Fly More Places for Fewer Miles: American’s Little-Known Distance-Based Frequent Flyer Awards

Last week I wrote about the best value awards that each US frequent flyer program has to offer, and I noted American’s distance-based awards, frequent flyer tickets that are priced based on the number of miles flown rather than by where you start and where you’re flying to.

That chart has some real values, such as the ability to fly business class between the US and Europe for 90,000 miles roundtrip instead of the usual 100,000, the ability to pop around Europe with several extra flights thrown in for 115,000 miles in business class instead of 100,000 miles roundtrip plus another 20,000 miles for each and every additional intra-European flight, and the ability to fly to Australia in business class via Asia (not normally allowed on a single award ticket) for an extra 25,000 miles — and make stopovers in Asia, and throw in Australian domestic flights at the same time.

This piece of my post was probably the most confusing for folks, since it’s not a widely discussed part of American’s frequent flyer program and I was offering these as examples in a much longer post covering awards in several different frequent flyer programs.

So I thought it would make sense to expand on the option, since it can be a really powerful way to get the most out of American’s frequent flyer miles.

  • The downsides of these distance-based oneworld awards are that they are roundtrip only, no opportunity to do just one-way based on distance flown, and also that you can only fly oneworld airlines with the award and not American’s other partners that are not alliance members.

  • The upsides of these awards are that you can route however you wish, you get to opt out of American’s sometimes-difficult award routing rules like that you can’t connect in the Middle East enroute to Africa and that you cannot connect in Hong Kong on the way to Tokyo, or that there must be a published fare between two cities in order to fly between them on a single award. You also get to have stopovers — as many as you want as long as the whole ticket doesn’t have more than 16 flight segments.

This distance-based award offering represents probably the very best-value round-the-world award offered by any frequent flyer program.

Here’s how American describes their distance-based awards.

Explorer Award

Explorer Awards allow you to travel to multiple regions or multiple cities within a region on a single award. These awards are valid on all of the airlines in the oneworld Alliance – airberlin, American Airlines, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Finnair, Iberia, Japan Airlines, LAN, Qantas, Royal Jordanian and S7, as well as more than 20 of their affiliate airlines. The mileage required to claim these awards is based on the total mileage of the trip. All flights, including connections, are included in the mileage calculation.

Limitations of American’s One-way Partner Awards

Most American Airlines awards are ‘one-way’ and do not allow ‘stopovers’ (visiting a city other than your destination along the way), except that stopovers are only permitted at the North American gateway city.

With American’s regular one-way awards if you were flying Dallas – San Francisco – Hong Kong – Bangkok, you could stopover in San Francisco (the North American gateway city, the city you depart North America from or arrive back on the continent at when traveling from abroad). But you could not get a free stopover in Hong Kong, if you wanted to visit Hong Kong you would have to book one award to Hong Kong and then another additional award from Hong Kong to Bangkok (which is an extra 30,000 miles in business class!).

How American’s Distance-Based Awards Work

You can use a distance-based oneworld award, officially called an ‘Explorer Award’ if your itinerary includes 2 or more oneworld airlines other than American in it. And you are not permitted to include any of American’s partners which are not members of oneworld, meaning the ticket can’t include airlines like Eithad or Air Tahiti Nui.

  • The cost of the award is based on the number of miles flown, adding up the miles of each flight segment (rather than the distance between origin and destination).
  • You can have stopovers, as many as you wish, as long as the whole ticket does not exceed 16 flight segments.
  • You are permitted one open jaw (fly into one city, out of a different city, traveling between the two on your own) and that counts as one of your segments. Transferring between co-terminal airports in the same city (such as arriving at New York’s LaGuardia and departing from JFK) counts as a segment, but does not use up your open jaw.
  • You can visit the same airport (other than the one your trip originates at) up to three times — twice as a connection and once as a stopover. A stopover occurs when your connection is more than 4 hours when traveling domestically or more than 6 hours internationally, unless there are no scheduled flights within the timeframe in which case you would have to take the next scheduled flight that’s less than 24 hours from arrival in order for the connection not to count as a stopover. but since you can have unlimited stopovers that only matters for thisrule on the number of times you can fly through one city.
  • Once ticketed, you can make free changes to the dates of travel and the specific flights but cannot make any changes at all to the airlines or routing (your only option would be to cancel the award and start over prior to departure of first flight).
  • A few flights are ineligible for booking with this award, such as Royal Jordanian’s Iraq flights and their US and UK flights on certain blackout dates; Finnair Leisure flight numbers 1001 – 3000. There are standard Japan Airlines blackout dates that apply, and other restrictions that would apply on any award such as it’s impermissable to fly between 2 US cities with a connection in Canada, that only a US airline may legally be used to fly between the US and Guam, and that travel to Cuba isn’t permitted (complain to the US government, not to AAdvantage on these!).
  • On the other hand, oneworld member S7 Airlines cannot be used on a regular partner award for Eastern Russia flights but canbe used for those flights as part of these distance-based awards.
  • Ticket is valid for one year from the date of issue (not from date of first flight).

Here’s the chart that shows the mileage cost based on how far you travel:

Distance Zone 1
Total Trip Miles = 0 to 1,500
Miles Required
Economy Class 30,000
Business Class 60,000
First Class 80,000


Distance Zone 2
Total Trip Miles = 1,501 – 4,000
Miles Required
Economy Class 35,000
Business Class 75,000
First Class 100,000


Distance Zone 3
Total Trip Miles = 4,001 – 9,000
Miles Required
Economy Class 60,000
Business Class 80,000
First Class 100,000


Distance Zone 4
Total Trip Miles = 9,001 – 10,000
Miles Required
Economy Class 70,000
Business Class 90,000
First Class 120,000


Distance Zone 5
Total Trip Miles = 10,001 – 14,000
Miles Required
Economy Class 90,000
Business Class 115,000
First Class 150,000


Distance Zone 6
Total Trip Miles = 14,001 – 20,000
Miles Required
Economy Class 100,000
Business Class 130,000
First Class 180,000


Distance Zone 7
Total Trip Miles = 20,001 – 25,000
Miles Required
Economy Class 120,000
Business Class 150,000
First Class 230,000


Distance Zone 8
Total Trip Miles = 25,001 – 35,000
Miles Required
Economy Class 140,000
Business Class 190,000
First Class 280,000


Distance Zone 9
Total Trip Miles = 35,001 – 50,000
Miles Required
Economy Class 160,000
Business Class 220,000
First Class 330,000

Three Examples of Using Distance-based Awards to Your Advantage

Distance-based awards up to 10,000 miles flown.

Total flying of 10,000 miles in business class costs 90,000 miles.

This is an especially useful award because a traditional roundtrip to Europe costs 100,000 miles and you only get to visit one city.

But with the distance-based award you could fly New York to Rome, Rome to Madrid, Madrid to Barcelona, Barcelona to London, London to Paris, and Paris back to New York visiting 5 cities and have it cost 10,000 fewer miles than just a roundtrip.

East Cost – Europe can fairly easily be kept under 10,000 miles flown, so if you travel on two different oneworld airlines such as British Airways and Iberia then you can fly for fewer miles. (Of course the fuel surcharges on BA are hefty, and those are charged when booking AAdvantage awards on that airline.)

Distance-based awards up to 14,000 miles flown.

Starting from much of the US you’re going to be pushed over flying 10,000 on a Europe trip. Not all of us live on the East Coast!

But the distance-based awards for flying up to 14,000 miles are a reasonable 115,000 miles in business class.

For 15,000 miles more than a straight roundtrip, you could do something like Phoenix to London (stopover) – Paris (stopover) – Madrid (stopover) – Lisbon (stopover) – Barcelona (stopover) – Rome (stopover) – back home.

If you were to book that using American’s standard partner awards it would cost 200,000 miles!

Distance-based awards up to 25,000 miles flown.

As I’ve said many times on this blog, Australia is about the toughest frequent flyer award there is.

While American partners with Qantas, getting Qantas award seats in business or first class is tough (though a little easier flying Los Angeles – Brisbane than their other flights).

It’s easier flying via Asia, but that’s a lot of extra flying. But American’s one-way partner awards from the US to Australia do not permit routing via Asia, you would normally be charged one award US to Asia and a second award Asia to Australia, which is much more expensive.

But if you have the time and want to make a world tour out of it, whereas that normal roundtrip Australia award is 125,000 miles in business class (if you can get it!), for 150,000 miles you can fly a combination of oneworld airlines up to 25,000 flown miles and do something like:

    San Francisco to Los Angeles (stop) to Shanghai (stop) to Hong Kong (stop) to Sydney (stop) to Melbourne (stop) back to Hong Kong (and stop if you wish again, maybe visit Macau this time) then to Tokyo and stop for a visit before flying home to San Francisco.

Putting Together Your Award

  • Making the phone call. Because these are a bit complicated, and somewhat obscure, many American Airlines agents have never even booked one.

    They won’t think to suggest it. And when you call you’ll often need to let them know that’s what you’re trying to book, or else they will tell you that you have too many awards in a single reservation or want to price each part of the trip separately using the award chart they’re most familiar with.

  • Finding award seats. Because these awards are complicated, it’s even more imperative than with most award tickets to do the research to find flights that have award seats available before you call American, and plot out the whole itinerary.

    You can use tools like FlightStats and like Expertflyer to help find award seats.

    I mostly use the Qantas Frequent Flyer website. Remember that in almost all cases, award seats offered by oneworld airlines are the same regardless of which oneworld frequent flyer program’s miles you are using to make the booking. American’s website has British Airways, air berlin, Finnair, and Qantas award seats searchable. The Qantas website includes Cathay Pacific, Iberia, and LAN flights. It doesn’t include Japan Airlines flights, though, so to search awards that Japan Airlines is making available to its partners i use the Japan Airlines website.

  • Figuring out your routing. To make the most of the awards you’ll often want to do as much flying as possible within a mileage band — for instance, on a 14,000 mile award you might want to get as close to 14,000 miles as possible, rather than stop at 10,800 miles. That way you don’t leave 3200 miles of free travel on the table.

    Similarly you don’t want to cross over to the next mileage band if at all possible, since that will mean that the award costs more miles to redeem.

    I use the Great Circle Mapper to plot out my routes and see how much travel each one would be. The mileage that American uses officially is its own, and it may vary by a few miles here or there, but overall a trip will usually be calculated by Great Circle Mapper to be within 50 miles or so one way or the other from American’s calculations.

Got questions? Ask away.

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. AA have sale at the moment and one can purchase 165000 miles at little over $3000. Would that be a good deal considering AA rewards devaluation?

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