The New Reality Of Booking American Airlines Awards

A reader, Tommy, reached out surprised by American Airlines charging 250,000 miles for a business class award to Tokyo on a flight the next day with plenty of seats available. I’ve flagged that, though American’s new Flight Awards chart that shows ‘starting at’ pricing is supposed to give members an idea of what to expect, for international business class especially the price American is asking for awards often would make even Delta blush.

For instance I recently flagged the price every day for a single business class award to Sydney booked in the months leading up to a year in advance of 450,000 miles. One way. That’s 900,000 miles roundtrip, for a single passenger. The folks at 1 Skyview Drive should be embarrassed.

This reader needed to travel to Bangkok. With 670,000 miles in their AAdvantage account, and needing only a single ticket, it seemed like something they should be able to accomplish.

  • He was searching on the American Airlines website, and coming up empty.

  • He called, and got transferred from the first agent to one more competent. They helped find an award to Tokyo on American Airlines and a separate award from Tokyo to Bangkok on Japan Airlines.

The American Airlines flight was Philadelphia to Los Angeles in coach to Tokyo Haneda in Premium Economy for 45,000 miles and the flight from Tokyo Haneda to Bangkok was in business class for 30,000. And Tommy offers,

I’ll have to retrieve my bags at [Tokyo Haneda], apparently. But I land at 4:45am, the lounge doesn’t open until 6am, and I have a 7-hour layer — so it’s not horrible.

The American Airlines website isn’t great at pulling up all possible connections and especially across different classes of service. Also at work here is a broader point I’ve made for years.  Always search for the transatlantic or transpacific flight award, and then work backwards and forwards from there.

But now most American Airlines awards aren’t even combinable with partner awards. The vast majority of seats on American Airlines aircraft are priced as dynamic, revenue-based flight awards. And those do not combine with partner awards.

If you want to book a flight on an AAdvantage partner, and include American Airlines segments, those segments have to be booked out of saver inventory – the same flight inventory (T, U, Z) that used to be used for milesAAver awards that do not exist anymore, and that is used when partner frequent flyer programs like British Airways Executive Club book mileage seats on American for their members.

When redeeming for American Airlines dynamically-priced flights, you can’t use the old approach of looking for that single long haul flights and then looking for domestic and foreign connections. That’s because American prices awards based on unique origin and destination. For instance I might find 200,000 mile business class awards between Los Angeles and Sydney or Austin to Los Angeles to Sydney, while Charlotte to Los Angeles to Sydney (that very same LA – Sydney flight) could be just 78,000 miles.

To put all of this together, the reader booked separate tickets from Philadelphia to Tokyo and then from Tokyo to Bangkok. Doing that creates a different problem. American Airlines no longer lets you check bags all the way through when traveling on separate tickets. That’s one of the most least-friendly consumer policies, for no real reason when it comes to award travel (they do it so customers don’t buy paid tickets this way, and to avoid splitting checked bag fees, but in the limit those don’t really apply to premium cabin travel on points).

An agent should have been able to sell both awards inside of the same reservation, though. They’d still be separate tickets but there’s a decent chance they would have been able to check their bags all the way through. American has a specific exception to their ‘no through checking bags on separate tickets’ rule when booking an award ticket and a paid ticket inside the same reservation when traveling entirely on oneworld carriers.

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. @Gary Leff and @Matthew Klint – I was recently advised (March this year) that United also no longer allows checking bags all the way through on separate tickets. I used to be able to do so many times when connecting to another Star Alliances partner but was refused last time. Staff at ORD told me they recently had this covered in their training and it’s no longer possible to do so. Any way that can be confirmed?

  2. I am flying back from AKL in November and have noticed the same thing as your SYD example. Prior to “dynamic pricing” I was seeing many dates that had J at 175k to 250k. Not great, but not terrible for the length of that trip. Now it’s pretty much 450k miles every day thru end of schedule. The cash price for my date is $2900. How is that dynamic? It’s them basically saying the price is 450k…take it or leave it.

    We luckily snagged some QF J seats during their award release earlier in the year. But going forward it’s hard to stay loyal to AA when these are the prices they charge.

  3. American Airlines has been degraded ever since they were bought out by US Air. They kept the AA name because of the lousy reputation of US Air but kept the management of US Air. .When America West airlines bought out US Air they kept the management of America West and kept the US Air name because of the lousy reputation of America West . So, American Airlines as we once knew no longer exists.

  4. You win some, you lose some. YMMV, eh?
    Last month’s Birthday trip initially had me ‘pay’ 220,000 miles for DCA LAX SYD in 1st (love the swivel seats) but close to departure price fell to 110,000 so I rebooked. Then dropped to 90,000. 2nd rebook 😉 Funny. Because of Qantas JV cash price was $15,000.

    Still some bargains out there

  5. This is why I no longer worry about loyalty or accumulating mileage. I do not possess any credit card with AA affiliation because I would rather have cash back than acquire mileage. As a lifetime platinum, it is nice to use AA when convenient and thus take advantage of what limited privileges AA allows to platinum members. But otherwise, I generally go with the airline that has the cheapest fare (inclusive of ancillaries).

  6. Yep. Thanks for writing this up. It’s wild how many more options UA will give than AA, mainly because AA can’t figure out how to fill short legs in different classes

  7. Gary, when will you revise your published value of AA points. Seems like 1/2 cent per point.

  8. I guess I’m an outlier but I’m still getting 1-2 cents per mile on my redemptions. But then, I’ve been doing domestic coach. I tweeted about this a few weeks ago but there was a CLT to Kalispell direct fare for 6k miles each way.

  9. Using AA miles for QR and JL awards remains a good deal. Though it is getting harder to find JL awards. But later this month I’m flying JL biz from SAN to NRT and returning HND-DFW in F for a total of 140k miles.

    But AA miles for int’l AA awards is just a farce most of the time. It’s often a choice between 200k (or more) one way to Europe OR pay BA’s ridiculous fuel surcharges in exchange for lower mileage awards.

  10. I got lucky, somehow. Two months ago I was able to book a November DFW-LHR in F for 79,000 miles, changing planes at JFK. Non-stops were outrageously expensive in terms of points.

  11. While burn way too many points for a lie flat seat. Instead find a flight with many MCE seats unsold. Use main cabin miles for a MCE seat in an empty row of 3 or, better yet, an interior empty row of 4 on a 777. Bring a tightly compressed 48 inch (2 inch thick when inflated) camping air mattress and inflatable pillow. Keep a close eye on the seat map in the days up to your departure. Don’t check in until about 4 hours before departure so you can keep checking the seat map to make sure your selected seat remains in an otherwise unoccupied row. Hope that there are not many standbys which is often the case for long international flights or that a recent previous international flight from your departure city is not cancelled as then those empty MCE rows will likely fill up fast on your departure day. This is much harder to pull off successfully if your international flight departs from DFW. This works best for the single traveler. Two passengers together might work too but possible not in adjacent rows. While not as comfortable as a business class lie flat seat, side sleeping only on 4 MCE seats works well with an air mattress, pillow, eye mask, and ear plugs!!

  12. Prior to dynamic pricing, I booked a first class ticket from Chicago to Tokyo for 60K miles one way.
    Now I usually book a premium economy ticket and then try to upgrade for 25K miles and $350.

  13. Could someone please provide an example of how this works:

    “American has a specific exception to their ‘no through checking bags on separate tickets’ rule when booking an award ticket and a paid ticket inside the same reservation when traveling entirely on oneworld carriers.”

    How do I, within a single reservation, purchase two tickets where one was purchased with miles and the other purchased with $$? Genuinely curious, thanks! 🙂

  14. I am based in Sydney and for the last month have seen loads of 78k point redemptions from syd to the USA beyond lax. The key words are beyond lax. Usually it’s 450k to lax and then much cheaper if you add a segment. In the end I settled on syd to dfw on Qantas for 80k (it does exist here and there) for two of us with an extra segment in economy for 21k to rdu (expensive yea). You have to collect bags in dfw regardless. Rdu to ord a couple of days later was 11k (cash fares were around $250). I ended up using 7500 avios to book it.

    Ord to lax is also 11-13k (the 11k bookable with avios). Cash around 400$.

    Just saying that I still get some serious value from aa points to and from the USA (flying wantas home direct 80jk from lax to syd – booked during the wantas release).

  15. All of the frequent flyer programs seem to have gone crazy with the number of miles that are required for business class tickets. We’ve had some wonderful business-class flights bought through American, and as person without any status they have always been nice to me. But we are not trying to accumulate American miles now as it seems that the number of miles they are requiring has become ridiculous. I am collecting Aeroplan miles, but even those need to be used on other airlines.

  16. @gary I just searched syd to phx (my new go to search) in biz over the next week.

    I see a 78k redemption on Aug 11 and aug 15, Qantas for 80k on Aug 12, and a 138.5k and a 142k redemption in the next few days.

    Close in redemptions even to the USA at a peak time seem pretty good to me.

  17. Basically, all you bloggers need to simply stop peddling AA miles (and Delta too). Because they have turned into something worse than Skypesos. It’s only a matter of time before partner airlines get into the act and then the whole miles and points jig is up.

  18. I just spent 1 1/2 hours to get an American Airlines agent on the phone. I got some upgrade coupons for flights which I have to use in a year. I had 3 International flights booked economy from Rio de Janeiro to Miami. I was told they do not apply to international flights. I clicked on the detailed terms and conditions and read them each one. There is not a single limitation for international flights. So the fine print doesn’t even mean anything.

  19. @Bart P. It is still being done. I did it a couple of weeks ago on a separate ticket of UA to LHR and OS to VIE. It took the agent a few minutes at IAD but she managed. I think it’s more of a who you get at check in and whether they want to take the time (five minutes). Clearly though, based on my experience, it can still be done with UA.

  20. @Gary, thanks for this post. It illustrates perfectly what I have decided to do regarding my ongoing travel planning.
    It became clear to me a little over a year ago that so-called “loyalty” was a one -way street so far as the three major airlines are concerned. I can’t speak to UA yet, but AA is trying hard to turn into DL, the latter being the robber baron of the skies when it comes to mileage awards. I had enough for a business class transatlantic ticket on DL, not any more. AA’s business fares are outrageous, especially as another respondent notes, on non-stop itineraries. And partner awards..????
    Sooo… AA has had my loyal business for this time around about 10 years. I *was* a big spender, not so much now but I only fly business and first. I am going to use up all my AA miles, and when they’re gone, it’s open season using Google flights. Best combination of price and convenience gets the business.
    It looks like I will be making the switch from One World to Star Alliance. I’ll be sorry to lose OW Emerald, and Cathay and Qatar… but Star Alliance has way more airlines that fly where I want to go (Europe and SE Asia); Turkish and Lufhansa fly from my UK home airport (BHX), add in Emirates and I am good to go.
    The downside is this means UA as my primary SA account. I have several Star Alliance accounts, but if I add in the UA premium cr card versus my CITI AA card (the latter of which just continues to want to jack prices and reduce benefits) I am all in to UA. The downside to UA that I have not explored is the status challenge. UA focuses on segments too much. Looks to me like I could spend the $$, rack up the miles on international flight and still lose out. We’ll see, more work to be done there.
    Long story short, I don’t have to learn the lesson too many times. The age of US airline customer loyalty is deader than the Dodo.

  21. The new reality is don’t bank US airline FF miles to travel in premium cabins internationally. Focus on transferable currencies to book with a non-US airline FF program. Have a Plan A, B, and C international airline FF program for one’s travel desires.

  22. The lesson is that a card that gives you 2% cash back is the best loyalty credit card out there. Not only you can buy whatever ticket you want with cash, but you also get 5% of interest on it!

  23. Great write up! AA mileage redemptions have been a challenge and vexing at times for sure. Your SYD example was something I experienced 3 weeks ago. SFO-lax-syd in AA F was 69k and Lax-syd 115k, or today looking at June 24 and Smf-Dfw-Jfk-doh in AA F 79k, but Sfo-Jfk-doh or the non stop are 20k or more. It’s all madness!

  24. AA wants cash for business class hence the dislocation between miles redemption and cash prices

    The same thing with Marriott rewards certificates and hotels pricing redemptions just out of reach of all the certificate + 15,000 points:

  25. My experience is that award pricing is all over the map – if you pardon the expression. I’ve been working on BOS-SYD for months, our son is spending Fall semester in OZ & NZ. Flying over in Sept. got 2 BOS-DFW-SYD in J for 80k on AA/QF. My return a week later is taking a lot longer to confirm – I had held SYD-CKG-AUH-ORD-BOS (I wanted to experience EY in J!) for 140k but EY never confirmed the flights and it was cancelled. So now I’ve got SYD-LAX-PHL-BOS return in J for 75.5k + $95 on AA which seems like a good deal. Wife’s same return in Nov. is pricing at 450k – which seems like a lousy deal. I’m still working on her flights – but AAin’t gonna be on AA!

  26. @ Dougie. Dude you only “paid” for one seat not an entire row for your air mattress. Do you bring along your camping stove and porta potty too?

  27. Wish I could bring a tent for privacy Try to use the pottie in the back of that big 777 well after dinner has been served and the lights are dim. Every open row of 3 or 4 seats will have someone spread out sleeping on them, especially in the rows back near those tight potty cubicles. These open rows tend to be MCE seats that only elite flyers get for free in advance so I just pick a seat in an empty 3 or 4 MCE seats configuration and keep moving to an empty row if someone new is in my row. The only difference is that I come prepared to make the lie flat experience on multiple Coach seats with the common folk a little more comfortable!!

  28. A single date of the same non stop JFK-DEL in J over a three week period bounced from a high of 225K to a low of 70K and up again. I booked the same flight three times. I played Russian roulette on two browsers as you need to cancel to book the same flight if the award goes down. A month later, it’s still bouncing around (I watch for fun).
    Seats opened up for the return on Etihad (J) and I grabbed them.
    The penny a minute I pay Google voice to call the AA centre in Australia to get someone competent in less than 15 minutes is literally worth every penny!

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