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Update 6/28/2017: American Airlines has changed its Special Fares page to note that only “select” American Airlines Vacation packages now qualify as Special Fares. Make sure to look for “an asterisk (*) after the booking code in the booking path.”

The past year has seen a fundamental change to how American Airlines awards miles and elite status. Until August 2016, when you flew a mile, you’d earn an award mile — plus a bonus if you were an elite member. Until the end of 2016, all you needed was 100,000 Elite Qualifying Miles (EQMs) to get Executive Platinum status. While this was easier to get before 2016 — when you could get 100% earnings on many partners — at least there wasn’t a revenue requirement.

Now, in order to get Executive Platinum status, you have to get 100,000 EQMs and 12,000 Elite Qualifying Dollars (EQD). And both of these calculations are as complex as ever. There are three methods in your quest for American Airlines elite status:

  • AA-marketed flights (purchased through AA or an online travel agent): between 0.5-3.0 EQM per flight mile based on class of service, with EQDs based on the cost of the flight (base fare plus carrier-imposed surcharges)
  • Partner-marketed flights: between 0.0-1.5 EQM per flight mile and EQDs varying between 0%-60% of flight miles, both based on partner and class of service
  • AA Special Fares: between 0.5-3.0 EQM per flight mile and EQDs varying between 10-30% of flight miles.

We first discussed American Airlines’ Special Fares shortly after they debuted and reported back after testing a points & cash booking through the ThankYou portal. However, there still seems to be a lot of confusion about Special Fares. In short, if you fly on cheap economy (or, in some cases, business or first-class) fares you’re going to come out ahead, but if you travel on expensive premium-cabin fares you have potential to get royally hosed with this new aspect of AA’s loyalty program. In fact, TPG is even considering quitting American Airlines elite status, partially because of these new rules. Let’s review this aspect of the new American Airlines AAdvantage program.

Which Booking Methods Post as Special Fares?

AA Special Fares explanation

AA’s Special Fares website explains that these fares are “often purchased through a specialized agent, third party or as part of a package including air transportation and lodging.” Specifically listed are: “Bulk fares; cruise fares; consolidator fares; discounted or inclusive tour packages; vacation packages — including American Airlines Vacations packages; and other tickets where the fare isn’t disclosed.”

Besides American Airlines Vacations, we weren’t sure which booking methods would post as Special Fares when this category launched in August 2016. So, we’ve been testing various options over the last eight months. Since August 1, all Chase and Citi travel portal bookings have posted as special fares for us. But, Upside bookings have been posting based on the standard AA chart.

Since TPG is able to redeem Membership Rewards at 2 cents per point, we have been using the Amex Centurion Concierge for most flights.
Since TPG is able to redeem Membership Rewards at 2 cents per point, we’ve been using the Amex Centurion Concierge to book most business travel.

The booking method that TPG has utilized most is the American Express Centurion Concierge. While the Business Platinum Card from American Express OPEN lets you redeem Amex Membership Rewards points at 2 cents per point for certain flights, bookings made through the Amex Centurion Concierge allows cardholders to get 2 cents per point on all bookings. Understandably, TPG has made a lot of bookings using this method.

Up until January 19, all of these flights have been posting based on the standard AA chart. However, something happened on January 20 to change this. From that date on, 11 of 13 flights have posted as Special Fares. And, there hasn’t been a rhyme or reason to which bookings haven’t been “special.” One of the two “non-special” bookings combined economy flights on both American Airlines and United Airlines into one booking. The other was a business-class booking from Washington DC (DCA) to Miami (MIA).

Here’s how the booking methods break down:

  • American Airlines Vacations: Untested, but should post as Special Fares if booked as part of a flight+car or flight+hotel package.
  • Online Travel Agencies (OTAs): Untested, but should post as Special Fares if booked as part of a package. Otherwise, flights should post as a standard fare.
  • Chase travel portal: Reliably Special Fares. However, check the fare rules to be sure.
  • Citi travel portal: Reliably Special Fares. However, check the fare rules to be sure.
  • Amex travel portal: Untested, but mixed results reported. Check the fare rules to be sure.
  • Upside: Reliably standard fares.
  • American Express Centurion: Mostly Special Fares since January 20.
  • Corporate travel agents: Many reports of business travelers having flights post as Special Fares.

One big caveat: There are multiple consistent reports that a Special Fare booking may reclassify to a standard fare booking if an American Airlines systemwide upgrade successfully clears. As painful as it might be to sit in the back, it might be worth passing on adding yourself to the upgrade list if you’ve got an excellent economy fare booking via one of the eligible methods above.

When Should You Intentionally Book Special Fares?

Now that we’ve covered which methods result in Special Fares, let’s discuss how you can use this to your advantage. Generally you’re going to want to use a Special Fares method for cheap long-hauls and standard fares for expensive short-hauls. The exact break-even point depends on the fare class and the cost per mile.

First, you need to know a few critical facts about the flight: the base fare, the carrier-imposed fees, the fare booking code and the exact mileage of the routing (don’t apply a 500-mile minimum to short flights). Using this info, you can calculate the cost per mile for the flight and then compare to our break-even chart:

Fare Code

Flights through May 4

Elite Qualifying
Miles (EQM)
break-even cpm
Elite Qualifying
Dollars (EQD)
break-even cpm
Award mileage
break-even cpm
First (F,A,P) + Business (J) * same either way 30 cents per mile 24.6 to 30 cpm
Business (D,R) * ”                     “ 25 cents per mile 22.3 to 25 cpm
Business (I) ”                     “ 20 cents per mile 20 cents per mile
Economy (Y,H,K) ”                     “ 20 cents per mile 20 cents per mile
Economy (L,M,W,V) ”                     “ 15 cents per mile 15 cents per mile
Economy (G,N,S,Q,O) ”                     “ 10 cents per mile 10 cents per mile
Basic Economy (B) ”                     “ 10 cents per mile 10 cents per mile

And, for flights on or after May 4:

Fare Code

Flights starting May 4

Elite Qualifying
Miles (EQM)
break-even cpm
Elite Qualifying
Dollars (EQD)
break-even cpm
Award mileage
break-even cpm
First (F,A) + Business (J) * same either way 30 cents per mile 24.6 to 30 cpm
Business (D,R) * ”                     “ 25 cents per mile 22.3 to 25 cpm
Business (I) ”                     “ 20 cents per mile 20 cents per mile
Premium Economy (W,P) ”                     “ 20 cents per mile 20 cents per mile
Economy (Y,H,K) ”                     “ 20 cents per mile 20 cents per mile
Economy (M,L,V) ”                     “ 15 cents per mile 15 cents per mile
Economy (G,S,N,Q,O) ”                     “ 10 cents per mile 10 cents per mile
Basic Economy (B) ”                     “ 10 cents per mile 10 cents per mile

In short: If the cost per mile for the flight you’re considering is less than the break-even point listed above, you want to book through a Special Fare method. If the cost per mile is higher, you’ll want to book directly through AA or through an online travel agency (not part of a package).

There are a few things to note about these charts. American Airlines realigned its fare codes to classify “domestic first class” as business class. For domestic flights, you’ll only reference the top line of this chart for three-class flights (i.e. New York to Los Angeles on the AA 321T).

Speaking of first/business class, you’ll notice there’s a range for the award earnings for first and business (D,R,J codes) flights. Strangely, the higher your elite status, the fewer miles you’ll get through Special Fares — as compared to standard fares. For a $3,000 first-class fare on a 10,000-mile flight, you’re going to get 3,000 EQD either way. However, Special Fares will earn an Executive Platinum just 27,000 award miles vs. 33,000 award miles for a standard fare.

For example, let’s take that deal we posted a couple of months ago from New York’s JFK to Sydney Australia for $765 round-trip.

Which method should you use for booking this flight?

Here’s the information from that screenshot that you’ll need to calculate EQM, EQD and award miles:

  • Base fare: $600
  • Carrier-imposed fees: $0
  • Booking code: O
  • Flight miles: 19,926

If you take the total eligible cost of $600 (base fare + carrier-imposed fees) and divide it by the 19,926 flight miles, you come up with just 3.01 cents per mile. This is well below the 10 cents per mile break-even point for O fares in the chart above. But, let’s see the impact this has on earnings:

New York-JFK to Sydney (SYD) example  Award miles
Award miles
Member 3,000 9,963 600 1,993
Gold 4,200 13,948 600 1,993
Platinum 4,800 15,941 600 1,993
Platinum Pro 5,400 17,933 600 1,993
Executive Platinum 6,600 21,919 600 1,993

That’s right: if you book this flight through a Special Fare method, you’ll earn 1,993 EQD for a flight costing just $765 total.

But, there’s a flip side to this calculation. TPG himself recently needed to get from Miami (MIA) to New York’s JFK. Instead of paying the astronomical American Airlines award miles needed for a one-way business class flight, he booked the flight through the American Express Centurion Concierge. He paid $556 for the one-way flight — a steep price, but one he could wipe out with just 27,800 Membership Rewards points.

If you take out the taxes, the eligible cost for this flight is around $500. So, if this purchase posted as a standard fare, he’d end up with around 500 EQD and around 5,500 award miles. Instead, he ended up with notably less:

Brian AA example MIA-JFK

As an “I” fare code, this flight earned just 20% EQD and 100% award miles per flight mile — before the 120% elite bonus — based on the Special Fares chart. Since the flight was just 1,090 miles, he only got 218 EQD vs. the ~500 EQD he would have gotten based on the standard fares. Likewise, he earned fewer than half the number of award miles be would have otherwise been entitled to.

Bottom Line

So you don’t get short-changed on award miles and Elite Qualifying Dollars (EQD), it’s critical to pay attention to how much you’re paying per flight mile, the fare booking code and which booking services count as Special Fares vs. standard fares.

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