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There’s no easy way to put it: The American Airlines AAdvantage program is a mixed bag. To the untrained loyalty program enthusiast, it can appear difficult to earn significant amounts of AA miles and even harder to get good value when redeeming. Today, I’ll cover the top five things you need to know about AAdvantage that may debunk your perceptions of the program and teach you to maximize your miles.

1. Earning Miles is Revenue-Based

The program switched to revenue-based earnings back in August 2016, meaning the number of redeemable miles you earn on a flight booked through American Airlines is based on the price of the ticket you paid and your status level, as detailed in the following scheme:

As CEO Doug Parker explained, this was long overdue and it was time to reward those that did the most business (spent the most money) with the airline. If you want to get from A to B on the cheap, we now see plenty of fare sales which will allow you to do that; just don’t expect to see a big mileage balance in your account at the end of the day.

You can still earn AAdvantage miles based on the distance of your flight if you fly a partner airline and credit the miles to American. However, unless you’re flying an expensive full-fare economy or premium-cabin ticket, expect to only earn between 25%-50% of the miles flown. Check the individual partner earning charts to find out how many AA miles you’ll earn when flying with a partner and crediting to American. American isn’t a transfer partner of Amex, Citi or Chase, leaving Citi and Barclaycard co-branded cards as your best option for earning significant AA miles.

2. MileSAAver Space Is Hard to Find

The most common complaint we see about this program is the lack of MileSAAver award seats on American-operated flights. When looking to book a domestic trip using your AA miles, consider yourself the exception if you find nonstop, convenient flights at the MileSAAver level. For the most part, weekend trips departing on Thursday night/Friday and returning on Sunday/Monday aren’t going to be an option at the lower redemption rate. If you want to fly on a Tuesday or Wednesday, you can probably make it happen. Below are typical AA MileSAAver results for a domestic flight:

Screen Shot 2017-08-10 at 12.27.11 PM

You could say there are enough dates to make it work, but by clicking the tiny drop-down box on the left-hand side to show only the convenient nonstop options people like to fly, you’ll get the true story of MileSAAver availability on many desired itineraries:

Screen Shot 2017-08-10 at 12.29.43 PM

Exactly three dates have space on a JFK-AUS flight for the month — and this is typical for American domestic itineraries. Many times, you’ll have to now pay the dynamic AAnytime rates, making one-way flights like Washington, D.C. to Charleston cost 7,500 miles on a Tuesday but 50,000 miles on a Friday.

If you want to find MileSAAver availability, probably the most underutilized and unknown resource in the AAdvantage program is the Award Map tool. You can put in your origin, dates and number of miles you want to spend, and it will automatically populate the map showing all your destination options. This has definitely saved me a time or two, and given me destination options I would have otherwise never considered.

3. There Aren’t Any Generous Award-Routing Rules

What makes many frequent flyer programs attractive is the ability to create a multi-stop itinerary and visit multiple destinations for either no or little extra miles. Stopovers and open jaws are wonderful rules to take advantage of and can turn a standard award itinerary into a unique, exciting and high-value return vacation. American no longer allows stopovers or open jaws on award tickets, has limitations on the region routings you’re allowed to book and recently instituted a segment limit on one-way awards.

Another aspect that can cause frustration is American’s rule that you cannot route via a third region in order to travel between two regions. This often makes sense — i.e., if I want to fly to Europe from the US, I can’t route via South America and still pay only the US-Europe rate. Fortunately, there are some exceptions which allow you to route via a third region and pay no extra miles:

  • Asia Region 1 to South Pacific via Asia Region 2
  • South America Region 2 to Africa via Doha
  • South America Region 2 Middle East/Indian Subcontinent via Europe
  • Central and South America (both regions) to Middle East/Indian Subcontinent and Africa via Europe
  • Central and South America Region 1 to South Pacific via South America Region 2
  • Middle East/Indian Subcontinent to Asia Region 1 via Asia Region 2
  • Middle East/Indian Subcontinent to South Pacific via Asia Region 2
  • Africa to Asia Region 1 via Asia Region 2 or Doha
  • Africa to Asia Region 2 via Doha
  • North America to Asia Region 2 via Asia Region 1
  • North America to Africa via Europe or Doha
  • North America to Middle East/Indian Subcontinent via Europe
  • Europe to Asia Region 1 via Asia Region 2 or Doha
  • Europe to Asia Region 2 via Doha
  • Europe to South Pacific via Asia Region 1 or Asia Region 2
  • Europe to South Pacific via Doha

A few notes:

  1. If you’re routing through Doha to a third region, the inbound and outbound flight must be on Qatar Airlines.
  2. If you want to connect from India to the US via Hong Kong, it must only be on American Airlines and/or Cathay Pacific.
  3. On any award routing you want to book, there must be a published fare between the two cities.
  4. If an agent believes you are flying an indirect routing, they can split your ticket into two awards.

If you transit via a third region not allowed in the above exceptions, want a layover of more than 24 hours on an international itinerary, or do not fly a direct routing, you will have to pay for multiple awards.

4. Earn Elite Status Faster by Booking Special Fares

In order to earn AAdvantage elite status, you must earn the required number of both Elite Qualifying Dollars (EQDs) and Elite Qualifying Miles (EQMs) or Elite Qualifying Segments (EQSes). Every segment you fly will earn EQMs based on your fare class and the distance of the flight, and every ticket you fly will earn EQMs based on the cost of your ticket. The notable exception is when you book a special fare, in which case you’ll earn EQDs based on a percentage of flight miles for your segment. Check the special fare earnings chart to see how many EQDs you’ll earn (between 10%-30% of flight miles).

AA special fares

Where is this handy? When you book American Airlines tickets with credit card points like those from American Express, Chase and Citi, the majority of the time the ticket will be booked as a special fare and will earn EQDs based on the special fares chart. That means you not only earn EQDs for flights that are free, but you can use few miles and earn a lot of EQDs if you’re booking a cheap, long-distance flight. You must read J.T. Genter’s in-depth post about this path to expedited elite status.

5. Reduced Mileage Awards and Partner Awards Are the Best Use of Miles

Without a doubt, booking with partner airlines and enjoying their superior onboard products is my first strategy when looking to redeem AA miles. Even post-devaluation, there are still reasonable prices for business and first-class bookings on Oneworld and other airline partners. 57,500 miles for Finnair, Iberia or new Aer Lingus business to Europe with few surcharges is a great use of miles. 70,000 miles for Etihad or Royal Jordanian 787 business class to the Middle East is also reasonably priced. Don’t forget other non-Oneworld partners like Air Tahiti Nui, Fiji Airways and Hawaiian Airlines, which allow you to book award tickets with American miles.

If you do need to fly domestically, make sure you check out the monthly reduced mileage awards, which can make flights incredibly cheap (award space dependent). Receive between 2,500 and 3,750 miles off a one-way award to specific cities if you hold any of the following co-branded cards:

This also stacks with the 10% redeemed mileage rebate from several of the above cards, making for cheap domestic travel.

Bottom Line

AAdvantage certainly allows you to gain considerable value from your miles — you just need to look at other options besides trying to fly domestically on a weekend. The ability to fast-track to elite status by redeeming credit card points for free tickets is a huge (and likely underutilized) perk. Like most things in the points and miles world, in order to get good return, you just need to spend the time and effort to understand your options.

How do you gain maximum value for your AA miles?

Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite™ Mastercard®

Based on TPG’s most recent valuations, the 50,000 miles are worth $700. In addition, you can earn 10,000 Elite Qualifying Miles (EQMs) toward elite status after spending $40,000 in a calendar year. As of July 23, 2017 this is the only card that offers Admirals Club lounge access so if you are an AA flyer this card might make sense for you.  Aside from lounge access the primary cardholder will receive a Global Entry application fee credit every 5 years, first checked bag free for up to 8 travel companions on domestic itineraries and a 25% discount on eligible in-flight purchases on American Airlines flights.

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More Things to Know
  • Earn 50,000 American Airlines AAdvantage® bonus miles after spending $5,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening*
  • Admirals Club® membership for you and guests with you*
  • Complimentary Admirals Club® lounge access for authorized users
  • Earn 10,000 AAdvantage® Elite Qualifying Miles (EQMs) after you spend $40,000 in purchases within the year*
  • No Foreign Transaction Fees on purchases*
  • Earn 2 AAdvantage® miles for every $1 spent on eligible American Airlines purchases and 1 AAdvantage® mile for every $1 spent on other purchases*
  • First checked bag is free on domestic American Airlines itineraries for you and up to eight companions traveling with you on the same reservation*
Intro APR on Purchases
N/A
Regular APR
16.99% - 24.99%* (Variable)
Annual Fee
$450
Balance Transfer Fee
3% of each balance transfer; $5 minimum.
Recommended Credit
Excellent Credit

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