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With recent United and Delta award chart devaluations, American Airlines and its mergerpartner US Airways are looking like better options than ever when it comes to booking awards – at least while their award charts remain as they are now with sweet spots like American’s Off-Peak awards to South America and Europe, and US Airways’ business class awards to North Asia (90,000 miles) and South Africa or the South Pacific (110,000 miles).
But what makes American’s awards in particular even better is the airline’s routing rules that allow you to build in a stopover at its North American gateway cities on international awards from which the international portion of your itinerary departs or arrives. That means that with some creative planning, you can pretty much add on another award flight within North America (which includes Canada, the Caribbean, Alaska and Hawaii in addition to the continental US) for free.
How To Do It
American Airlines allows a stopover at the North American gateway on international awards (the city you fly in/out of out of North America). For example, if you fly Shanghai-Los Angeles-Miami, you can stop in LA on the way to/from Shanghai. The airline also allows stopovers on one-way awards, giving you an extra layer of flexibility and the ability to build in more flights in both directions of your itinerary
Let’s be realistic about this, though. If you’re going from Shanghai to Miami via Los Angeles as in the example above, you probably don’t have a huge amount of extra time to spend in LA – or you might not even be interested in a stopover. However, is if you are already based in a hub like Los Angeles and are just interested in flying from there anyway, then you can just add on that extra flight to Miami (or wherever else you wanted to go in North America) at a later date – as long as you book it at the same time as your international award. Then you can change it later on depending on when you actually want to fly. American will let you change the dates as long as the origin and destination remain the same. So you’re pretty much adding on another free one-way ticket to your award, and AA is not going to charge you any more miles to do so – which can equate to huge value.
An added bonus-American also counts Alaska, Hawaii, Canada and the Caribbean as North America when traveling to/from other regions like Europe, Asia and the Middle East, so you can also add on flights to those destinations even though when you originate in the continental US and travel to these other North American locations, they are classified as a separate region. This allows is the ability to build in free trips to Hawaii or the Caribbean on top of just flying around the US and Canada.
For another quick example, if you wanted to fly from New York JFK-Paris. That award will cost you 60,000 miles in coach roundtrip (40,000 Off-Peak). However, Honolulu to Paris also costs 60,000 miles and you can stopover in New York since JFK is the international gateway along your itinerary. So instead of JFK-CDG-JFK, you could book: HNL-LAX-JFK, build in your stopover for whatever time frame you want (within the rules I’ll get to below) and then continue to Paris for the main trip you were booking at the later date that you want. You’ve basically just built in a free trip from Honolulu to New York before that Paris trip for free, plus you can go back after the trip or to another North American city of your choice.
Speaking of rules, there is no maximum length of stay stated, but all award travel on a single itinerary must be completed within a year of the date an award ticket is issued, so just keep that in mind. Not only that, but American does impose certain limits on these – you can’t, for example, fly from LAX to JFK and stop there then fly to Sydney from there since you’d be going backwards and over the maximum permitted mileage of 25% over the direct route’s mileage. The itinerary has to make a bit of sense, but even within those parameters, there is a ton of room to play.
My Experience: Recife-MIA, MIA-Hawaii
I recently used this technique when flying from Recife, Brazil to Miami. The business class ticket for that route cost me 50,000 American miles and $35. However, with the international gateway stopover rule in mind, I was able to tack on a trip from Miami to Kauai for later in the year for just $5 more and no extra miles. So for 50,000 miles total I flew from Recife- Miami (stop for 11 months) and then from Miami to Los Angeles to Kauai- all for the same amount of miles if I would have just flown from Recife to Miami, plus $5 for the Hawaii legs.
I was pretty happy to get such a good deal on these flights (and hey, plan an unexpected Hawaiian getaway as well) – not bad for one half of the current sign-up bonus for the Citi Executive AAdvantage World Mastercard, which I was just approved for a second time. That leaves me the other 50,000 miles left.
I’ve already done the trip back from Miami to Recife, and I have the Kauai portion to look forward to next spring. Luckily, I can change the dates, so the Hawaii portion of the award is flexible, meaning I can change it later as long as I make sure to use the ticket within one year of my original trip from Recife to Miami and the origin and destination stay the same. Now, I will of course have to book a one-way back from Hawaii to Miami at a separate cost, but considering a one-way award ticket would have cost me 37,500 miles from Miami to Lihue in business class, I took advantage of a great opportunity to fly there for no extra miles! Then when I do go to book my return to Miami, you can bet that I’ll tack on an international itinerary at a later date to maximize these award routing rules again.
TPG Managing Editor Eric Rosen also used this trick to his advantage on another amazing redemption. He has to get back from New York to LA in July and was just checking out award prices on American. He found a business class award on the new A321T that flies JFK-LAX for 25,000 miles and $5. Eric loves Australia and apparently didn’t think the three weeks he spent there in February were enough, so he looked for dates later this year and found a few where there were business class awards on Qantas showing up on AA.com from LAX to both Sydney (on the A380) and Brisbane (on a 747) in November and December for 62.500 miles and $38 one way. Still not satisfied, he used AA.com to check on Qantas flights within Australia and found segments that would take him to a town in Western Australia called Broome where he can go out to snorkel Ningaloo Reef or explore the Outback of the Kimberley region.
He plugged in all the dates together and the entire itinerary, with the transcontinental flight in July and the one-way in Qantas business to Broome later this year, and the award priced out at a total of 62,500 miles and $43- not bad since New York- Los Angeles would have cost 25,000 miles if booked without the Australia legs.
That’s a pretty amazing value – but even more so considering that to get to Australia and then all the way across the continent in business class on Qantas, he’s paying just 37,500 more miles than he would have for the transcon business class award seat.
Give It A Try
This workaround isn’t for everyone – after all, it basically amounts to speculatively booking an extra award in the future that you’ll have to stay on top of with dates and award availability, but saving tends of thousands of miles can definitely be worth the extra time if you’re willing to put in the effort and be a little flexible.
To read more about international gateway stopovers and my experiences with them, check out the following posts: