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Earning a Ton of AA Miles with a Premium Cabin Mileage Run

Feb. 25, 2016
13 min read
American Airlines A321 landing featured
Earning a Ton of AA Miles with a Premium Cabin Mileage Run
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Today, TPG Contributor (and pro photographer) Patrick T. Fallon explains how he racked up thousands of AAdvantage miles with a mileage run ahead of the program's upcoming devaluation. Between TPG posts, follow his photo work and travels on Instagram. (All photos by the author.)

As TPG detailed in November AA has done away with EQPs, opting for only elite-qualifying miles (EQMs) and elite-qualifying segments (EQSs). AA will also be shifting to a revenue-based program for awarding redeemable miles earned for each ticket. With this in mind, I've set a personal goal to earn AAdvantage Executive Platinum status in the first half of this year so I can receive the maximum 11 miles per dollar spent moving forward.

With a mix of personal, discounted long-haul travel and expensive last-minute flights for work, I suspect I won't lose too heavily and may find myself opting to book more nonstops with greater convenience. For elite miles, this new structure means I can combine both the EQM bonuses of premium travel with the basic EQMs earned on AA for fares that would have previously only awarded 0.5 EQPs. There is also an extra incentive now to look for premium-cabin mileage run deals that will earn 2 EQMs.

You still have time before March 1 to fly and secure some extra 500-mile upgrades before the EQM requirement jumps to 12,500 EQM from 10,000 EQM.
If you fly by March 1 you can secure some extra 500-mile upgrades before the EQM requirement jumps to 12,500 EQMs from 10,000 EQMs. In the example above, flying back on Feb. 29 would have cost thousands more.

I first saw this mileage run to Panama on FlyerTalk, and it's still bookable via Google flights — currently for about $860, but I've seen it even lower. My ticket cost $834.60. Using the multi-city search on Google Flights, you can route LAX-JFK-MIA-PTY, return. What's really important here is the LAX-JFK legs can be booked on the A321T with lie-flat business-class seats, but depending on your dates, you may need to pay a few hundred dollars more to route through JFK. If you don't care about flying on the excellent transcontinental service, you can find other and cheaper routings through DFW and CLT — but it may not be worth the trade-off.

Look carefully for the Airbus 321 with Lie Flat seats on the LAX-JFK transcontinental service.
Look for the Airbus 321 with lie-flat seats on the LAX-JFK transcontinental service.

Pairing the Mileage Run with a Status Challenge

This can also be combined for a Platinum status challenge, which requires earning 12,500 EQMs. This one trip would effectively give you Platinum status through the challenge. Then you're on your merry way to earning Executive Platinum for the rest of the year. My mileage run to Panama earned me 18,864 EQMs. With the class of service bonus, my Platinum status 100% mile bonus and the current premium cabin bonus I earned a whopping 27,082 redeemable miles — worth $460 based on TPG's current monthly valuations.

If I already had Executive Platinum status, I would have received even more miles. The 18,864 EQMs also earned me almost eight 500-mile upgrades — four upgrades for each 10,000 EQMs. This changes on March 1, at which point you'll need 12,500 EQMs to earn four 500-mile upgrades and the price will increase soon to $40 each if you buy them online or at the airport. For the most part I'm saving my 500s for future companion upgrades once I have Executive Platinum status, but you could "value" the (nearly) eight I earned at $320 based on the new price.

With all of these intricate details in mind, my friend and fellow photographer Stuart Palley did his own South America mileage run. He called up AAdvantage for a Platinum challenge at a cost of $200 — even better, his Platinum Card from American Express reimbursed the cost thanks to its annual $200 fee credit, though your experience may vary.

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He flew to Quito, Ecuador instead of Panama, but the premise was the same. His trip made for some great photos and secured him Platinum benefits on his return flight, earning 21,408 EQMs for $960 — a bit more expensive but a great experience in Quito. If Quito or Panama don't interest you, keep looking around and explore the different options on Google Flights.

If you're pregnant or may become pregnant, be aware of any health advisories related to the outbreak of the Zika Virus, which may be discouraging others from traveling to South America. However, the World Health Organization (WHO) has not proposed any travel restrictions to Panama.

$807 RT all in business and first class, with a boatload of EQMs.
$807 round-trip all in business and first class, with a boatload of EQMs. Look carefully at options for JFK-MIA — there are 767, 757 and 737s on this route with varying quality of seats.

The Trip

I arrived at LAX at about 4:50am for my 6am departure. Clearing security with ease thanks to TSA Precheck, I headed straight to the Admirals Club. While I already have Admirals Club access via the Citi / AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard, those without membership who are traveling on an international itinerary in business or on the A321T service are eligible for Admirals Club access. You'll get two premium drink tickets, which I cashed in for two sugar-free Red Bulls to take with me since the bar doesn't open until 6am.

My original connection from JFK to MIA would have required a four-hour layover. However, one of the awesome Admirals Club "AAngels" at LAX got me onto the standby list in first class on the earlier flight at 4pm — even taking the time to call me personally and let me know it was taken care of after I said not to worry about it. This 767-300 flight had a nicer hard product than the 737-800 I'd originally been scheduled on.

I made it to my next flight on an older 767-300 in a two-class configuration with angle-flat seats and DC power in a 2-2-2 configuration, complete with pillows and duvets. For a fairly short flight, I prefer this over the 737-800 that only has a recliner seat in a 2-2 configuration. Options for the meal included chicken with mushrooms, which I had with a pretzel roll and a glass of red wine. The chicken breast was not overcooked, but it still wasn't anything special, though the rice with mushrooms had a nice savory flavor to it.

Mushroom chicken for dinner service on JFK-MIA on the 767-300.
Mushroom chicken for dinner service on JFK-MIA on the 767-300.

The other option was black bean tamale, which I was also able to try. It was dense and pretty boring, with Spanish rice and no vegetables.

The tamale with Spanish rice and black beans - bland and boring.
The tamale with Spanish rice and black beans — bland and boring.

The angle-flat seats are quite peculiar. I'm not sure if being all the way laid back and down is actually that comfortable. I found myself having to get out of the seat completely and making sure nothing was blocking the foot area in order for it to go completely flat.

Since I caught an earlier flight, I also had enough time to have dinner in the American Express Centurion Lounge at MIA after landing, catching a shuttle to the Hampton Inn & Suites Miami Airport/South Blue Lagoon at a reasonable hour.

The next morning I caught my flight from MIA-PTY in on a Boeing 737-800 after a 25-minute boarding delay due to a crew shortage. The plane had just the standard recliner cloth/leather seats — nothing too special.

Breakfast from MIA-PTY. Eggs, Chicken, Sausage.
Breakfast from MIA-PTY: Eggs, chicken, sausage and fruit.

Arriving in Panama, I picked up a Movistar SIM card with 1GB of data and a $20 balance for $30 via the attendant who sets up your phone for you. The LTE service was super fast. After setting up my iPhone, I used Uber to get to the hotel. I selected "row 5" for my pickup location (you might see a sign that says 10, but it's the one in the middle).

Uber Pickup at the Panama Airport
Uber pickup at the Panama Airport.

The car featured free Wi-Fi courtesy of Movistar so I could save my data. I stayed at the Waldorf Astoria Panama for two nights. I had booked this via Hilton for 16,000 HHonors points and $71.50 cash per night — 32,000 points and $143.00 total. The DoubleTree nearby could be had for just 4,000 points and $35 cash a night, but I didn't mind the splurge.

Though I'm an HHonors Gold member, at check-in I was told there weren't any upgraded rooms available, but they said they would check and let me know later if they would be able to accommodate me. They offered me a coupon for a free house cocktail at the lobby bar, as well as free continental breakfast from 6:30am-10:30am during my stay, which is not a listed benefit for Gold elites at Waldorf Astoria properties. I only had time to have breakfast once — note that the omelette bar was not included, and came with a surcharge of $10.

A nice welcome gift of macaroons was waiting for me in my original room along with a note from the hotel's personal concierge.
A nice welcome gift of macarons was waiting for me in my original room, along with a note from the hotel's personal concierge.

I received a call back about 15 minutes after arriving in my original room about the requested upgraded. The front desk said that housekeeping needed to finish preparing the room, but that they could upgrade me to a junior suite, which I appreciated. This suite was much larger than the original room. As TPG says, it never hurts to ask!

I wish I had more time for my trip around Panama, which I'll be sharing in an upcoming "10 Photos" post, but as a whole, the flight and hotel experience was pretty good. Uber makes it inexpensive to get around town — avoid normal taxi cabs that don't have a meter and try to charge outrageous prices. Plus, all the Uber drivers I had were friendly and spoke English quite well. If you don’t yet have an Uber account, sign up now to receive a free ride from TPG.

As a current platinum member, I earned 27, 082 redeemable miles on the trip - worth at $460 at TPG's current 1.7 cents per mile valuation.
As a Platinum member, I earned 27,082 miles on the trip — worth about $460 based on TPG's current valuations.

My return trip was fairly uneventful — just be aware of the time required for an extra security check at the gate. Priority Pass members can access the Copa Lounge airside. If you're planning on brining back any rum with you from the duty free shops, be aware that you will have to check it in your baggage upon arrival at MIA. The duty free shops DO NOT properly seal the bottles in a TSA-approved tamper-evident bag, only a normal shopping bag, box and some tape. This will not pass muster with the TSA upon your arrival in the USA.

Bottom Line

Adios Panama.

A photo posted by Patrick Fallon (@patrickfallon) on

All said and done, I had a fantastic time on this mileage run, with my other travel in January and February, I'm already past 32,000 EQMs for the year - and it looks like hitting 100,000 miles before the major program changes will be a reasonable goal.

Are you planning any mileage runs this year?