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With American Airlines appearing to inch towards a dynamic award pricing model just days after United made a similar switch, we’re reminded of a longstanding criticism of the AAdvantage program: It’s often pretty hard to redeem AA miles for flights that are actually operated by American Airlines. Some of the best values in the award chart come from Oneworld partners, like Japan Airlines first class for only 80,000 miles each way or Qatar QSuite to the Maldives for 70,000 miles each way.
Each frequent flyer program has its own routing rules, and American has one important one that you should know: You’re generally not allowed to transit a third region on award flights. What does this mean? In practice, it means that if you were flying from the US to Australia, you couldn’t route through Hong Kong, since American classifies Hong Kong into a separate region (“Asia 2”). As a result, the AAdvantage program would treat your ticket as two separate awards.
However, there are a few exceptions to this rule, and even though AA doesn’t formally publish them, travelers have been able to piece them together via trial-and-error. You can check out this guide to American’s routing rules, but most of the exceptions fall into one of two categories: necessities (there are no Oneworld nonstop flights from the US to Africa, so you’re allowed to connect in Doha) or preferential treatment for American’s closest partners (you can fly from the US to Male via Hong Kong on Cathay Pacific, but not via Tokyo or Malaysia).
One Mile at a Time recently reported that American Airlines has expanded its set of routing exceptions to include many routes through Abu Dhabi (AUH) on Etihad. Previously many routes that transited the Middle East required you to connect through Doha (DOH) on Qatar Airways, so if you’re sitting on a stash of American Airlines miles you now have even more options for redeeming them.
Earning American Airlines Miles
This change could not have come at a better time, as American Airlines is currently offering very strong welcome bonuses on three of its cobranded credit cards:
- Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard: Earn 50,000 miles after spending $2,500 within the first three months of account opening.
- CitiBusiness AAdvantage Platinum Select World Mastercard: Earn 60,000 miles after making $3,000 in purchases in the first three months of account opening.
- Barclaycard AAdvantage Aviator Red World Elite Mastercard: Earn 50,000 miles after making your first purchase in the first 90 days and paying the $95 annual fee
Award Routing Changes
Per One Mile at a Time, the following ‘exceptions’ have been added to American’s award routing rules, meaning you can book these awards as a single ticket.
- North America to Africa via Abu Dhabi
- Europe to Africa via Abu Dhabi
- Europe to Asia via Abu Dhabi
- Europe to Australia via Abu Dhabi
- Africa to Asia via Abu Dhabi
- Africa to Australia via Abu Dhabi
Previously if you’d wanted to fly these routes, you would have had to book two separate awards. My girlfriend actually had this exact problem, as she was looking to fly from Rabat (RBA) in Morocco to Shanghai (PVG) via Abu Dhabi, and American Airlines wanted her to pay for two awards — one from RBA to AUH and one from AUH to PVG. Now she’d be able to book that as a single award at just 40,000 miles each way in economy or 70,000 in business.
One of the most appealing options on this list for most readers will be flying from the US to Africa on Etihad. Etihad currently flies to a number of cities in the US, including New York-JFK, Washington-Dulles (IAD), Chicago-O’Hare (ORD) and Los Angeles (LAX). The products vary by route, from slightly older 777-300ERs flying to Chicago and LAX to a newer 787 serving Washington-Dulles. Of course the crown jewel of Etihad’s fleet is its A380s, featuring nine spacious first class apartments (and one ultra-exclusive “Residence”) which you can currently find flying daily to JFK.
Etihad flies to a number of destinations in Africa from its Abu Dhabi hub, including Johannesburg (JNB), Lagos (LOS) and a number of cities in Morocco. Note that many of the carrier’s flights around this region only operate on certain days of the week, so you might have to play around with the Google Flights calendar to make sure you’re getting the full picture.
European-based travelers also have plenty to get excited about, as there’s now another option for flying between Europe and Asia that lets you avoid British Airways’ subpar product and high award taxes and surcharges. Or you could make the long journey to Australia and catch another one of Etihad’s A380s on the lovely 14-hour flight to Sydney (SYD).
Booking Etihad Awards
Just because you’re now allowed to book more awards routing through Abu Dhabi doesn’t mean the process is easy. First of all, you won’t find this award space on the American Airlines website or the AA app. You’ll need to search elsewhere — while you can search directly through Etihad, I prefer using ExpertFlyer, as it offers a more consistent readout.
Etihad award space can be incredibly hit-or-miss, especially in premium cabins and for flights to the US. Your best bet is to search very close to departure (less than one week out) or very far in advance, though economy award space is much easier to find.
It’s often much easier to find award space on international routes; for example, I had no problem booking two business class award tickets from the Maldives to Shanghai during Chinese New Year. Etihad has definitely gotten stingier with premium cabin award space as its financial situation continues to deteriorate, but I’ve even seen all nine first class apartments available for award bookings on the Abu Dhabi to Paris (CDG) route.
Once you find award availability and you’re ready to call American to ticket it, be aware that the carrier’s US-based call center often has a tough time finding Etihad award availability. Even when both ExpertFlyer and Etihad show that there are seats available, the phone agents often can’t find it in their system. The workaround that’s developed is to call the Australian AA call center, which can be reached at this number: +61-2-91011948. While it’s no guarantee, they’ve historically had a much better time finding Etihad award space than their US-based counterparts.
Etihad isn’t a member of the Oneworld alliance, and its partnership with American (as well as its financial health) has been in question for a while. Still, it’s great to see American removing barriers to award redemptions and making it easier to use your miles on a top-notch partner airline. Let’s just hope that this improvement isn’t immediately followed by a formal announcement of dynamic award pricing.
Featured photo by Shutterstock.com
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