvantage Executive World Elite MasterCard
Citi/AAdvantage Platinum Select World MasterCard
Citi/AAdvantage Gold MasterCard
Starwood Preferred Guest American Express
Starwood Preferred Guest Business American Express
Understanding routing rules
Understanding American’s quirky routing rules will make your life easier when trying to book an award.
Travelers can book one-way awards as well as open-jaw awards (flying into one airport, and departing from another). But,stopovers are prohibited.
AA’s rules prohibit transiting through a third region when traveling between two other regions. For example, if you’re flying from New York to Bangkok, you could layover in Hong Kong since it’s in the same designated award region of Asia. But you could not layover in London because it’s in Europe, and you’d be transiting via a third region.
Travel Hack #6: While there are strict routing rules, there is an unpublished list of exceptions for fliers booking awards between certain regions of the world. These exceptions are in place because it is not exactly easy to get between some parts of the globe without connecting in a third region.Travel Codex has prepared a handy chart that shows routing rule exceptions:
Photo credit, TravelCodex
This chart explains, for example, that someone wishing to travel between New York and Johannesburg can transit via London on British Airways (but pay massive fuel surcharges) or also via Doha on Qatar Airways.
Hitting the sweet spots in the award chart
Despite changes to the award chart, there are still many sweet spots in the new chart that yield exceptional value. Here are a few of the best:
One-way, short-haul awards. One of the best new features of American’s revamped program is the ability to redeem one-way tickets for 7,500 points on flights that are less than 500 miles (for example, New York to D.C. or Detroit to Chicago). United, by comparison, charges 10,000 miles for these flights and Delta also offers something similar, but only for certain destinations and with uncertain availability.
Cheapest economy class to the Middle East, India, and the Caribbean. American undercuts Delta and United by a few thousand miles on these redemptions. Roundtrip to the Caribbean from the mainland U.S. is 30,000 miles, and roundtrip to the Middle East and India is 80,000 miles.
First class to Japan and Korea. While American gutted its first-class award chart to most parts of the world, there is still one region that is relatively cheap: flights between the mainland U.S. and Japan or Korea, which cost 80,000 each way. Compare that with a roundtrip in first class to Hong Kong, which costs an eye-popping 220,000 roundtrip.
Mileage discounts for credit-card holders and certain city pairs.American also puts certain city pairs on sale, frequently offering mileage discounts on travel between them. Also, certain American Airlines-branded credit card holders can receive discounts on award travel that wholly includes American Airlines flights. Here is a complete list of credit cards that offer reduced mileage awards.
Changing plans and avoiding fees
Many airlines have fees associated with award tickets (here’s a full list), and American is no different. Watch out for the following charges:
$75 for booking a flight less than 21 days before travel (all elite level fliers are exempt from this fee).
$30 for domestic and $40 for international travel when you make a reservation via phone (but if you are unable to book an award ticket at aa.com, because the flight is not listed online, that fee should be waived).
$150 to cancel the award and redeposit miles.
One nice perk, however, is that American lets you make changes to dates or routing of award tickets as long as the departure and arrival cities, cabin of service, and mileage redemption level remain the same.
Avoiding xpiration of miles
Like many point systems, Aadvantage miles expire after 18 months if there is no activity in your mileage account. So be sure to use miles for something or earn miles at least once every 18 months.
Travel Hack #7: Using an cobranded credit card, shopping through American’s portal and buying miles are just a few ways to keep your points active.