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With imminent United and Delta award chart devaluations, American Airlines and its merger partner US Airways are looking like better and better options when it comes to booking mileage 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 like 90,000 miles to North Asia and 110,000 miles to South Africa or the South Pacific.

However, one of the most often-overlooked ways to maximize American Airlines awards is to take advantage of the rules on international travel that allow you to make a stopover in the North American international gateway city from which the international portion of your itinerary departs, or where it arrives. With a little creative planning, that means you can essentially add on another free award flight within North America (which is more than just the continental US).

Why not add on another flight as part of your award?
Why not add on another flight as part of your award?

Per American Airlines, a stopover is allowed at the North American gateway (the city you fly in/out of). For example, if you fly Tokyo-Los Angeles-Chicago, you can stop in Los Angeles on the way to/from Tokyo. The great thing about American’s rules is that the airline allows stopovers on one-way awards, giving you an extra layer of flexibility.

Now, chances are if you’re going from Tokyo to Chicago 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. Where this gets interesting, however, is if you are already in a hub like Los Angeles, then you can just add on an extra flight to Chicago (or wherever) at a later date as long as you book it at the same time, 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.

Thinking beyond just the continental US, though, on these awards, 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 (note, when you originate in the 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.

For example, if you wanted to fly from New York JFK-London-JFK, that award will cost you 60,000 miles in coach roundtrip (40,000 off-peak). However, Honolulu to London also costs 60,000 miles and you can “stop” in JFK. So instead of JFK-LHR-JFK, you could book: HNL-DFW-JFK (Stop), JFK-LHR.

So now for a few of the rules on these stopovers. 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.

Use the Oneworld route map to determine which hubs you can take advantage of.
Use the Oneworld route map to determine which hubs you can take advantage of.

You can check out the Oneworld route map to find out which airlines fly out of which international gateways in North America and plan your route and connections accordingly.

Also, just because your desired stopover city is an international gateway from which flights to your destination are available doesn’t mean you can plan a stopover there. Your route must fall within the maximum permitted mileage – which is generally 25% over the direct routing mileage. So, for instance, you can’t usually fly from New York to Los Angeles then to London from there. It has to make sense and follow the Oneworld route map.

Los Angeles to New York…Plus Oman

I recently took advantage of these routing rules on my return trip from Los Angeles to New York. I wanted to try out American’s new A321 First Class cabin and easily found award space on my travel dates last week. The award ticket for the one-way first class flight would have cost me 32,500 miles by itself.

Screen Shot 2014-01-24 at 4.02.41 PM

However, I have also been toying around with the idea of flying to the Middle East this spring to check out Qatar and Oman thanks to Qatar Airways’ entrance into Oneworld and the ability to redeem American miles for flights on the airline. I did a quick search for dates later this spring and found some first class award availability in April (I used to find Qatar award space and then called AA to book).

I found dates pretty quickly and called in to book the entire award with a Muscat leg that the AA rep was able to see, ending up with the following itinerary:

Screen Shot 2014-01-24 at 2.04.29 PMAll in first class including my LAX-JFK leg. I’m not thrilled about the London leg on American (though it’s onboard one of the new 777-300’s), so I’ll try to change that at a later date.

The total cost of this ticket ended up being 90,000 miles per the partner airlines chart – including the portion of the ticket from LAX-JFK that would have been 32,500 on its own. That means for an extra 57,500, I was getting a first class ticket to the Middle East – which would have cost 90,000 to book separately if I hadn’t thought ahead. Granted, I’ll probably have to change my dates and hope award availability opens up later on, but with my schedule flexibility, I am definitely going to be able to use this award at some point within the permitted window and I ended up saving myself a ton of miles.

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.

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