Sunday Reader Question: Using Avios to Upgrade on American
Update: Some offers mentioned below are no longer available. View the current offers here.
TPG reader Neil asks:
"I came across your website while I was searching a way to use my Amex membership rewards to fly on American Airlines from Las Vegas to Miami. It seemed that transferring from Amex to BA and then using BA to upgrade on AA was the way to go.
So, I enrolled in Avios and booked a coach ticket with cash on AA.com and then tried to upgrade. I can't seem to do so on either website and neither airline's customer service agents could help me.
Did I misunderstand something?"
While you can use Avios to upgrade American Airlines flights, to do so you need to book those flights through British Airways (upgrading using Avios points bookings on British Airways, American Airlines and Iberia flights can only be made online at ba.com or directly with British Airways, and not on bookings made through a travel agent) and they need to be in the following fare classes:
J,C,D (When upgrading from Business to First Class on 3 cabin planes); Y, B (when upgrading to first class on two cabin planes). Those are generally pretty expensive fare classes, so if you were looking to upgrade for cheap, this is not your best option.
For reference, you can also use AA miles to upgrade British Airways flights, even those booked through travel agencies, but "in order to be eligible, your reservation must include at least one flight booked as an AA flight number."
Redeeming Avios for American Flights
If you want a first class flight from Las Vegas to Miami, I'd recommend just redeeming Avios for an award flight. BritishAirways.com just got a refresh, so searching for American Airlines flights is easier than ever, but still not 100% perfect. For example, connecting itineraries rarely show, so you'll need to call British Airways at 1-800-452-1201 to get them booked (always ask them to waive the $25 booking fee, since it is their website that is broken).
I usually use AA.com to find MileSAAver availability and then try to replicate the same results at britishairways.com. I use the month-long calendar search to identify MileSAAver 25,000 mile LAS-MIA awards and found availability on January 16, 2013, and was able to pull up the same flight on britishairways.com.
As you'll see, British Airways charges 3x the price of coach on most domestic first class flights, which is annoying because it should only be 2x since it is actually the equivalent of business class. But still, if you factor in the current 30% transfer bonus from American Express to British Airways, you'd need 29,000 Amex points to book this one-way flight, which is only 4,000 more points than the 25,000 American Airlines miles needed (and sadly you cannot transfer American Express to American Airlines directly). Even though British Airways does require more miles on this route in first class, they do not charge last-minute booking fees, so you'll avoid the $75 fee that American charges for awards booked within 21 days of departure.
If you want to boost your Avios balance with other credit card offers, Chase is also offering the British Airways Visa Signature Card with 50,000 Avios after spending $3,000 in 3 months.