Award Booking, In a Parallel Universe

There are several challenges booking awards through American AAdvantage.

  • Availability. Even if you’re flying a partner airline you may still need to get to the international departure city and that means flying American Airlines (in some limited cases Alaska is an option). American’s availability has been quite bad since the US Airways merger. It’s getting better, but that’s often connecting availability in coach sold on a married segment basis, which can be hard if you’re trying to construct an award one segment at a time.

  • Fuel surcharges. If you want to go to Europe you’re unlikely to find space on American in a premium cabin. Their primary transatlantic partner is British Airways, but those redemptions are really cash and points awards — expect $1000 roundtrip in junk ‘carrier-imposed surcharges’ in addition to your miles.

  • Opaque rules. American doesn’t publish its rules for booking award tickets. I outline them, and they define what flights you can use for any given trip. On the whole they’re more restrictive than just about any airline other than Aegean (which only allows one short connection each way) and programs like British Airways which charge for each flight segment separately.

  • Have to call to book. Though they’ve been adding partners for online redemption they’re behind their major competitors. Many members don’t realize that typing in where they are starting from and where they’re going frequently won’t actually show them the award flights that are available.

On the other hand there are some real upsides booking with American AAdvantage.

  • Award holds. They still let you put an award on hold for 5 days, when booking in advance and using most of their partners. That makes it possible to know you have an award while you confirm hotel space, or to work on an award — lock in key space — and then keep trying for the rest of the itinerary. That’s especially important given the unique challenges working with American miles, but also something that fewer and fewer other airlines allow.

  • Great partners. Especially if you want to redeem for international first class, they’ve got options with Etihad, Qatar, Qantas, Japan Airlines, Malaysia Airlines, Cathay Pacific, and British Airways.

I do love working with many agents at American over the phone, even if on the whole I hate talking on the telephone. For instance I’ve had agents successfully get award space opened to complete an itinerary, something that used to be fairly common but I now know isn’t completely dead.

However a story from reader Tommy L. really impressed me.

  • The goal was an award on American (for domestic positioning) and Japan Airlines in business class, Philadelphia – San Francisco – Tokyo Haneda – Bangkok – Tokyo Narita – Boston – Philadelphia.

  • There was no award space for the final Boston – Philadelphia flight. That meant buying the last segment in cash.

    With American if you want to through-check luggage on separate tickets it’s important to sell them both inside the same reservation or else American’s agents will refuse — in this case bags would have been checked by Japan Airlines which shoudl be fine.

  • They were good with all of that. However American called back the next day. Award space had opened up for the Boston – Philadelphia flight. Since award travel doesn’t ticket right away, tickets are queued based on travel date, and partner awards take longer to confirm the ticket hadn’t been issued yet. As a result they were able to add in the Boston – Philadelphia flight (which changes the destination of the award) without a change fee.

This is literally the opposite of “hang up, call back.” It’s almost like a Yakov Smirnoff Russian Reversal joke, “In Soviet Russia, American AAdvantage calls you!”

I’ve never had an agent check for award space after a call and proactively follow up before. That’s amazing. Has an agent ever gone above and beyond like that for you.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. I’ve had some amazing experiences with AA customer service reps. In my experience, the vast majority of them are wonderful. There are exceptions, of course. I ALWAYS try to get the agent recognized for outstanding service when I get it. I hope the reader did, too. I wonder though, considering he got a call back, was he CK or EP?

  2. I’m the reader and the story is actually about my girlfriend, who has no AA status. But she did have over 400,000 AA miles when she booked the trip. Could having above a certain threshold of miles garner better customer service?

  3. @tommyleo: “I’m the reader and the story is actually about my girlfriend, who has no AA status. But she did have over 400,000 AA miles when she booked the trip. Could having above a certain threshold of miles garner better customer service?”

    Not likely – I’m guessing that there are EXPs and CKs that would be happy to get a phone call like that, but don’t.

  4. @Gary: the usage of the term “sell” from a consumer perspectives already got yourself much confused comments from readers in the past. Why keep using it? It doesn’t convey what you mean.

  5. I had something like this happen once. I wanted to move to a later flight (using miels) so my connection in ORD wouldn’t be too long. I called a few days out and even though the agent was helpful, and requested award space be opened up, it wasn’t available.

    So, I showed up at the airport at the original time and noticed when I checked in that they moved me to the later flight.

    Of course, since they didn’t tell me, I hadn’t notice they made the change and ended up flying the original routing – since I was at the airport, it made more sense to have a greater connection time at that point.

    Just shows you have to do the nice thing AND let the customer know!

  6. @Thanh the term “sell” is important to know because this is what you have to specifically ask the AAgent, because many do not know what to do. Telling them the specific term helps trigger what it is they need to have the computer reservation system accomplish.

  7. Gary:
    One Aadvantage benefits is that once ticketed on an award flight, you can change the dates as long as the departure and arrivals cities remain the same with no fee. This helped me immensely as I needed to change the departure two months.
    Expert flyer was very helpful in notifying me when award seats open up on AA.
    Flew from LAX-TLV on American metal from LAX-LHR and then LHR-TLV on British airways. Charges only amounted to $148 rather than over $1000 had it been BA.
    Final note, you do earn AAdvantage miles on an award ticket when flying BA, Pleasant surprise.

  8. In my 20 years of flying AA I had a number of similar experiences with their help desk. Now, for virtually all of that I was EP, now Plat for life. I call the dedicated numbers and often get great people who go out of their way to be helpful. BTW I like most of the AA FAs that I meet, and I know quite a few of them.

    I had a similar experience last week with Singapore Airlines. I purchased two PE tix for a EWR to SIN flight in Feb. Taking the wife to SE Asia for a month or so. I signed up for Krisflyer right before I bought the PE tix. I then called Singapore Airlines Krisflyer help desk to inquire about upgrades. I had 0 miles in my brand new account, but the help desk stuck with me, helped me fill out all of the Krisflyer info needed, then said they would look for upgrades and call me back. Within an hour she was back to me with a saver upgrade for the ride over and an anytime upgrade for the ride back. she put the upgrades on hold and wished me well. I transferred the miles from my Amex account and, one day later, called back to push the upgrade button. Another friendly, helpful agent took care of everything and within a half hour I had my business class seats via email.

    The old rules are the best. Be polite. Thank them for the effort. Stay with them when they put you on hold. Tell them what you want to do, not how to do it. Never argue. This has always worked for me.

  9. Where I find AA miles useful is Anytime awards from Hawaii to Europe. 110k miles without high fuel surcharges all the way in business/first is a fairly good redemption. And what’s great about using an Anytime award is that since you can use it on any AA flight, you can find a cheaper flight one direction whenever one is available, then use this award the other direction to get exactly the trip length you want. You also can pick your routing, which is especially useful when you’re flying across two oceans plus a continent.

    I just picked up a Delta One from Europe back to the 48 states in June (50,000 points on VA), then backtracked dates and got the Kona to Prague on the exact date I wanted on American Anytime. (I often re-position from HI to Idaho via Europe.)

  10. BTW Gary, do you agree that Advantage awards don’t reprice as the date gets closer? If my return is fixed at 110k points I don’t see any advantage to actually booking it until the plane starts filling up. Correct? (Neighboring dates are 135k points, which had me worried.) I have the tickets on hold and have to decide tomorrow whether to buy or wait.)

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