I got a lot of positive feedback when I wrote up an introduction to Alaska Airlines’ award travel rules, so I decided to do the same for the other major loyalty programs. Today’s spot goes to American Airlines.
Besides Alaska, the two carriers whose miles I use the most are American Airlines and United Airlines. I have or have had top-tier status with all three and so I’ve earned a lot of miles and had to find useful ways to redeem them. I think they’re great programs in different ways.
Table of Contents and Related Posts
- Compare Award Prices from Different Loyalty Programs
- Introduction to American AAdvantage Awards
- Find Award Space on the American Airlines Website
- Find Award Space on the British Airways and Qantas Websites
- Find Award Space on the Alaska Airlines Website (coming soon)
- Find Award Space Using ExpertFlyer (coming soon)
- American AAdvantage Routing Rules
- American AAdvantage Fees and Surcharges
What it comes down to is how you earn and what you want to do with them. The key thing to remember is that even if you’re traveling on a partner airline, you need to follow the rules of the program that holds your miles. Alaska and American have a lot of the same partners, but one of them usually makes more sense than the other for certain awards. I’ll point out in this post some places where Alaska’s miles might make more sense.
Rule #1: One-way and Open Jaw Itineraries Are Permitted
American Airlines allows one-way awards at half the round-trip price. (Check out the AA award chart. There must be MileSAAver award space to book on partners other than American or US Airways.) Naturally, open jaw awards are also permitted by combining the cost of two one-way awards. One of the nice things about American is that the cost of many first class awards is only marginally more than business class.
American also has a search tool that displays all the places you can go with your miles on an interactive map. One problem is that it doesn’t do a very good job of searching for travel on partners or for days with the cheapest awards. In the example below, it’s showing me an award in coach at the “AAnytime” price that costs more miles, but I could pay less than that to fly first class on a partner with better award availability. Flexibility is key. I generally recommend searching on the British Airways or Qantas websites if you need to find space on American’s partners.
Rule #2: No Stopovers Are Permitted
American Airlines doesn’t allow stopovers. Period. Delta Air Lines also doesn’t allow them, so I guess they’re not alone. But it is annoying given so many other restrictions that follow. United Airlines and Alaska Airlines are very flexible by comparison. (British Airways is also flexible, but only because you pay for each segment separately.)
Rule #3: The Trans-Oceanic Carrier Must Publish a Fare
One of the best ways to use miles is to book international fares, particularly in the business and first class cabins of foreign carriers with more sumptuous facilities than our domestic airlines. However, American Airlines requires that the award itinerary you book must have a matching revenue fare. Something about how if you couldn’t pay cash for such and such ticket, then you shouldn’t be able to redeem miles either.
For example, Cathay Pacific is a great airline and the one I would choose if traveling between the U.S. and most of Asia. But you’ll probably have to fly some combination of American Airlines and Alaska Airlines to reach your U.S. gateway, and once in Asia you might be flying other partners. The issue is that if you want to fly Cathay Pacific over the Pacific Ocean, you’ll need to make sure that Cathay Pacific has a published fare between your origin and destination — not just the two gateways.
This rule can be a problem for some international flights, but it’s not as bad as you would think. It’s obvious that Cathay Pacific would publish fares between San Francisco and Hong Kong. I’ve also found published fares between Abilene, Texas, and Siem Reap, Cambodia. It’s definitely possible to book an award between those two relatively small airports and enjoy the comforts of a premium carrier over the ocean.
But it makes sense because both cities are served by one or another oneworld Alliance carrier. Other small airports like Medford, Oregon, are served by non-alliance partners including Alaska Airlines. That’s one notch down the hierarchy, so it’s not too surprising that Cathay hasn’t gotten around to publishing a fare from Medford to Cambodia. As I said, it’s a rare issue but one that can still trip you up when everything else looks good.
The easiest way to search for published fares is a paid service like ExpertFlyer, as I detailed in an earlier post. You might also be able to use ITA Matrix to do something similar for free, looking at the fare breakdown on the final page to see if ITA lists one fare or two.
Sometimes when a published fare doesn’t existing between two cities the solution is to combine two or more separate fares within the same ticket. It’s a pretty seamless process for revenue tickets, and most people never notice. It can even be cheaper. But for award travel, it will mean booking separate awards and redeeming more miles.
Rule #4: Must Not Transit through a Third Region
American Airlines’ award chart publishes prices to get from region A to region B. There is a general rule that you may not pass through a third region to get between those points. For example, when traveling from North America to North Asia (Japan) you may not pass through South Asia.
Exceptions to the Third Region Rule
Not every place on the planet has convenient, non-stop flights. It’s natural that you might have to make a connection. American has a very specific list of exceptions that allow you to transit a third region:
|North America||Asia Zone 2||Asia Zone 1|
|North America||Africa||Europe or Doha|
|North America||Indian Subcontinent||Europe or Hong Kong|
|North America||Middle East||Europe|
|Central and South America||Middle East, Africa, and India||Europe|
|Central and South America Zone 1||South Pacific||South America Zone 2|
|South America Zone 2||Africa||Doha|
|Europe||Asia Zone 1||Asia Zone 2 or Doha|
|Europe||Asia Zone 2||Doha|
|Europe||South Pacific||Asia Zone 1 or 2|
|India and Middle East||Asia Zone 1||Asia Zone 2|
|India and Middle East||South Pacific||Asia Zone 2|
|Africa||Asia Zone 1||Asia Zone 2 or Doha|
|Africa||Asia Zone 2||Doha|
|Asia Zone 1||South Pacific||Asia Zone 2|
Rule #5: Must Not Exceed Maximum Permitted Mileage + 25%
The International Air Transport Association publishes a maximum permitted mileage, or MPM, between every city pair. This is proprietary information that you can typically only access through paid services like ExpertFlyer and KVS Tool. Just enter your origin and destination.
What American Airlines is saying is that you can book as many connecting flights as you want to get from A to B, but the total distance traveled cannot exceed 125% of the MPM. They’re giving you a buffer, and it’s a pretty generous one. Not once have I been tripped up because the MPM was too low. But to check yourself before you try to book, a tool like GCMap.com can be used to enter your itinerary and calculate the total distance.
Rule #6: Must Book the Most Direct Routing
It’s as simple as it sounds. American Airlines requires that passengers book their award using the most direct routing available. What’s more nuanced are the various exceptions to this rule.
Exceptions to the Direct Routing Rule
Obviously a “direct” routing is open to interpretation. You will generally be okay as long as you keep moving in a forward direction without backtracking. However, this isn’t always possible. Consider that to fly west on American Airlines to Honolulu, I first need to fly east from Seattle to Los Angeles. Or there may be no West Coast departures on Cathay Pacific to Hong Kong, so I could have to fly as far as Chicago or New York.
Indirect routings are permissible as long as you can justify it. Do you need to travel on specific dates? Is there no availability on other flights? Are no alternative connecting airports available? If the path you want to take really is the only way to do it, then make your case to the agent.
But if you’re like me and pick all your flights in advance before calling, maybe you keep that information to yourself …at first. “I’d like to fly to Hong Kong on the 21st. …Oh, there’s no award space from any West Coast gateways? …Well, could you suggest another airport? …Yes, I’m willing to fly out of New York. Thank you very much!”
Some Ways Are More Direct Than Others
American has made up its mind that there’s only one way to reach some destinations:
- From North America to Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, travel must occur via the Atlanta Ocean.
- From North America to Asia and the South Pacific, travel must occur via the Pacific Ocean.
- From North America to Fiji and Tahiti, travel must not occur via Australia or New Zealand.
Fortunately, North America encompasses mainland areas as well as Hawaii and the Caribbean. This is especially helpful in the last case when trying to reach Fiji and Tahiti. Too bad you won’t be allowed a stopover as you pass through Honolulu.
American Airlines will only add fuel surcharges for travel on British Airways and Iberia. This can be a concern for some people because BA sometimes has better availability to Europe than American does. Even though American doesn’t have fuel surcharges on its own flights, that might not be an option for getting to Europe.
Once you find an award it can be placed on hold for up to 5 days. But after it’s booked you cannot cancel or change your ticket without a penalty, even within the first 24 hours.
There are a few other fees you might get stuck with. Those who have Executive Platinum elite status won’t pay any fees to book, change, or cancel award tickets. You can just skip this part. Keep in mind that any fees you do pay are determined by the elite status of the person whose miles were used to book the award, not the elite status of the passenger. General members and those with lower status will face up to three different fees:
$25-35 telephone reservations fee — If you need to call to book your award, you’ll pay $25 per ticket for domestic award and $35 for those that involve international travel. You can ask the agent to waive this fee if it was not possible to book online (certain partners and complex awards, for example).
$75 close-in ticketing fee — American charges $75 per ticket when you book that travel at the “last minute,” which it defines as within 21 days of departure. That’s often when some of the best award space appears. I value my Executive Platinum status with American highly because I often change my awards one or two times before departure as better options become available.
$150 change or cancellation fee — Finally, there is a $150 fee to change an award or to cancel it and get the mile refunded. It’s not too bad when you consider that this fee only applies to the first passenger. Additional passengers on the same reservation pay only $25 each.