All About the American AAdvantage Explorer Award

American Airlines has a great mileage program, but their all-partner awards have restrictions that make certain awards difficult. These rules include:

1) Limited Stopovers. With AA, you cannot stopover anywhere internationally. You can only do stopovers at the North American gateway when awards include North America.

2) Maximum Permitted Mileage. AA allows MPM+25%, which can be generous, but there’s still a limit.

3) The transregion airline must publish a fare between the origin and destination. One non-alliance partner of AA, Etihad, serves Malé, but doesn’t publish fares from North America to the Maldives, so awards are not possible.

4) Transregion awards can only transit certain areas. One example of this is North America to India, which only be flown directly (with Middle Eastern carriers) or via Europe. However, Asia is a shorter routing to India from the west coast, but AA won’t allow you to redeem an award via Asia without paying extra miles. Another drawback is that you cannot transit upper South America for a trip between North American and lower South America, which has caused me to break up awards in the past.

Enter the AA Explorer Chart

The AA Explorer chart gets rid of those rules up there, and it makes a ton of sense for a lot of awards. The chart is a distance-based award chart, and there are four regions that looks interesting to me:

AAdvantage explorer reward chart

There are other rules that you have to follow with an Explorer award. This FlyerTalk thread goes over pretty much all of them, but some key rules are:

1) Must include 2 non-AA OneWorld partners. This means you cannot include non-alliance partners (like Alaska Airlines or Etihad) and must include two other carriers (which can be tough for somewhere like South America, which pretty much only has American and LAN, though there are possibilities as I will discuss below).

2) A maximum of 16 segments, with a maximum 1 open-jaw. An open-jaw that’s not between the first and last cities counts as a segment, as does a land segment between two co-terminals (like connecting between LaGuardia and JFK).

3) You can stopover at a city 1 time, and connect through a city 2 times. That means you could potentially fly through a city 3 times, but can stop there for just 24 hours once. Once you return to the first airport you departed, the award is pretty much over.

4) The total countable miles includes all flown segments, but not land segments. In addition, a flight has a layover on the same flight number, you’ll only be deducted the direct flight miles.

5) Award travel must be complete within a year of ticketing.

6) No changes to routing or carrier are allowed after ticketing, although date changes are fine.

Examples of Using the Explorer Chart to your (A)Advantage.

East Coast USA to Europe with stopovers

On their all-partner chart, AA charges 20K one-way in coach during off-peak (Oct 15 to May 15) 30K one-way in coach, 50K one-way in business, and 62.5K one-way in first.

AAdvantage reward chart for Europe

Round trip, that’s 40K off-peak coach, 60K in coach, 100K in business, and 125K in first.

In zone 3, 4001-9000 miles, AA charges 60K in coach, 80K in business, and 100K in first.

In zone 4, 9001-10000 miles, AA charges 70K in coach, 90K in business, and 120K in first.

To me, zone 3 is the sweet spot, where you’re paying the same in coach and paying less for business and first. Zone 4 could also be a good choice if you’re flying business and first, but keep in mind that it’s only an incremental 1000 miles flown, which could be better served with using British Airways Avios for short flights.

In Europe, AA’s OneWorld partners are British Airways, Iberia, airBerlin, and FinnAir. In addition, LAN flies Madrid to Frankfurt as a fifth freedom route.

British Airways charges some nasty fuel surcharges, so we want to avoid them. Iberia also charges fuel surcharges for flights booked with AA miles, but their surcharges are much less — the highest is 30€ per segment. We’ll keep Iberia around, but try to limit their usage as much as possible.

Let’s look at one example that can work here:

OW Explorer, Europe example

In this example, we’ll fly JFK to Madrid. This can be done on either American Airlines (without surcharges) or Iberia (with minimal surcharges).

From there, we fly from Madrid to Frankfurt, on LAN’s tag-flight on their A340. Once in Frankfurt, we will explore Germany on the ground, before making our way to Berlin. Once there, we’ll fly from Berlin to Paris-Orly on airBerlin, to see La Ville Lumiere. Note that we have satisfied the two-partner rule without having to take the Iberia flight from New York to Madrid. From Paris, we’ll fly home to New York on American Airlines.

This routing is under 8700 miles, including the surface segments between Frankfurt and Berlin and the two Paris airports. This means that we’d still have about 300 miles to work with in this example.

With AA’s normal all-partner chart, this example wouldn’t be possible, because you wouldn’t be able to stopover in multiple places. However, we can do so with the Explorer award while paying fewer miles.

Flying to India via Asia

Since a lot of my awards are for family and friends to go to India, AA’s routing rules are really a thorn in my side, since you can’t fly a Cathay Pacific award to India, even though it’s a shorter route from California. However, it’s possible with the Explorer Chart.

AA’s OneWorld Asia partners include Cathay and Japan Airlines. In addition, Royal Jordanian flies Hong Kong-Bangkok and Cathay Pacific flies Bangkok-Delhi and Bangkok-Mumbai.

For North America to India, it costs 45K in coach (90K roundtrip), 67.5K in business (135K roundtrip), and 90K in first (180K roundtrip). Keep in mind this is only possible via the Atlantic:

AAdvantage reward chart for India

The sweet spot here is zone 6 (14001-20000 miles). It’s 100K in coach, 130K in business, and 180K in first. In premium classes, it’s the same price or less, in addition to having flexibility in routing.

Let’s look at some examples:

OW Explorer Asia

For this trip, we’ll fly from San Francisco to Hong Kong on Cathay Pacific. After some well-spent time in the Island City, we’ll head to Bangkok on Royal Jordanian. Already, we’ve satisfied the two partner rule. Royal Jordanian is great for this because they fly Hong Kong-Bangkok, and some of Cathay’s flights to Delhi and Mumbai fly through Bangkok anyway! From Bangkok, we’ll head to India on Cathay Pacific.

For the return, we’ll fly back on Cathay Pacific via Hong Kong. Even if you book the flight between Mumbai and Hong Kong that stopovers in Bangkok, you’ll have to follow the miles for the direct trip, since it’s the same flight number.

You’ll notice that in this example, I started in San Francisco and ended in Los Angeles. This is because starting and stopping in L.A. would make it go over 20,000 miles flown, and drastically increase the number of AAdvantage miles needed for redemption. This is where Avios comes into play.

Playing Around with Great Circle Mapper

All of these map images are courtesy of one of my favorite tools, the Great Circle Mapper, since it helps me visualize routing.

I noticed that the route between Hong Kong and California goes very close to Japan, so stopping over in Tokyo is definitely a possibility without adding too many miles.

OW JAL

On this trip, we’ll fly San Diego to San Francisco on American Airlines. From there, San Francisco to Hong Kong on Cathay Pacific. From there, we can fly either Cathay or Royal Jordanian to Bangkok, and from there, Cathay Pacific to Delhi.

On the return, we’ll do Delhi to Hong Kong on Cathay Pacific, then Hong Kong to Tokyo on Cathay Pacific or Japan Airlines. Finally, we’ll use the new JAL 787 Dreamliner service to San Diego to finish the award.

This routing falls 17 miles under the 20,000 miles cap. Talk about maximizing!

Round-the-World (RTW) trips

From the east coast, it’s still possible to fly to India via Asia one-way and Europe the other, making it an RTW trip. For example, Cathay Pacific from JFK to Delhi on Cathay Pacific and Royal Jordanian from Delhi to JFK via Amman.

RTW 1

In fact, since the Amman -New York route goes over Europe, why not stop there as well?

OW 2

Chicago to Hong Kong to Delhi on Cathay Pacific, Delhi to Amman to Istanbul on Royal Jordanian, Istanbul to Madrid to Paris (Orly) on Iberia, Paris (CDG) to Chicago on American.

Increased flexibility with new partners and new routes

Future OneWorld partners include Malaysia Airlines (based in Kuala Lumpur), Qatar Airlines (based in Doha), and SriLankan Airlines (based in Colombo).

Besides the obvious routes from their hubs, it would be good to note the fifth-freedom routes these airlines serve. Of particular note is Qatar’s Buenos Aires-Sao Paulo route, which means that once they join OneWorld, you can use them to satisfy the two-partner rule along with LAN in South America.

GCmap route map

I hastily threw this itinerary together — it falls under 14,000 miles, qualifying it for Zone 5 pricing. All segments are on LAN except for the orange segment on Qatar.While you touch Lima 3 times, it still qualifies as a valid routing if you have 1 stopover and 2 connections.

Going all out, or how to plan 3.5 vacations with one award.

Destination David

Courtesy ORDtoAnywhere.com / DestinationDavid

Believe it or not, the above Explorer award itinerary is actually 3.5 roundtrip vacations jam-packed into one business class award for only 220,000 American miles. To put that into perspective, one roundtrip to Europe without stopovers is 100,000 miles in business.

I recently read about Milepoint member DestinationDavid and his epic OneWorld Explorer itineraries. He recently posted about his two trips here, and it is definitely worth a read if the Explorer Award is something you’re interested in. He gives a lot of first-hand tips, like getting around the “only one stop in a city” rule by using connections rather than stopovers, and by booking outside tickets (either with cash or with Avios) to save a stopover for a later date. If you really want to go all out on an “advanced” OneWorld ticket, read that post!

Have some fun with it!

Play around with GCMap here and see what cities you can add without increasing the mileage price — if it comes to the point that you’re just barely going over a threshold for a zone, keep in mind that British Airways Avios are distance-based, and can help you reach a connecting city, and still be protected on separate tickets if you’re flying OneWorld.

Amol (@PointsToPointB) joined HMT in 2012. An ardent manufactured spender, he's an American Executive Platinum, Delta Platinum, and United Platinum.
Email // Twitter // Facebook // Google+ // Subscribe by RSS

  • Hutch

    At first glance, are you suggesting in the first example we could pull off Europe (JFK,MAD,FRA,TXL,ORY,CDG,JFK) for 60k coach?

    I need to digest the rules more but it would appear in your example w/ a total milage at 8,923 and given the explorer award rules it would fall in zone 3 (4001-9000 miles, AA charges 60K in coach, 80K in business, and 100K in first)

    if so this, this plan and itenerary is genius !

    • AKold

      Yes!

  • Stephan

    Excellent and valuable post!

  • evan

    Can you expand on how to construct such an itinerary and where you can book it. For example, on aa.com under award flights you can only list four segments, do you need to construct the trip using individual legs then call aa on the phone? Will the system default to an Explorer award instead of a typical RT award booking? Also, it doesn’t seem that all available partner flights are included through aa.com, can you comment on this? I’m trying to run an example trip and having no luck!! thanks!

    • AKold

      You would have to find availability for each segment and call AA to book. When you do, let them know you are doing an Explorer Award, which is a separate desk. When I book awards, I call 800-882-8880 and usually connect quickly.

  • Mikus33

    Absolutely beautiful post.

  • George

    You know a post is good when you have to read it three times to soak up all the info. Nice work!

  • Hans

    Two follow-up questions:
    1) What constitutes a stopover?
    2) How many stopovers can you have on an Explorer Award?

    • AKold

      A stopover is staying in a city for 24 hours or more. A connection means a stop of under 24 hours. You are limited to 2 connections and 1 stopover PER city (except the city where you start the award; returning to that city ends the award).

      So there isn’t a limit to stopovers on the award as much as there is per city. However, the upper limit on the award is a maximum of 16 segments.

  • Sam

    Explorer levels shown require Saver availability, correct?

    • FlyerM

      @831702f61dd45be454a55b473a56e707:disqus

      Yes, that’s correct. I just booked a RTW itinerary using an explorer award and can confirm this.

    • AKold

      FlyerM is correct, it uses the same award availability as normal awards. The only thing that’s different is how AA prices the award.

  • Craig

    amol,

    Is Qatar’s EZE-GRU route the only oneworld route within S.A. that you know of that’s not operated by AA or LAN? We fly from BNA and wanted to take a 10 day tour of S.A. using an Explorer award, so I guess we’ll have to take that Qatar route whether we wanted to go to Sao Paolo or not, right?

    • AKold

      Correct, BA used to fly that route but don’t do so anymore. Once Qatar joins OneWorld, that’ll be the only non-LAN intra-South America flight for the time-being.

  • MM

    Great and informative post. Any ideas on how to construct an award starting in GRU to TYO and back. I’m stunned with the 130k + 130k for a F award via NA…

    • AKold

      I’m guessing you’re considering First Class (which 62.5K one-way in F each continent, so 250K total). GRU-TYO is 23,000 miles roundtrip if you could fly directly so you’d have to start with Zone 7, which is 230K in First up to 25,000 miles flown. Zone 8 gives you more leeway with up to 35K flown but costs 280K.

      The most direct GRU-TYO route goes via NYC, but try considering routes via Europe (you don’t pay fuel surcharges by flying BA First OUT of Brazil) or via Oceania on Qantas/LAN.

  • SgFm

    Last year we had two C class trips from the US, one to Spain with stops in BCN and MAD, and a second trip several months later to S. America: MVD, EZE, MDZ, SCL, LIM and CUZ. All for 130K AA miles.

  • http://twitter.com/points2memories Joseph Gallaher

    this totally left my head spinning but I think I may have to give it a whirl ;-)

  • KW

    I think I finally understand the post after reading it three times…Thanks for sharing! Do you have some tips like this for United? Or is it Scott’s area? :)

    • AKold

      AA is special in that they have an award chart like this that few other airlines do. Delta has a “RTW” chart but that is more restrictive. United doesn’t have a chart similar to the Explorer Chart, but I find that their normal one-way/round-trip awards are much more flexible.

  • TheBloggerPolice
    • Scottrick

      Gary isn’t the only one who knows about the AAdvantage Explorer award. If you want to accuse Amol of plagiarism, send me an email pointing out which parts he copied without attribution, and I’ll take it from there. Otherwise, all I see are two well-written posts by different people about the same topic. Even the examples are different.

    • AKold

      I originally posted a version of this on my old blog on September 20th, over one month before Gary’s post. I updated my old post with new information for this post, but all my own research.

  • SeattleTraveler

    What is the best option with 109,000 FF AVIOS points with BA?

    Prefer economy ticket travel for one.

    BA seems to tax huge amounts so flying on Cathay Pacific to Asia is a lesser of 2 evils. Or using Alaska Air 4 times to fly domestically in coach.

    I’m based out of Seattle.

    So taking into account the points and taxes which is the best destiantion and how many points/$$$$ will it take?

    • Scottrick

      My personal opinion is that Avios are best used for domestic awards within, the US, or select international awards that don’t have fuel surcharges. The real benefit is that Avios awards are cheapest on nonstop flights, and they’re distance based, so it’s incorrect to say that you can only get 4 roundtrip flights with 109,000 Avios. The cheapest award is 9,000 Aviso roundtrip, so you could get up to 12 free roundtrip tickets. Use your points for routes that are short but otherwise expensive, flying on American or Alaska.

      Some examples that come to mind: I live in Seattle (SEA) but my parents live in Santa Rosa, CA (STS). I usually fly into San Francisco because SFO is cheaper. SEA-SFO is a $180 roundtrip flight or 11,000 Avios roundtrip as an award. SEA-STS is a shorter distance but a smaller airport, so it’s normally $250 but only 9,000 Avios roundtrip. I actually have lots of options since SEA is an Alaska Airlines hub with many nonstop flights. My brother lives in Ft Lauderdale now, and I’ve encouraged him to use his to travel to the Caribbean using American Airlines.

  • Keeley

    I’m not new to traveling on points but I have never used them for more than a single RT flight. I see this post is specifiacally for AA do you have any suggestions for me, I have 155k points with AA, another 42k with AMEX MR and 43k with Chase UR. Was really hoping to be able to combine then and figure out an around the world trip. Thanks!

  • FresnoSurfer

    The main problem, however, remains inventory. BA is quite generous in their award inventory. Other One World airlines, however, are not. AA seriously reduced the number of international award seats since announcing the merger with US. QF has always been very stingy on its long haul awards. I believe that the Explorer awards compete for the same dismal inventory.

  • Travelfan

    Hi Amol,

    Your article on the American Explorer Award certainly was an eyeopener.

    I had heard about it before, but never in that much detail.

    We are planning the trip of a life time next October 2014 to May 2015 for our 45th Wedding Anniversary.

    Here is an itinerary I put together and would love to get your advice on
    into what Explorer Award Category this would fall and how many miles
    would I need for business class/first? .

    Oct 02, 2014 – FFM to NRT on JAL (non-stop)

    Oct 06, 2014 – NRT to SYD on Quantas (non-stop)

    Nov 01, 2014 – SYD to PKK on Air China (non-stop)

    Nov 27, 2014 – SIN to BKK on Cathay (non-stop)

    Will take Orient-Express train from Bankok to Singapore

    Dec 06, 2014 – SIN to TPA on AA (SIN-HKG, HKG-ORD, ORD-TPA)

    May 14, 2015 – TPA to MUC on USAir (TPA-PHL, PHL-MUC)

    Is this itinerary doable with an American Explorer Award?

    Any advice you could give me would be greatly appreciated.

  • OneWorldTwoExplorers

    Thanks for the detailed post. This was super helpful for me booking my OneWorld Explorer flight. I’ve shared a few additional details that I learned along the way here:

    http://oneworldtwoexplorers.com/2014/04/06/oneworld-explorer-awards-traveling-the-world-for-under-250-usd/

  • havai

    So is this now completely dead by AA’s no-warning policy changes? Any options left at all?