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Booking American Airlines Awards with Partner Programs

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Especially after American’s recent award chart devaluation, it could be worth looking to other frequent flyer programs when you want to book free flights on AA metal. Below, TPG Senior Points & Miles Contributor Richard Kerr evaluates all your options.

You can book stopovers and an open jaw when flying American Airlines on an award ticket, and you can even have a stopover on a one-way American award itinerary. The catch? You can’t book these directly through the AAdvantage program, since it doesn’t allow for stopovers or open jaws. Today, let’s look at some of the ways you can utilize American Airlines partners to book free flights on American metal.

Finding a partner that offers a fantastic value for booking American flights is great, but you also need an easy way to accrue miles in that program. If Russian Oneworld member S7 only charged 7,000 miles for a domestic AA flight (not actually the case; just an example), there would still be no way for you to easily acquire S7 miles.

Here’s a chart showing American partners that allow transferable points to be deposited into their respective programs:

American Express Membership Rewards Chase Ultimate Rewards Citi ThankYou Rewards Starwood Preferred Guest
Air Berlin X
Alaska Airlines X
Cathay Pacific Asia Miles X X X
British Airways X X X
Etihad X X X
Iberia X
Japan Airlines X
LAN Airlines X
Malaysia Airlines X
Qantas X
Qatar Airways X

With the American partners narrowed down to programs you can easily accrue miles in, let’s look at each program and see which offer significant value when booking American-operated flights.

Air Berlin Topbonus

The Air Berlin partner award chart looked fantastic, until I realized it was only showing one-way prices. This means it represents poor value — exceptionally poor value for some regions — and there are better ways to book free AA flights.

The Air Berlin partner chart is astoundingly poor in some areas.
The Air Berlin partner award chart offers astoundingly poor value in some areas.

Alaska Airlines

There are several international routes where American flights will cost less Alaska miles than AAdvantage miles, especially after March’s devaluation. Use Alaska’s new interactive partner award chart to see when it makes more sense to transfer your Starpoints to Alaska rather than AA. Flights in business and first class from the US to Europe, China, Japan, Korea and Europe all cost less Alaska miles than they do AAdvantage miles. You can also save miles when booking with Alaska for flights from the US to South America.

Cathay Pacific Asia Miles

We’ve alluded to the potential of this program before as a Citi ThankYou transfer partner. The value really lies in the ability to do two stopovers, two transfers and one open jaw (at origin, en route or turnaround point) on a round-trip ticket, while one en route stopover is allowed on a one-way ticket.

When an Asia Miles award ticket contains only one partner airline, the following distance-based award chart applies:

The Asia Miles award chart which would apply to tickets only involving AA operated flights.
This Asia Miles award chart would apply to tickets only involving AA-operated flights.

You can use the online award calculator to find out how many miles you need for AA-operated flights for a ticket with up to a total of four sectors.

A round trip itinerary with stops in Charlotte, Dallas, and Chicago would only cost 30,000 Citi ThankYou points.
A round-trip itinerary with stops in Charlotte, Dallas and Chicago would only cost 30,000 Citi ThankYou points.

Flying to Europe in business on American flights less than 5,000 miles in length will only cost you 45,000 miles one-way with a stopover allowed, compared to 57,500 AA miles at the new SAAver level and no stopover allowed.

Fly to Europe in business for only 45,000 Citi ThankYou points or Amex Membership Rewards.
Fly to Europe in business for only 45,000 Citi ThankYou points or Amex Membership Rewards points.

A reasonable, distance-based award chart — in addition to allowing two stopovers and an open jaw on round-trips — makes the itinerary possibilities endless. Here’s an itinerary with a European open jaw and two stopovers back in the States in business class for 120,000 Asia Miles.

A European open jaw with stopovers in PHL and ORD all in business for 120,000 Asia Miles.
A European open jaw with stopovers in PHL and ORD all in business for 120,000 Asia Miles.

There are many different locations you can play with that edge right up to the upper limit of the different award zones to maximize your miles. In my experience, it’s best to avoid filling out the award request form (Asia Miles member services gives itself a whopping seven days to get back in touch with you) and just call Asia Miles at 1-866-892-2598 for the quickest way to get yourself a reservation.

Usually, the agents see the same award space shown at the MileSAAver level on AA.com. However, there’s a theme when booking these often-unused paths for award flights, which you’ll quickly discover when speaking with Asia Miles: You’re completely at the mercy of the phone agent. If you see tons of SAAver space on AA.com and the agent doesn’t see anything, hang up and call again. It’s usually obvious from the beginning of the call what kind of agent you have on the other side of the phone.

Asia Miles is particularly lucrative because you can combine Amex Membership Rewards points, Citi ThankYou points and Starpoints to get yourself the needed Asia Miles for a redemption. That means the sign-up bonuses from the Citi Prestige Card, Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card from American Express and The Platinum Card from American Express (assuming you got in on the recent and often available 100,000-point offer) can get you 170,000 Asia Miles. Given the various transfer partners and great redemption options, it’s surprising that more people don’t pay attention to this program!

British Airways Avios

You can fly individual American Airlines segments less than 650 miles in length for just 7,500 Avios one-way. This offers slightly better value than the new AAdvantage award chart, which charges the same 7,500 miles for short-haul flights, but only on flights less than 500 miles long.

Use Avios to fly American short haul flights in North America for 7,500 Avios.
Use British Airways Avios to fly American short-haul flights for 7,500 Avios.

Booking economy American flights between 651-3,000 miles in length will cost between 7,500 and 12,500 Avios, representing prices better than or equal to AA’s own award chart. Unfortunately BA’s Avios program considers all domestic first-class seats equal to an international first-class product and charges four times the economy-class price for domestic first class. Still, flying from the West Coast to Hawaii on American Airlines in economy for 12,500 Avios is a fantastic way to save your points and miles — AA charges 22,500 miles one-way to Hawaii or 20,000 miles during MileSAAver offppeak dates.

If you are looking to use BA Avios, it may make more sense to transfer Chase Ultimate Rewards at a 1:1 ratio rather than American Express’ new 250:200 ratio.

Etihad Guest

I’ve written recently about the great award flights you book on Etihad partners, and American is no exception to the rule. The great news is Etihad’s partner chart for American Airlines flights matches the pre-devaluation levels of the AA program (Etihad still has not devalued the AA award chart).

Like with Asia Miles, you can book American flights through Etihad Guest using American Express Membership Rewards points, Citi ThankYou points and Starpoints at very reasonable levels. Etihad has separate charts for American flights depending on the departure region.

Etihad's award chart for booking American Airlines operated flights.
Etihad’s award chart for booking American-operated flights from North America. EO and EP are economy off peak and economy peak.

Things become even more interesting when you note the lack of rules for what routings are allowed. Etihad specifically states that one-way awards and stopovers are permitted, but that’s all the rules state. I’ve been able to reserve an itinerary from Paris to New York, with a stopover in New York for a month, then New York to Rio de Janeiro for 70,000 Etihad miles in business class. This required speaking with several agents and having a team leader approve the ticket, but it’s definitely a fantastic value and worth the effort.

Iberia Plus

Unlike British Airways, Iberia charges partner flights on a total round-trip mileage basis, not per segment. This means you don’t have to pay an extra 7,500 Avios to get to an American hub in the US. You can transfer your British Airways Avios to your Iberia Avios account (it could be helpful to transfer some points from Chase Ultimate Rewards to BA) provided both accounts are 90 days old and have had some activity in them. The downside is you can’t book one-way tickets for Oneworld partners on Iberia.com and my research suggests one-way tickets will cost the same as a round-trip. AA space doesn’t even show up on Iberia.com if you’re searching for a one-way ticket.

Iberia's distance based award chart for AA operated flights.
Iberia’s distance-based award chart for AA-operated flights.

Using the above chart, you can come out ahead in several scenarios when using Iberia Avios over BA Avios. If you wanted to fly to the beach from Washington, D.C. via a DCA-CLT-MYR-CLT-DCA ticket on AA, it would cost you 30,000 British Airways Avios or between 15,000-25,000 AA miles. The same flight costs only 12,000 Iberia Avios — a nice savings.

Japan Airlines Mileage Bank

Booking American flights with Japan Airlines miles was considerably easier when JAL didn’t block accounts registered in North America from using the online partner award-booking tool. You now have to call to book an award ticket, but assuming you find availability, you can make an amazing itinerary consisting of up to three stopovers and one open jaw for few miles. Take a look at the distance based JAL Partner award chart:

There are plenty of sweet spots here in the JAL Partner award chart.
There are plenty of sweet spots in the JAL partner award chart.

If you begin to look at about the fourth or fifth zone, you’ll see you can fly 2,000-4,000 more miles on a ticket and the incremental cost is only 1,000-5,000 more JAL miles, even in business class. A business-class itinerary that’s 10,000 miles in length — with three stopovers — will only cost 65,000 JAL miles or 55,000 Starpoints with the 5,000-mile bonus for every 20,000 points transferred. That’s a heck of a deal!

Malaysia Airlines Enrich

Surprisingly, there are savings here compared to the miles AAdvantage charges. Not surprisingly, though, the process of trying to use Enrich miles is horrendous. The website had been broken but is up again, but it’s tough to even speak to someone on the phone; and I’ve been told I have to go to a Malaysia Airlines ticket office to pick up my ticket. Just… don’t.

The Malaysia Airlines Enrich partner chart has some decent prices, but the program is just too hard to use.
The Malaysia Airlines Enrich partner chart has some decent prices, but the program is just too hard to use.

Qantas Frequent Flyer

Qantas Frequent Flyer gets the award for least creative program name. Last year when Citi announced the Australian carrier as a ThankYou transfer partner, I analyzed the potential to utilize Qantas for value, and I didn’t find much. There are better options for booking your American flights.

Qatar Privilege Club

An expensive distance-based award chart that does not reveal any sweet spots means this is a bad way to book your American Airlines flights.

The Qatar partner award chart is not a thing of beauty.
The Qatar partner award chart is not a thing of beauty.

Bottom Line

Between Alaska, Asia Miles, the two Avios programs and Etihad, there are several options you should consider besides American’s own AAdvantage program when you’re looking to book a free AA flight. It only gets better for these programs as it’s easy to quickly build up a large bonus since all except Alaska have multiple transferable point partners. American itself is only transfer partners with Starwood, making it more difficult to quickly build a significant balance of AAdvantage miles. The limiting factor when using partners over the AAdvantage program itself will always be availability, but as American continues to make SAAver availability rare anyways, why not look to the other programs?

Have you used a partner program to book a free American flight?

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