In early April, as Matthew and Rocky reported, American Airlines announced several changes to the AAdvantage loyalty program, to the howls of protest among frequent fliers due to the lack of notice provided. Although the capacity controlled “Mile SAAver” award levels didn’t change, some major changes were made to “AAnytime” awards, which can be used on any flight with an open seat. Although a new “off-peak” AAnytime award level (known as Level 1) was introduced that reduced the number of miles required – for example, a one-way Economy award to Europe in the off-peak bucket is 45,000 miles, vs. 60,000 in the old system – base AAnytime awards (now known as Level 2) were devalued, sometimes substantially. As an example, Europe business class awards went from 100,000 miles each way to 135,000, a 35% devaluation. Even off-peak awards cost more than the old AAnytime award at 110,000 miles each way. But what I found most troublesome was the introduction of a nebulous “Level 3” AAnytime award, with an award amount that isn’t published on AA’s website. The only thing you see on the AAdvantage redemption information page is that Level 3 awards apply “on a few select dates and will require higher number of miles to redeem”. I was curious to see what “a few select dates” would mean in practice, and also, whether AA would follow the “lead” of Delta’s SkyPesos program in making Mile SAAver awards increasingly difficult to get.
Well, over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been working on using my old stockpile of AAdvantage miles to obtain a pair of free tickets to Europe next June for a planned family cruise. I’m happy to report that I was able to score two business class tickets DFW-BCN and MAD-DFW, and at the Mile SAAver level to boot. And I didn’t even have to use British Airways and subject myself to their fuel surcharges (more on that later). The entire search experience also gave me a pretty good picture of what AA’s award redemption system looks like in the brave new world of the new award chart. While the news isn’t all bad, I do have to say the whole Level 3 business isn’t looking too good.
A quick note before I begin: I do not consider myself a true miles & points junkie. Sure, I participate in several programs, and try to take advantage of things like double points promotions when they’re available and they make sense, but I don’t do things like: take circuitous connecting flights to gain more miles or segments, churn credit cards, spend more money on things like electricity just to get miles (a column on that is forthcoming), etc. Now, this is not meant to disparage people who do these kinds of things – I have no problem with any of it. I just personally don’t have the time or see the value proposition, but to each his own.
Anyway, I’ll use the routing for our cruise next summer as the example for this article, DFW to Barcelona (BCN) on the outbound, and Madrid (MAD) to DFW on the inbound. The cruise actually goes Barcelona to Rome, but I found far more options flying home from Madrid, so we’ll just find our own way from Rome to Madrid; that’s not all that hard to do given how cheap short haul flights are within Europe. The AAdvantage calendar for June 2015 shows the following availability for Economy and Business Mile SAAver awards (Economy is first, Business is second) from DFW to BCN.
Economy Mile SAAver is available on 10 out of 22 days, and Business Mile SAAver is available on 8 out of 22 (awards only go 331 days out, so June 22nd is as far in advance you could book when I took these screenshots and wrote this piece). Combined, a Mile SAAver award is available on 13 out of 22 days in June, which is an approximately 59% success rate. That’s not fantastic, but it’s not terrible, as long as your dates are somewhat flexible.
Coming back from Madrid, we get the following (again, Economy first and Business second).
Business is available on 7 out of 22 days, but Economy is wide open at 17 out of 22 days. In all, 18 out of 22 days, or approximately 82% of total days, are available at the Mile SAAver rate. So far, so good. But look what happens when I change the filter to “Economy AAnytime”:
You’ll quickly notice that a whopping 7 out of 22 days, or nearly 1/3 of the total days available in June, have been designated “Level 3” days, and the Economy AAnytime price has been jacked up from the normal peak rate of 65,000 miles one-way to 110,000 miles – or nearly FOUR TIMES the Economy Mile SAAver rate.
So what’s the problem here? While it doesn’t appear that Mile SAAver awards have been ratcheted down to SkyPesos territory, I’m not pleased at all about what I’m seeing with the proliferation of dates designated “Level 3”. Blacking out nearly 1/3 of the days in a month as Level 3 is clearly more than just a “few select dates”, and it sure looks like AA intends to designate pretty much every weekend during the summer as “Level 3” and subject to the higher rate (and 110,000 miles for a one-way Economy ticket is truly outrageous). Interestingly enough, though, even on dates designated as subject to Level 3 AAnytime awards, Mile SAAvers are available on about half of those dates, so at the end of the day, you only end up with 2 days on the outbound and 3 days on the inbound where you have no choice but to book a Level 3 AAnytime award. I have to applaud AA for at least keeping that window open; they could have easily taken the SkyPesos approach and made Level 3 AAnytime the only option. Incidentally, we’re flying back from MAD on June 14th, and were able to secure two business class Mile SAAver tickets at the time (apparently we grabbed the only two available). It should also be noted that there are rumors that Level 3 awards will be “dynamically priced”, meaning redemption levels may rise and fall over time, or may just revert back to regular Level 2 (AAnytime Peak) pricing depending on demand, or lack thereof.
But in short, my problem isn’t with the decision to charge more miles for peak travel dates – it’s a free country, and AA can do whatever they want – but the rather shady way this is being done, with no disclosure of the amount of miles that will be needed and that Level 3 pricing is not limited, contratry to what AA says, to a “few select dates”. If this is indeed going to be used as a de facto peak season surcharge, then they need to come clean about and at least post the number of miles needed on the award chart.
I would say there are a few lessons here. First, reasonably priced awards are still out there for the taking, but with the introduction of Level 3 surcharge dates, it pays to be flexible. For example, just coming home from MAD on the 22nd instead of the 21st drops the mileage requirement back down to the normal peak AAnytime level. For that matter, if you have the flexibility to travel during the off-season, a quick perusal of the award calendar shows plenty of Mile SAAver availability, for instance, for flights from DFW to London in March and April. You can also pay up to the off-peak AAnytime award at 45,000 miles each way, which comes with benefits like priority security and Main Cabin Extra seating available at no charge. If you absolutely must fly on certain dates, for example, to catch a cruise, it pays to plan ahead just as soon as you are able. We managed to grab 2 seats outbound on June 4th and inbound on June 14th, and there was plenty of Business Mile SAAver availability for the first few days after seats became available – but they’re long gone now. Most importantly, this is a limited example using only AA’s online booking tool, which limits flights to a few select carriers. Furthermore, AA’s online system seems to sneakily steer Mile SAAver redemptions to BA, which can involve several hundred dollars per ticket in fuel surcharges depending on where you are coming from/where you are going. It is probably worth calling AA to check on options with other Oneworld participating airlines, even if it means going out of your way a little bit. Or take advantage of fellow blogger Matthew’s Award Expert Service, and let him do the work for you.