One Last AA Mileage Run Before the Devaluation on August 1
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TPG Contributor Eric Goldner just got back from an epic three-day adventure that earned him AA Platinum status. Here's how he did it.
A few weekends ago, I embarked on a mileage run that would take me from coast to coast, down to Miami and over to Panama for a grand total of $942.85. I was on a mission: to earn American Airlines AAdvantage Platinum status through January, 2018, and a bunch of redeemable miles, before the AA program changes go into effect on August 1.
Is the Mileage Run Truly Dead?
American Airlines currently offers several status challenge programs so flyers can quickly acquire elite status, including one in partnership with FoundersCard. Although you can technically still do AA mileage runs after August 1, your return won't be nearly as lucrative. Some people have been wondering if the mileage run is dead, but I'd say only to a certain degree.
For instance, by traveling before August 1, I was able to earn 9,432 base miles and 7,644 bonus miles, yielding a total of 17,076 redeemable miles (since I flew in business and first class on many segments).
However, under the new AAdvantage scheme, flyers will earn redeemable miles according to the cost of the ticket, so regular AAdvantage members would end up bringing in just 5x the miles flown. If I had done this trip after August 1, I would have earned 5x the $855 base fare ($620 for the Panama base fare, plus $235 for the one-way coach flight to LA) for my ticket, or just 4,275 redeemable miles, although I would have still earned the same number of elite-qualifying miles for the trip.
In order to earn the greatest number of miles in the least amount of time — three days to be exact — I included segments from Los Angeles (LAX) to New York (JFK), New York to Miami (MIA), Miami to Panama City (PTY), Panama City to Miami and finally Miami to New York. But first I needed to get to LA to begin my mileage run.
You generally can't add the initial flight from New York to Los Angeles in the same reservation, so I booked this leg separately for $267.10 in economy on AA.
My original itinerary, shown below, had me flying additional legs from New York to Baltimore (BWI), Baltimore to Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW) and Dallas/Fort Worth to Vancouver (YVR), but by the time I got back to New York on day three, I'd decided I'd had enough flying for one trip so I opted to skip the last few legs. Since I booked this trip just after Britain's historic Brexit vote, I paid for my ticket in British pounds, which saved me about $50 due to the weakened British currency.
Flight #1: JFK to LAX — A321T in Economy
At long last it was time to start my three-day epic journey with American Airlines from New York (JFK). The first thing I noticed was the long line at check-in. Even though AA offers many check-in counters, my flight was set to depart at about the same time as several other international flights, which I'm assuming is why the main cabin lines were so long.
I'd flown out of JFK's Terminal 8 many times in the past, and usually walked toward the "semi-private" priority check-in counters. After asking several airline representatives, I learned that the priority lane had recently been moved to the middle of the terminal. Although it's not a long walk, this check-in area was not only very busy and disorganized, but I also didn't feel that I was being offered any of the special priority check-in services that come as a perk of having the Citi / AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard as I had been on past trips.
The length of the main cabin check-in line was just a precursor to what the main TSA line looked like. Thanks to my Platinum Card from American Express, I was able to sign up for TSA Pre-Check (which is also a side-perk of getting Global Entry) at no additional cost. Having the ability to breeze through security within minutes makes traveling a more enjoyable and relaxing experience, not to mention what a great time saver it is.
Normally, I'd have access to the two Admirals Clubs at JFK, but due to American Airlines' latest round of renovations, the main lounge after security was only partially open — initially, I thought the lounge was completely closed, but I was informed by the agent at the Gate 42 lounge that it was indeed open, despite being under construction.
Although I didn't have priority access with my economy ticket from JFK to LAX, I was allowed to enter the lounge anyway, another benefit of having the Citi / AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard. Although food certainly wasn't a highlight here like it is at some competitor's lounges, it still made for a nicer waiting experience than sitting at the gate.
When I'd flown this route in the past, the upgrade list had more than a dozen elite members, but on this day, only five passengers requested upgrades. Nonetheless, the flight's two front cabins were fully booked and no one received an upgrade, which, sadly, is becoming the norm on this route nowadays.
Since I knew this flight would not feature any noteworthy food, I'd had dinner before I headed to the airport. Although Delta Airlines isn't my go-to airline, Biscoff cookies are its most well-known snack, and so popular that AA is now starting to offer them on its flights as well.
American Airlines has a pretty decent economy product that was bearable for my upcoming six-hour flight, plus the two hours we ended up sitting on the tarmac.
After the boarding process, I was thrilled to see we were still scheduled for an on-time departure — of course, as soon as I said this to my seat-mate, a TPG reader named Chad, I knew I had jinxed it. A few moments later, the captain informed us that the aircraft was too heavy, they'd have to make it lighter before we could leave and that we should expect a delay of about 15 minutes.
Unfortunately for us, after the weight problem was fixed, the crew announced that we had to wait in line again for a push crew from the gate, which took more than 90 minutes — not once did anyone offer refreshments or snacks during our nearly two-hour delay on the ground. We managed to make up some time in the air and landed in LA just one hour behind schedule.
Flight #2: LAX to JFK — A321T in Business
After landing in Los Angeles (LAX), the gate area was crowded with unhappy passengers who had already been dreading the red-eye flight bound for New York. Although I wasn't able to take many pictures on the plane, after having a similar experience to Editor-in-Chief Zach Honig's, but TPG Contributor Kevin Song had an opportunity to photograph a similar cabin last year.
After settling into seat 6C, I immediately slipped into my pajamas (which I still had from a recent stint in Cathay Pacific's first class) and was ready to fall asleep before we even began taxiing to the runway. The in-flight service was very well done and the main thing that stood out to me was how fast the meal service was. Although pre-departure beverages weren't offered, I appreciated how the crew recognized we all wanted to get to sleep quickly.
Flight #3: JFK to MIA — 777-200 in First
Toward the end of the LAX-JFK segment, I started talking to another TPG reader who was doing the same mileage run I was as a way to gain higher elite status with American Airlines. After de-planing at 6:45am, we headed to the same Admirals Club near Gate 42, but this time the lounge was practically empty.
As we departed, the in-flight service began, and to my surprise, we were given a hot meal with a choice of eggs or waffles. The waffles were served with fresh fruit and a selection of breads, which were all sub-par breakfast items, but considering it was a short flight, it got the job done.
I'd specifically chosen the 8:15am departure time for the JFK-MIA leg on American's Boeing 777-200 aircraft, which featured herringbone and reverse herringbone lie-flat seats. Although this was only a 2.5-hour flight, it's always more comfortable to be able to sleep at the push of a button.
While our scheduled arrival time was 11:18am, we actually ended up arriving at 10:45am. However, since we'd gotten in so early, our gate wasn't available and unfortunately, we weren't able to park at Gate D12 until 12:30pm.
Although I was lucky enough to have a lie-flat seat to lounge in, no one likes being stuck in the plane longer than they have to be. My connecting flight to Panama City (PTY) wasn't until 6:05pm, but my TPG reader friend missed his connecting flight to PTY that had been scheduled for 12:33pm — fortunately, AA was kind enough to grant him his original routing credit and cover accommodations due to the missed flight.
Flight #4: MIA to PTY — 737-800 in Business
After my third segment, I decided to go to the Centurion Lounge at MIA, located near gate D12, and was able to gain free access thanks to my American Express Platinum Card. American Express currently offers Centurion Lounges at six additional US airports, including Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW), Las Vegas McCarran (LAS), New York-La Guardia (LGA), Seattle-Tacoma (SEA), San Francisco (SFO), and Houston (IAH).
The lounge was pretty full that day, and the servers could barely keep up with the demand of the delicious food inspired by Chef Michelle Bernstein. To maximize your time in the lounge, I'd recommend scheduling your request for a shower and a complimentary 10-minute massage upon arrival. While I had to wait about 45 minutes for each, it was well worth it!
Since I had some time to kill at Miami International Airport, I decided to drop by the massive Admirals Club near Gate D30. While it's a good lounge overall, it's just not comparable to any Centurion Lounge because of its barely cordial lounge representatives, cold snack selections and just a handful of amenities.
As I saw our older aircraft pulling into the gate more than an hour late, I immediately knew the ride inside would be as unappealing as the outside looked — the interior wasn't retrofitted and was truly not up to AA's new standards.
Although this may not be its most popular route, American Airlines certainly should update the seats, especially the ones that don't recline — like mine.
I was pleasantly surprised that a hot meal was served. Although I wasn't very hungry, I wanted to try all the meals so I could compare them (hard work, I know). As anticipated, the meal wasn't edible at all since the chicken was cold and rubbery — the cookie was great though.
After a few hours, we finally began to make our turbulent decent into Panama City around 8:30pm.
A Brief Stay at the Aloft Panama
After a quick taxi ride from the airport, I arrived at the super-modern Aloft Panama hotel for a fantastic one-night stay that only cost me $109.
Thanks to a SPG Platinum 75-night elite membership, I received a complimentary upgrade to the 670-square-foot Aloft Suite, which normally costs $159 per night. The Suite featured a nice living room, a large bathroom, two queen beds and two televisions. Surprisingly, this hotel is only an SPG Category 2 property, although this was one of the nicest Aloft properties I've ever stayed in.
A Quick Trip to the Panama Canal
When I arrived at the airport, the taxi line was quite long, but I ended up getting a driver who was a great tour guide, too.
With limited time in the city, I knew the one thing I wanted to see was the Panama Canal.
For a Monday morning, the Miraflores Visitor Center was quite busy. Panama residents can visit the site for free, while admission is $15 for adult visitors ($10 for children ages 6-12).
I was finally able to visit one of the wonders of the modern world, a place that had been on my bucket list for years. Unfortunately, there were no boats scheduled to go through the Panama Canal while I was there.
Even though I didn't get to see a boat go through from start to finish, I would still highly recommend making the 20-minute drive out to see this impressive structure up close.
After touring the outside viewing area and the museum, don't forget to check out the movie, which is offered in Spanish and English every 30 minutes.
After a busy 22 hours in Panama City, it was time to get back to the US aboard one of American's older regional jets.
Although this wasn't a newer, retrofitted plane, I would still take the E175 jet over the B737 I flew in on any day because of the legroom and level of comfort it offered.
The thing that really caught me off guard was that we were given a full meal. Although no hot lunch choices were offered, the roast beef sandwich was surprisingly enjoyable.
An Overnight Stay at the Element Miami International Airport
My experience at the Element was not nearly as good as my overseas stay had been at the Aloft Panama. As soon as I walked out of the airport in Miami, I spotted the Element hotel shuttle approaching the passenger pick-up area.
I received another upgrade, this time to the 680-square-foot Executive Corner Suite, but when I checked into my room, it felt very hot. I turned on the AC and expected the room to cool off after three hours of doing work and having dinner downstairs in the restaurant — but for some reason the room never cooled, nor was maintenance able to fix it at midnight when I finally called them.
Although this is a new eco-friendly hotel, I cannot recommend staying at the Element Miami International Airport.
Flight #6: MIA to JFK — 767-300 in First
After a long, sleepless night at the Element, I packed up and headed to the airport as early as possible, arriving at 5:00am. Naturally, I headed straight to The Centurion Lounge.
Breakfast service began with fruit and cereal immediately, but hot meals weren't offered until 6:00am. Luckily, my flight wasn't leaving until 7:00am, but I was definitely on a time crunch once the lounge filled up and people started to crowd around the buffet line.
Many flyers say they don't like AA's new retrofitted 767-300 aircraft. Although everyone has different opinions, this flight came in at a close second for my favorite lie-flat seat of the three-day trip, after the A321T's business-class product.
As soon as the cabin doors closed and I finished my pre-departure breakfast drink, I immediately put my seat down, and slept for the next 2.5 hours. In no time, we landed back at JFK and my mileage run (sadly) came to an end.
Was Doing a Mileage Run Worth It?
Many have asked me "Did you actually just do that?" and "How are you not falling asleep while standing right now?" Although I must admit that this type of routing can be exhausting, it's definitely worth doing and I'm so happy I went through with it.
As my trip met the 72-hour mark, I noticed Elite Qualifying Miles (EQMs) starting to trickle into my AA account. I'd begun with 14,925 EQMs and ended up with a total of 32,001 EQMs.
A major advantage of doing a status challenge is that you don't have to earn all 50,000 EQMs, which is usually the normal minimum needed to earn this status tier. The only benefit that's not included in a status challenge is e-500 upgrades, which usually come with Platinum status, but since it's a paid challenge, I didn't receive any upgrades (although technically I could have bought each e-500 upgrade for as little as $40).
Looking back on my journey, it's a trip that I'll remember for many years to come, and I'm very excited to start flying on American Airlines with my new Platinum status.