My Positive Experience Using American AAdvantage Miles to Upgrade Domestically
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I'm currently knee-deep in a status challenge with American Airlines due to my participation in the Oneworld Mega Do in January. American is allowing any participant who has status on another airline to do a challenge to get comparable elite status on them. Since I am a current Delta Diamond, they challenged me to fly 20,000 miles between October 9, 2011 and January 13, 2012 in order to attain the super coveted Executive Platinum status - which normally isn't given or challenged to anyone. The prize is pretty worthwhile since I'll get 8 super-valuable system-wide upgrades as an Executive Platinum - plus complimentary domestic upgrades.
I have a lot of travel planned in January, but my only issue is that I currently have no status with American, which means those 20,000 miles would have to be in coach, which is fine normally, but I can't even select exit row seats - which is a non-negotiable aspect if my 6'7" frame wants to ride in coach. I honestly just can't fit in normal coach seats - especially if someone in front of me reclines.
So what about buying business class? Well that's not a great idea either - my China trip would have been $6,000 and an upcoming San Francisco run would have been $2,700. Yikes.
Luckily, my buddy Rick the Frugal Travel Guy had a couple spare Systemwide Upgrades leftover and gave them to me for my China trip - so I was able to buy the cheapest coach fare at about $1,500 and get confirmed business class on all legs. Score.
However, I still needed to go Miami to San Francisco and San Francisco to New York and I wasn't keen on shelling out $2,700 and I didn't want to use miles to book an award because I want to take advantage of American's Double Elite Qualifying Mile promotion that lasts until January 31, 2012. So I loaded up my ExpertFlyer account and pulled up upgrade inventory on the days I needed to travel and lo and behold there was plenty of space. For help using Expertflyer to find award and upgrade availability, check out this post.
So this allowed me to book the cheapest coach fares: a $190 Miami - Dallas - San Francisco fare and a $160 nonstop San Francisco - JFK and then use 30,000 miles and $150 to upgrade to confirmed business class on all legs.
My total cost: $500 and 30,000 miles instead of paying $2,700. So essentially those 30,000 miles saved me $2,200 or about 7.3 cents per mile. Since I'm getting double EQMs on this trip, I'll net over 10,000 EQMs for the trip - and while 5 cents per elite mile isn't great - this is a business trip I had to take anyway, so I can't complain (plus it's a writeoff!).
Note: everyone's valuation of miles and business class vary greatly - but in my case I place extreme value on business class for flights longer than 3 hours and I have paid for discounted business class in the past since a regular coach seat isn't an option for me. Once I have my Executive Platinum status, I'll take more risks with upgrades clearing, but until then I love knowing that all of my double EQM and status challenge travel is confirmed in business class. Another factor for me is that I have way more miles than I personally use - especially since I pay for a lot of my travel to maintain my elite status (and since I don't want to use miles for business trips).
FYI even if you find upgrade space on ExpertFlyer, you should still put your aa.com itinerary on hold and then call to ticket and process the upgrades all at once. My phone rep waived the $25 booking fee since I had put the reservation on hold on AA.com and I was calling to process the mileage upgrade which you can't do online.
Of course I put the $500 charge on my American Express® Gold Card card which gave me 3 points per dollar on the airfare and I just hit the 15,000 point bonus for spending $30,000 within a calendar year. If you have this card, you should check to see if you are close to the $30,000 mark because the counter resets on January 1.