Getting the Most Out of an American Airlines Award: Ultimate Guide to AAdvantage Rules

Three years ago I wrote an extensive guide to booking US Airways tickets. US Airways miles have been so easy to get, and their rules so opaque, that the guide was useful for many folks in figuring out what they could accomplish ‘within the rules’ of the program. Of course US Airways is unique in that agents manually apply regions to awards for pricing purposes, and routings are validated manually. Combined with a general lack of geographic knowledge, it has been possible to accomplish almost anything with US Airways miles if you’re persistent enough. Routing an Australia-US award via South America and Europe? Check!

We already know that as part of the merger between US Airways and American, that the combined program will be American AAdvantage. A few days ago it was announced that when American and US Airways merge, they will adopt American’s computer platform. As a result we can expect that in general American’s award rules will prevail (though there’s the possibility of both award chart and rules changes). At the very least I think we can expect an end to agents making up award pricing based on the region they think you’re flying to, and also arbitrarily ignoring or not enforcing rules — since in many cases American’s systems enforce them automatically, although not always correctly.

A little over a year ago I wrote about American’s little-known distance-based oneworld awards. American is one of the only airlines that offers you a choice between a “zone-based” or “region-based” award chart (one-way awards whose price is based on where you start and where you end) and “distance-based” chart (where award pricing is based on the total miles you fly). The former applies to flying American and any of its partners in any combination, the latter applies only to flying oneworld airlines and requires you to fly at least 2 different oneworld carriers not counting American.

Having covered distance-based awards, and with US Airways miles to become American miles in the not to distant future, a similar guide for American’s award rules seemed in order.

This is a bit of an advanced post, but can hopefully serve as a reference as you plan American AAdvantage awards in the future. Bookmark this one!

What I know about booking awards with American AAdvantage miles comes from more than a decade of personal experience, from more than four years booking awards for others, and some insights gleamed from unpublished rules shared over at TravelingBetter.com.

American One-Way Partner Awards

Here’s American’s partner award chart:

And here are the rules.

Stopovers: Stopovers are only permitted on international awards. No stopovers are permitted on domestic, Hawaii, Caribbean, or Canada/Mexico awards. For stopovers on awards to Europe, Asia, Africa, etc. stopovers are permitted only at the North American gateway city.

Since awards are ‘one way’ that means if you fly US to Hong Kong, that’s a one way award. if you stop for a few days in Hong Kong, then fly to Bangkok, that’s a separate one-way award. If you then fly Bangkok to Tokyo and stop for a few days, one-way award. And back to the US from Tokyo, one-way award.

A connection of 4 hours or more on a domestic award and 24 hours or more on an international award is considered a stopover. You can transit a city for 23 hours and 59 minutes and that’s just a connection (go explore a city for no extra miles) but once you hit 24 hours that would be a stopover — and if it’s o city other than the one you leave North America from or arrive in North America at then it will cost additional miles.

So you can have a connection that’s just up to a day. And you can have a free stopover in at your North American gateway city. If you fly New York – San Francisco – Hong Kong, you are allowed a stopover in San Francisco for no additional miles. The stopover can be for as long as you like, provided that the ticket of course is valid for no longer than a year from date of issue. So fly to San Francisco, stopover for months even, then fly to Hong Kong.

Here’s how this works with ‘free one-way’ awards. If you live in Los Angeles, you might fly Los Angeles – Hong Kong, and then Hong Kong – Los Angeles. Why not call your return trip Hong Kong – New York? Route Hong Kong – Los Angeles, and you can have a stopover there (as it’s the first North American city you arrive back into) and then add a flight to New York later. If you’re on a business class award, you get a business class Los Angeles – New York flight just for the extra airport taxes. If you’re on a first class award, you get a ‘free’ Los Angeles – New York flight in first.

If you’re flying Los Angeles – London and back, then again have a stopover in Los Angeles — instead of calling “home” your final destination. Hawaii is included in the ‘North America zone’ so it’s no extra miles to say you’re really doing Los Angeles – London, and London – Hawaii with a stopover in Los Angeles. You get a ‘free’ Los Angeles – Hawaii flight to use later. And you can always change the date on that last flight segment for free. When you book the ticket, grab the flight segment, it will cost you only extra airport taxes. And change the date to another one where there’s award availability later, when you know when you’ll want to use it.

Routing rules:

Published routing: You have to fly a ‘published routing’ in order to book an award. Specifically, the primary overwater carrier has to publish a routing between your starting and ending cities in order to fly between those two cities on a single award. And you have to follow their routing rules for any connections.

So if Etihad has no fare between Richmond and the Maldives, then you’re going to be looking at two award tickets — say, Richmond to Abu Dhabi and Abu Dhabi to the Maldives, costing an extra 25,000 miles for one-way business class from Abu Dhabi to the Maldives or 25,000 miles for first class Richmond to your US departure gateway.

This is a rule that’s little understood by agents, they often won’t know why an award will price higher than the award chart suggests for travel between two regions.

Another ‘trick’ or area of confusion is that “IATA YY fares” don’t count for this purpose (there are fares published which any participating airline can use, even though they aren’t their own fares — those don’t count for the purposes of having a published fare between two cities in order to book it as a single award). Similarly, “constructed fares” don’t count either. An airline may show a fare from a city in Mexico to San Francisco and separately from San Francisco to Bali, adding them together. That’s not the same thing as the airline having its own fare between the city in Mexico and Bali.

Because this rule is little understood, I’ve actually had some (very occasional) success in skirting it. When an award hasn’t priced the way I want it to, and it gets escalated, the person reviewing it may not understand why it didn’t price and may push it through manually. This is rare, and not something I push the envelope on in my award booking service but still worth noting that it’s happened.

Maximum permitted mileage: Many airlines say you can only fly the ‘published maximum permitted mileage’ between two cities, or the published amount plus some percentage. And the number of miles flown is the primary constraint on how you can route an award. Aeroplan, for instance, will let you fly 5% more than the standard mileage allotted between any two cities.

American on the other hand doesn’t really use the maximum permitted mileage concept. They make you fly on a published routing. However, some fares don’t have published routings and instead themselves rely on maximum permitted mileage. In that case, American will allow you to fly the maximum permitted mileage plus 25%. That sounds super generous, and it is, but the situation doesn’t apply often enough to be really controlling.

Most direct routing: This is a catch all and is a rule that applies, though not always automatically. It’s a reason you can be denied an award that otherwise appears to follow American’s rules. You have to fly the most direct routing, though of course the most direct routing between many cities is a non-stop flight and yet you’re allowed to connect most of the time. So it isn’t really consistently enforced, but is something in the airline’s back pocket which says that any time they find you to be doing something unreasonable they can deny it.

What this means in practice, I find, is that I can fly Hong Kong – Los Angeles (stopover) – New York JFK.

But — while I have even been allowed to do this — I cannot bank on being permitted to fly Hong Kong – New York JFK (stopover) – Los Angeles. I’ve literally done that specific award, but it’s certainly not the most direct routing between Hong Kong and Los Angeles and shouldn’t be counted on being approved, that it’s within the “maximum permitted mileage plus 25%” notwithstanding.

You cannot connect in a third region. Award travel between two regions cannot touch a third region, unless a specific exception is in place. You cannot fly from the US to Europe to Asia, you have to fly direct from the US to Asia. Again, unless there’s an exception — no American partner flies non-stop form the US to Africa, and it’s possible to use American miles to fly to Africa, because they do make an exception that will allow you to connect in the third region of Europe.

Known Exceptions:

  1. Travel between North/Central/South America and the Indian Sub Continent/Middle East can connect in:Europe
  2. Travel between North/Central/South America and Africa can connect in:Europe
  3. Travel between North/Central/South America and Asia 2 can connect in:Asia 1
  4. Travel between the Indian Sub Continent/Middle East and Asia 1 or South Pacific can connect in:Asia 2
  5. Travel between Africa and Asia 1 can connect in:Asia 2
  6. Travel between Asia 1 and Europe or South Pacific can connect in:Asia 2

So you can fly from the US to Africa via London (exception 2) but you cannot fly from the US to Afica via Abu Dhabi as there’s no exception allowing transit in the Middle East region.

And you can fly from the US to Hong Kong via Tokyo (exception 3) but you cannot fly from the US to Tokyo via Hong Kong as there’s no exception allowing transit in Asia 2 enroute to Asia 1.

Relatedly there are specific rules that you can only fly from North America to Europe, Africa and the Indian Sub-Continent/Middle East via the Atlantic. It can make total sense to fly San Francisco to India via Asia instead of Europe, but this is not allowed.

Additionally, you can only fly to Asia via the Pacific, and though Australia and Tahiti and Fiji are in the same region, you cannot fly to Fiji via Australia (“the long way”).

Correct pricing: Unlike US Airways awards, American’s system automatically prices award tickets. It’s usually correct based on the rules above, but is not always correct. I’ve found that allowable stopovers in a North American gateway city can ’cause the fare to break’ meaning that the system will want to price separately the domestic award ticket to or from that city, and then the international award ticket. For instance, New York – San Francisco (stopover) – Hong Kong – Bangkok might price separately as New York – San Francisco and San Francisco – Bangkok, even though a free stopover should be allowed in San Francisco. In that case, it helps to know the correct price and to get the agent to appeal for help because the pricing can be manually stored, overriding the computer. I’ve had this done while I’ve waited on hold, and I’ve also had to have them ‘look into it’ and get back to me. But it’s worth being aware of.

Booking and change fees:

  • Telephone booking fee. American doesn’t have most of their partners on their website. And the website sometimes misprices awards, too (if you use multi-city search to specify flights from the US to Europe via a specific gateway, you may be charged extra for the intra-European flight when you shouldn’t be). I find that more often than not I call American to book award tickets. American’s Executive Platinums do not pay a telephone booking fee for their own awards. But everyone else does, and an Executive Platinum redeeming miles from their own account for someone else will still pay the $25 per person booking fee.

  • Close-in booking fee. Awards for travel less than 21 days out cost $75, though this fee is waived for awards issued out of an AAdvantage elite member’s account. You used to be able to book travel more than 21 days out, avoid the fee, and then make a free date change to be within 21 days. That trick is something American has since cracked down on.

  • Date changes are free. There’s no charge to change just the date or time of a flight, or to change the class of service of an individual segment if that segment was booked in a lower class than the award you paid for (one flight was available only in coach on a business class award, and then business opens up later).

  • Changing your origin or destination costs $150. If there’s more than one passenger on a reservation, then the $150 applies to the first passenger only and in the distance past I was charged only $25 for each additional passenger though I haven’t verified that is still the policy. This fee is waived for Executive Platinums. And it doesn’t apply at all if you’re flying American Airlines only on an ‘AAnytime’ (double miles) award.

  • Changing an award type requires cancellation and redeposit. If you’re flying an American-only award and want to change to a partner award, you can’t just make the change and pay a fee, the award gets cancelled and you start over.

  • Cancellation and redeposit is $150 for the first passenger and $25 each additional passenger, waived for Executive Platinums. It’s nice that American doesn’t have the $200 rule that United charges (though they also don’t have United’s sliding scale of different fees for different level elites) or Delta’s rule about changes within 72 hours of travel.

Got questions?


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 InsideFlyer.com, 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 had 2 questions:

    1) If I’m on a roundtrip ticket (Outbound: SFO-HND, Inbound: OKA-HNDxNRT-ORD-SFO), can I drop the domestic leg of the inbound ticket, or does it have to be the beginning of the outbound/end of the inbound? It’s on one itinerary rather than 2 one-ways so wasn’t sure.

    2) On a ticket from OKA-SFO (routing is OKA-HNDxNRT-SFO) can I drop the OKA-HND domestic segment without penalty if the resulting mileage is more than 25% above the MPM of the resulting TYO-SFO, or will it retain the MPM of OKA-SFO, which should permit a routing via ORD?

  2. I’ve been reading these blogs for 2 years and I see people talk about booking from here to there and everywhere but whenever I try to book on aa.com, it shows all sorts of indirect/crazy routes. I’ve read many times to try to avoid the BA fees on AA so in trying to book (preferably BizAnytime awards then just regular anytime awards I still seem to be getting the crazy routing thing. Last time I called aa to inquire they said that even though a flight was available in a different class/time I couldn’t pair them together. I have been looking to book 2 tickets from either BHM, MGM, HSV OR EVEN ATL to Prague PRG but I can actually find a “reasonably” connnected flight but sadly, no biz class….coming back from either VIE or BUD, it wants to send me on 5 different flights! Even though direct flights are available at other times if I just look it up like VIE to LHR then LHR to MIA to BHM. I’m not trying to add in all the extra stuff, just regular old tix from here to there, catch a train between two or three places and fly back home, not trying to add in a Hawaii leg or anything, what am I doing wrong? I’ve tried to look at Expert Flyer but unless you know what flight you want, how do you find all this availability on partners everyone talks about? How do you talk agents into booking awards when you can’t find them online? I feel like a big dummy when it comes to this stuff

  3. Problem with routing one way Hobart, Tasmania, Australia to USA. Chart says 62,500 business saver, but price computes 100,000. Even tho HNL is gateway and i leave in under 24 hrs., I’m charged an extra award to get to STL. Does crossing international dateline confuse computer? ??

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