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Will I Earn AAdvantage Miles Based on Distance or Price?

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TPG reader Ben emailed me to ask about earning AAdvantage miles:

“I know American Airlines is changing how miles are earned in the second half of 2016, but if I purchase a ticket now for a flight in October, will I earn miles based on the current system (flight distance) or the new system (ticket price)?”

Last fall, American Airlines announced major changes to the AAdvantage program, including a devaluation of the award chart and plans to adopt a revenue-based system for mileage accrual. While redemption rates have already been updated, the new earning rates won’t take effect until the second half of 2016. Ben wants to know if he can purchase tickets now and earn miles based on the distance flown, rather than the price of his fare. The short answer is probably not, but there are a few exceptions.

American Airlines spells out the new rules pretty clearly in its description of the AAdvantage program updates, and even addresses this specific question in the award miles FAQ. To paraphrase, miles will be awarded based on the policy in effect when you travel, not when you buy your ticket. However, there’s still some uncertainty there — we’ve been told the change will take place in the second half of 2016, but we don’t know when. It could be as early as July, but I think American would have announced the date by now if that were the case.

Ben isn’t flying until October, but it’s possible that he’ll still earn miles based on the current system. That could be helpful if you’re planning a mileage run, since many flights will be less rewarding once miles are awarded based on the ticket price. American already increased EQM earning rates this year, so it won’t make a difference which system is in place for those targeting AAdvantage elite status.

Cathay Pacific plane over Hong Kong banner
Your mileage may be calculated differently if your flight is marketed by Cathay Pacific or another partner airline.

Keep in mind that those new earning rates apply to flights marketed by American Airlines. Flights marketed by partner airlines (but credited to the AAdvantage program) will mostly earn miles based on a percentage of the distance flown, with bonuses awarded for some premium fares. That also applies to some vacation packages and other tickets where the fare isn’t disclosed. It’s not clear yet whether those partner-earning rates will also be adjusted in the second half of 2016, so stay tuned for more information if you’re ticketed with Cathay Pacific, British Airways or another carrier.

As with Delta and United in previous years, there will be winners and losers in the new program. The shift to a revenue-based program has numerous effects on leisure travelers, but overall I think it underscores the importance of earning points and miles through other channels (like credit card spending and partner bonuses). Award travelers can take some comfort in the fact that American Airlines hasn’t adopted a revenue requirement for elite status, and that Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan has no plans to go revenue-based (for now).

For more on how to maximize the AAdvantage program post-devaluation, check out these posts:

If you have any other questions, please tweet me @thepointsguy, message me on Facebook or send me an email at info@thepointsguy.com.

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