14 Tips for Earning, Burning and Flying with American Airlines

Dec 8, 2015

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Now that the merger between American and US Airways is complete, many former US Airways travelers are just getting used to how American Airlines works. TPG Senior Points & Miles Contributor Jason Steele offers some tips for anyone who will be traveling on American Airlines.

When the US Airways brand was retired in October, American Airlines became the world’s largest carrier by measure of both fleet size and revenue. Like any other major carrier, American has an extensive list of rules, terms and conditions for both paid and award travelers. So today, I want to share 14 of my favorite tips and tricks for getting the most out of your travel – and your miles  – with American.

Earning Miles

If you have one of the Aviator cards from Barclaycard, hold on to it.
If you have one of the Aviator cards from Barclaycard, hold on to it.

1. If you have an Aviator card from Barclaycard, keep it. While American decided to phase out the US Airways Dividend Miles program, it didn’t want to lose everyone who held a US Airways Aviator card from Barclaycard. So even though American continues to issue new cards through its partner Citi, existing US Airways cardholders were offered one of four new AAdvantage Aviator cards from Barclaycard.

The basic Aviator card has no annual fee and offers a 25% discount on in-flight food, beverage and headset purchases, but only 1x on all purchases. There are also Blue, Red and Silver versions for consumers, as well as a business card, each with greater benefits and higher annual fees. For example, the Silver Aviator card offers 3x miles for American Airlines purchases and a free checked bag for the cardholder and up to eight companions. You can switch between versions, but if you cancel any of your Aviator cards, you can’t reapply. For more information, you can read my post, The Many Flavors of Barclaycard AAdvantage Aviator and TPG Contributor Richard Kerr’s post, Choosing the Best Card for American Airlines Flyers.

2. Consider each of the four Citi AA cards. Citi offers four different AAdvantage credit cards, each of which currently has a sign-up bonus of 25,000 or 50,000 points. The Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard and the Citi AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard limit sign-up bonuses to those who haven’t had that particular card in the past 24 months,.

Iberia often has award availability
Starting next year, you’ll earn fewer miles on discount economy tickets on Iberia and British Airways.

3. Avoid BA and Iberia partner flights starting in February 2016. American has announced deep cuts in the mileage you can earn by flying on discounted economy class tickets on both British Airways and Iberia. So if your plans call for paid travel to Europe and beyond in discounted economy class, you can earn far more miles by sticking to American-operated flights. And if you already have flights for February and beyond that were booked before the announcement from earlier this month, you might be able to contact American and get a one-time exception to earn the miles you were promised when you purchased your ticket.

4. If you’re going for elite status, be sure to book partner flights through American in 2016. As part of the recent changes to the AAdvantage program, American will award fewer Elite Qualifying Miles (EQMs) on discounted economy-class tickets booked through partners. But if you make your reservation through American Airlines, you could earn more. For more information, read JT Genter’s post, How You’ll Earn Elite-Qualifying Miles on AA’s Partners in 2016.

5. Consider buying up to elite status. Are you just short of the next elite status tier but don’t have time (or interest) for a mileage run this year? American just announced a mileage boost program, starting at just $399. For more information, read Emily McNutt’s post, Buy Up to the Next American AAdvantage Elite Level for 2016.

Redeeming Miles

6. Look for airline partner award seats not found online. American lags far behind Delta and United when it comes to showing partner awards online (and US Airways never showed any partner awards on its website). Nevertheless, you can use this fact to your advantage as these partner awards are hidden to most travelers and often go unused. The American website includes only Air Berlin, Alaska, British Airways, Hawaiian, Finnair, Qantas and Royal Jordanian.

That leaves hidden award seats on the following carriers: Iberia, Malaysia, Qatar, S7 Airlines, SriLankan, LAN/TAM Airlines, Air Tahiti Nui, Etihad, Fiji Airways, Gulf Air and Jet Airways. The best ways to search for awards on these carriers include other partner’s web sites, such as British Airways and Qantas, as well as paid services like ExpertFlyer. Once you find these award seats, you’ll have to call American to book your reservation. Thankfully, the $40 telephone booking charge is waived for award reservations that can’t be booked online.

7. Look for reduced mileage awards. American offers reduced mileage awards to holders of many of its co-branded credit cards, including a 7,500-mile discount to holders of the Citi AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard and the Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select Mastercard, as well as holders of the Silver, Red and Business Aviator cards. Plus, those who hold the Citi / AAdvantage Gold World Elite Mastercard and Aviator Blue cards are entitled to a 5,000-mile discount.

Mexico Featured
Changes to the AAdvantage program make award flights to Mexico even cheaper.

8. Go south of the border. Despite the massive increases to premium-class international flights, starting March 22, 2016, American will reduce the price of awards to Mexico, the Caribbean and Central America from 35,000 to 30,000 round-trip in economy class, and from 60,000 to 50,000 miles in business class. See the award chart and other changes by reading TPG’s post, American Airlines Announces 2016 AAdvantage Program Changes.

Flights less than 500 miles make for good AAdvantage redemptions.

9. Take advantage of the new sub-500 mile awards. American also added a new sub-500 mile award within the United States, priced at 7,500 miles each way in economy and 15,000 in first. Eligible city pairs include: Dallas-New Orleans; Philadelphia-Detroit; New York-Cleveland; Chicago-Memphis; Miami-Charleston, SC; and Phoenix-Los Angeles, for example.

It can't hurt to ask for more credit for BA flights!
British Airways still offers some valuable redemption offers for travel on American. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

10. Don’t forget British Airways. Despite its repeated devaluations, the British Airways program still offers some valuable options for award travel on American Airlines. Even though it will be eliminating 4,500-Avios awards in the United States, the 7,500-Avios option is still more attractive than paying 12,500 miles each way for domestic flights in the continental United States, and the 25,000-Avios awards from the West Coast to Hawaii still come out way ahead of the 45,000 AAdvantage miles required for that the same trip. Furthermore, British Airways points can be easier to earn, as the carrier is a transfer partner of Chase Ultimate Rewards, American Express Membership Rewards and the Starwood Preferred Guest program, while American Airlines miles are only available through SPG. Finally, the British Airways Visa Signature Card from Chase is available with a sign-up bonus of up to 100,000 points.

11. Utilize free changes to awards. American is unique among the the major carriers in that it allows travelers to make many types of changes to award tickets for free. You can change your dates, carrier and routing for no additional cost, so long as your origin and destination airports remain the same. In addition, you can upgrade your class of service on an award and redeem just the difference in miles, without any change fee.

My strategy with American has always been to book imperfect flight times, airlines or routes, and then continue searching for new options that work better as they become available. Sometimes this is due to changes in award availability, while other times I’m able to get better award flights in response to a schedule change. Just note that the airline is a real stickler when it comes to the origin and destination being the same airport, as you cannot switch your origin or destination, even if they are in the same city and considered “co-terminals.”

Surviving Delays and Cancellations

The entrance to the closer Admirals Club.
Admirals Club agents are your friends.

12. Use the AAngels in the lounge. American’s agents, sometimes called AAngels, can be extremely helpful in the case of delays or cancellations, and they’re usually happy to help you find a better routing for your award ticket, when available. I’ve had some amazing success approaching an AAngel in the lounge and inquiring about a more favorable routing for my award ticket. And if you rerouted yourself off of an itinerary on Iberia or British Airways, you can receive a refund of any fuel surcharges paid, like I did.

13. Call the right phone number. If you aren’t at the airport or are unable able to access a lounge, American has a designated line for rebooking. Just call 800-466-7834, but only if you’re affected by a delay or cancellation to your American Airlines flight.

Lounge Access

14. Utilize credit cards and premium-cabin tickets. You can’t utilize the AAngels if you don’t have access to the Admiral’s Club lounge. Thankfully, there are several ways to get in. You receive access with a business- or first-class ticket in conjunction with an international itinerary (on both paid and award tickets) including Mexico City, but not including the rest of Mexico, the Caribbean or Canada. A lounge membership is also offered to holders of both the Citi Prestige and the Citi AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard, which includes access for the primary cardholder and his or her immediate family or two guests.

What are your favorite tips for flying American? Share them in the comments below!

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