Best Sweet Spots in the American Airlines AAdvantage Program

Jan 24, 2019

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Update: Some offers mentioned below are no longer available. View the current offers here – Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard

While American Airlines used to offer one of the most valuable loyalty programs, it has undergone a number of devaluations in recent years. When you combine that with American’s frustrating award availability trends, it’s easy to encounter problems when trying to redeem your miles.

That being said, there are still plenty of valuable sweet spots that make this program worthwhile, so today we’ll take a look at some of the best ways to redeem your AAdvantage miles.

Premium Cabin Flights to Japan or South Korea

American Airlines divides the continent of Asia into four award regions: Asia 1, Asia 2, the Middle East and the Indian Subcontinent. Asia 1 covers Japan and Korea while Asia 2 includes destinations like China, Thailand, Hong Kong and Vietnam. Flights to the former are much cheaper than the latter, especially in premium cabins (prices are for one-way flights):

Cabin Asia 1 Asia 2
Economy 32,500 – 35,000 miles* 32,500 – 37,5000 miles*
Business 60,000 miles 70,000 miles
First 80,000 miles 110,000 miles

* Off-peak flights to both Asia 1 and Asia 2 on AA-operated flights only cost 32,500 miles.

The good news is that the lower prices on premium flights to Asia 1 apply to both American-operated flights and those on Oneworld partners such as Japan Airlines. This means you can book 14 hours in JAL first class from New York-JFK to Tokyo-Narita (NRT) or Tokyo-Haneda (HND) for only 80,000 miles, worth $1,120 based on TPG’s valuations. For a $15,000+ ticket, that’s an incredible deal.

Unfortunately you can’t find JAL award space on the AA app or website. You’ll need to use another Oneworld search engine like British Airways or Qantas to find the space and call AA to book.

You could also use this sweet spot to book flights on American’s flagship 777-300ER aircraft, the only plane in its fleet to feature a true international first class cabin. AA will be upgrading its Los Angeles (LAX) to Tokyo-Haneda route to a 777-300ER in June 2019. First class passengers can enjoy AA’s Flagship First dining experience at LAX, while first and business class passengers will get access to the carrier’s flagship lounge as well.

Business class aboard AA
Business class aboard AA’s flagship 777-300ER

Off-Peak Flights to Europe

In most cases, a saver-level economy award ticket to Europe will cost 60,000 AAdvantage miles round-trip, which is just about the industry average. However, if you book during off-peak dates, the cost drops to 22,500 miles each way (or 45,000 miles round-trip). While these off-peak rates are only valid on economy flights any only on specific dates, you can fly on American metal or a Oneworld partner airline like Iberia or British Airways, though you’ll generally want to steer clear of British Airways to avoid the exorbitant taxes they add to award tickets.

For 2019, the off-peak dates for Europe travel are from January 10 – March 14, and November 1 – December 14. For flights from New York-JFK to Paris (CDG) in January, you can see the prices drop as soon as the first off-peak date arrives.

A 25% savings is great if you can make these dates work with your travel plans. TPG values AA miles at 1.4 cents each, so the 25,000 miles you’ll be saving on a round trip are worth about $350.

Reduced Mileage Awards

While cobranded cards have been largely edged out in recent years by transferable points cards like the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card, American’s credit cards come with a little-known but highly valuable perk: access to reduced mileage awards. Every month, the carrier releases a list of eligible airports for this program. Holders of certain cards will receive a discount on saver awards to or from that airport. If you have the following credit cards, you’ll save 3,750 off a one-way award ticket or 7,500 miles on a round-trip flight:

Meanwhile the following cards offer a 2,500-mile savings on a one-way ticket (5,000 miles round-trip):

  • Citi / AAdvantage Gold World Elite Mastercard
  • Other credit cards listed here that are no longer open to new applicants.

These reduced mileage awards can be used for flights in any cabin, but you have to find saver level award space which is often easier said than done. You can also stack this with the 10% mileage rebate offered on cards like the Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard. Since a saver level economy round-trip award ticket in the US normally costs 25,000 miles, that drops to 17,500 with a Reduced Mileage Award. Adding in the 10% rebate (up to 10,000 miles a year) will get you another 1,750 miles back. You’ll thus end up paying just 15,750 miles for a round-trip award flight to or from certain airports; that’s just 7,875 miles each way.

While you’re not likely to find major airports like JFK or Chicago-O’Hare (ORD) on the reduced mileage list, AA has gotten better about giving you plenty of options around the country. And remember that as long as an eligible airport is either your origin or your destination, you can utilize the lower mileage amount.

For December 2018, there were 129 eligible airports:

You’ll also have many options in 2019, with 167 in January, 114 in February and 85 in March. Note that these awards are not bookable online, but AA will waive the $30 phone booking fee for reduced mileage awards.

For more details on this program and a current list of eligible airports, check out this guide.

Mileage Upgrades on American

Even for top-tier elites, it’s getting harder and harder to count on an upgrade. You’re generally best off booking the exact seat (or hotel room) you want instead of hoping for a surprise at check-in or the gate. However, if you’re short on miles and still looking to fly in the pointy end of the plane, redeeming American miles for upgrades on American-operated flights can be a good deal.

Before we look at the pricing, there are a few terms and conditions to point out. Award tickets and basic economy tickets are not eligible for upgrades. The same holds true for most partner-operated flights. Note as well that American charges a different (lower) amount if you’re upgrading from a full-fare or discount ticket. You can read the full terms and check the price of your upgrade here.

Most people will get the best value upgrading a discount economy ticket on an international flight to Europe or Asia. For only 25,000 miles and $350 (about $700 total based on TPG’s valuations), you can move yourself up to business class.

With one-way international business class fares often going for $3,000 or more, this can be a great deal. However, note that your upgrade is subject to availability, and American isn’t great about releasing upgrade inventory. If you’re curious how many upgrade spots your flight has on it, you can log into ExpertFlyer (which is owned by TPG) and search for “C” seats, which correspond to business class upgrades.

While it’s nice to travel completely free with points and miles, this miles+cash upgrade option might be a better value than redeeming 60,000, 70,000 or even 80,000 miles for a one-way business class award. TPG values 80,000 AAdvantage miles at $1,120, so if you buy a $315 fare to Shanghai (PVG) and “spend” $700 in cash and miles to upgrade, you still come out ahead.

Changing Awards to Higher Classes

We often think about award sweet spots just in terms of low pricing, but consumer-friendly terms can constitute a sweet spot in their own right. For example, American will let you change awards to a higher class of service without charging you a $150 change or redeposit fee (though you do have to pay this fee if you’re downgrading). This can come in very handy if you have fixed travel dates but don’t see any business or first class award space on the day you need to fly. Book the flight you need, and if space in a higher cabin opens up closer to departure, you can call in and upgrade. You’ll only be responsible for the mileage difference between the two tickets.

This is another instance where ExpertFlyer can be your friend. In addition to setting an alert for “C” upgrade space, you can also set alerts for business or first class award space and automatically get notified if it opens up. This saves you the hassle of having to check back regularly, so you can focus all your energy on planning your trip.

Bonus: Asia 2 to Middle East/India/South Pacific

If you live outside of the US or are planning a multi-stop vacation, you should know that American has some phenomenal award rates for flights departing from Asia 2 (which covers a large chunk of East and South Asia, excluding Japan and Korea).

 Want to fly Qantas’ Airbus A380 first class from Hong Kong (HKG) to Sydney (SYD)? That incredibly elusive award will only cost you 50,000 AAdvantage miles. Did you book an award at the St. Regis Maldives before Category 8 pricing takes effect in March 2019? Flying to the Maldives often requires at least one stop, and it makes just as much sense to fly west as to fly east. I was able to book a Qatar Qsuites award from Shanghai (PVG) to Male (MLE) for only 40,000 AAdvantage miles per person, not much more than a one-way economy flight from the US to Asia!

Searching and booking Qatar
10 hours of Qsuite bliss for only 40,000 AA miles is quite a steal

 

The same goes for India and the rest of the Middle East, where you can fly your choice of Cathay Pacific, Etihad or Qatar business class for only 40,000 miles each way. Obviously this won’t help US-based travelers that much, but if you’re traveling somewhere really far away, like India or Australia, you should consider looking for a cheap cash ticket to Asia and pairing it with an equally cheap award ticket to your final destination.

Bottom Line

Even after a big devaluation a few years ago, there’s plenty of value in the AAdvantage program. The most important thing is to know where the sweet spots are before you try and book. Once you’ve figured this out, the part that stumps most people is actually finding the award space. With more Oneworld partners becoming bookable directly on the AA website and tools like ExpertFlyer to help you out, don’t let this discourage you. Set alerts, check often and keep your eye out for one of these sweet spot redemptions to open up!

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