Why American AAdvantage Is Better Than MileagePlus And SkyMiles

I’ve been a frequent critic of American Airlines, and that’s largely because I believe no U.S. airline has greater potential to be better than it is today than American. I’m also frustrated with many things about its loyalty program, AAdvantage, but when I sit down to compare AAdvantage to the programs offered by United and by Delta it actually comes out ahead.

Loyalty Programs May No Longer Be A Reason to Choose an Airline

To be sure Delta has the more reliable airline operation, and I find their flight attendants a bit friendlier. American and Delta both have excellent inflight wifi on domestic flights, something United lacks (which for me makes United un-flyable).

I no longer go out of my way to fly American as a result of the frequent flyer program. There was a time when I needed to travel I would just go to aa.com. I used to connect through Dallas rather than taking non-stops on competing airlines, and I know that I spent more money doing it too.

Now I fly less on American than I used to, and I spend less on American too. However American remains the largest legacy airline in Austin (though Delta is growing, and has the nicest club lounge by far). Still, American’s lounge agents in Austin are the best, friendliest, and most helpful in the system by far and they’ve rescued me many times when the airline’s operations have failed.

When loyalty programs were launched at airlines they were meant to take a commodity product and create differentiation, so that consumers would prefer one airline over another (indeed, they might wait around for a less convenient flight to stick with their preferred carrier). I’m not sure the big U.S. programs accomplish this anymore.

The programs have all devalued consistently over the past 5 years, and largely homogenized along the lines of following Delta’s lead – American AAdvantage still comes out on top.

I take this to be an intentional strategy on American’s part. When American announced their new award chart pricing in the fall of 2015, effective March 2016, the head of the program told me they looked around at their competitors and intentionally made sure that the new higher prices were still marginally better than what Delta and United offered.

Recognition – Elite Program

Nearly every loyalty program is trying to do two separate things: recognition and reward. These are separate objectives with separate strategies, bundled together inside a single frequent flyer offering.

Recognition is accomplished through elite status, treatment and benefits for a group of customers that are identified to be valuable to the business. At American, United, and Delta the first tier of status is basically a giveaway. Upgrades aren’t something to be expected. Checked bag fees are waived, but that comes with a cobrand credit card too. In fact United, in offering two club lounge passes per year, bundles benefits with its credit card that comparable elites don’t get.

At the mid-tier the most tangible benefit is access to complimentary extra legroom seats in economy. American and United both offer this at booking to second tiers. Delta does not.

In fairness American only offers ‘unlimited complimentary upgrades’ to Platinums (50,000 mile elites) on flights up to 500 miles. However earned upgrades often cover the rest of the upgrades they’ll receive in a world where half of first class seats have become monetized.

The top public elite tiers of United’s, Delta’s, and American’s program are all fairly similar. They all offer unlimited complimentary upgrades domestically and confirmable international upgrades from any fare (United just added this with PlusPoints, albeit at a premium).

To be sure there are differences. For instance American’s same day change policy is restrictive. However what’s most salient for me is that American’s top tier Executive Platinum status is highly achievable.

  • Minimum spending for this status is $15,000 versus $18,000 at United
  • Minimum miles flown for this status is 100,000 versus 125,000 miles at Delta

American Airlines Boeing 787-9 Business Class

And premium cabin fares earn a multiple of elite qualifying miles. Domestic two-cabin first class earns double qualifying miles, even though the fares are often much less than double.

And by the way, for those who achieve revenue-based top tier status (Delta 360, United Global Services, American Airlines ConciergeKey) I’d point out that American gives its ConciergeKey members access to its international business class Flagship lounges when flying domestically. United does not do this, and Delta has no such lounges.

American also has first class dining rooms at New York JFK, Miami, Dallas Fort-Worth and Los Angeles and for the past two years has offered ConciergeKey members access to these too.

Flagship First Dining New York JFK

Miami Corn Chowder With Corn Fritters

Reward – Earn and Burn

The reward component of a loyalty program is also known as the rebate, the points you get for doing business with and through the program that can be redeemed for future value. At an airline that’s frequent flyer miles (oddly still called miles when they aren’t earned – or redeemed – based on distance any longer).

I value American’s miles more than United miles and Delta miles at this point. There are several reasons for this.

  • American still has award charts. While they’ve offered awards at a discount to their ‘AAnytime’ pricing on their own flights (web specials mostly) they still publish a maximum price, and they still price partner awards directly based on their award chart. Both Delta and United have eliminated award charts. That’s led to huge devaluations of the best awards at Delta, and we’re already seeing creeping partner devaluations at United. Award charts are a commitment that American still makes, that competitors do not.

  • American still offers award holds, in most cases for five days. You can lock in an award itinerary and then go confirm that a trip works for a spouse or significant other, or can be lined up with available hotels. Neither Delta nor United will allow award holds. Instead you have to pay for an award at booking, and you can usually cancel within 24 hours for a refund.

  • American offers international first class awards on high quality partners. Delta doesn’t offer first class awards at all (except in limited cases on China Eastern), while fewer and fewer first class awards are possible through United. SWISS first class isn’t available to MileagePlus at all. Long haul Singapore Airlines first class isn’t available either. Lufthansa first class is available only within two weeks of travel. Asiana has dropped first class entirely. ANA first class, however, remains a treat.

    Using American AAdvantage miles I regularly have been able to book first class on Cathay Pacific, Qantas, Etihad, Japan Airlines, and British Airways – and that’s what I want to do with my miles.

  • American’s miles are more scarce although Delta has limited the number of partners it works with for mileage-earning, and offers far fewer bonuses than it used to, both Delta’s and United’s miles are easily available through bank transfers (American Express Membership Rewards and Chase Ultimate Rewards, respectively). Citibank wasn’t willing to pay the premium American wanted for ThankYou Rewards transfers, and so there’s no bank program transfers to American. Each mile is a bit harder to come by.

Qantas A380 First Class

When it comes down to it, when I’m booking award travel, I find I use my American miles much more often than United or Delta miles – and that’s true even though flights on American’s own metal are challenging to find at the saver level in business class, and flights on their primary transatlantic partner British Airways incur huge surcharges (Delta adds fuel surcharges to some partners, and to awards originating in Europe too).

The Program That’s Best For You Will Depend On Your Circumstances

While Delta requires 125,000 miles for its top Diamond elite tier, they do make it easiest to earn that status through credit card spend – with multiple cards allowing spend towards status, and even offering qualifying miles as part of initial bonuses.

And of course if you live in Atlanta or the Upper Midwest it’s going to be hard to book away from Delta. Delta acquired hubs in Detroit and Minneapolis from its merger with Northwest Airlines, and Northwest execs used to say about the region “it’s cold, it’s dark, and no one wants to go there – but it’s all ours!

Similarly if you live in certain parts of New York – Staten Island, for instance – you’re going to fly out of Newark on United. If you fly internationally from the Bay Area, United is going to be your choice. So, too, if you live in Houston.

If you prefer business class international awards, United MileagePlus is going to do a better job delivering those – through its more extensive Star Alliance partnerships – than American will on its own flights and through oneworld.

As a result where you fly, how much you fly, how you earn elite status (or don’t) and the awards you want to book may differ from the things that work best and matter most to me. However given the particular features and benefits I find to be the most important, American AAdvantage comes out on top of Delta SkyMiles and United MileagePlus.

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. Well put, Gary. I just requalified for Concierge Key (this will be my second full year as CK), and while the thought of jumping ship is tempting, the top-tier benefits at AA are better than those at DL and UA. The only frustrating thing is that as a NYC-based flyer, the places I travel to most often for leisure (DEN, IAH, others) have no nonstop service from NYC, yet DL, UA (and even B6, WN) do.

  2. Gary, I can see the logic in your post, and it makes sense…but it seems to me that it *only* makes sense IF you can qualify for Executive Platinum or Concierge Key status — something not all of your readers can/will qualify for. (That said, let me also state upfront that I’m not really a fan or any of the USL3!)

    Living in the SF Bay Area as I do, I fully understand the benefits of United status…except I (try to) never fly United. The bulk of nearly every US citizen’s air travel is domestic, and if Alaska can’t get me there, Southwest can. (I’m MVP Gold on AS, and have no status with any other US carrier.). And, with Alaska’s partnerships with international carriers, I’m able to travel internationally relatively easily (e.g.: Business class on Cathay Pacific), although I will readily admit that Delta “putting the screws” to Alaska has meant a loss of Air France, KLM, and Korean…but there are still viable options available.

    Clearly Alaska is not the solution for everybody, especially those *not* living on the West Coast (the same is true for jetBlue and people *not* living on the East Coast), but it nevertheless remains a viable alternative for many.

  3. Excellent point on First Class awards between the 3 programs. If I might add, for the most part Lufthansa F awards are not being made available starting 2 weeks out. Lately these are being released 1-3 days before departure. And further devaluations are the excellent redemptions to Asia on Lufthansa through Frankfurt or Munich which have become scarce at best (something AA doesn’t allow). Also, when combined with a second Star Alliance partner, you get booked on LH in business and the partner in first, for the full first class price. An example is JFK-PEK where JFK-FRA is available in F on Lufthansa and FRA-PEK is available in F on Air China. The United search engine shows you book the LH sector in J, not F. You have to call United until you get an agent to change the class from J to F.

  4. Complimentary upgrades are the biggest satisfaction driver for me. If I flew out of SFO or ORD I bet I would I have a pretty low “on base percentage” for CPUs as a 1K. I fly out of Denver and as a Plat I am at 35% this year (earned 1K so next year will be even higher). So for my own personal calculus there is no reason to change.

    These rankings only apply to people living in LA, Chicago, or NYC where there are actually options of multiple legacy carriers that can deliver an extensive non-stop schedule.

  5. I largely agree, although Mileage Plus has a lot going for it, especially for travel to/within Europe. SkyMiles is a garbage program from top to bottom and doesn’t even deserve to be part of the discussion.

  6. I wouldn’t count on American’s award charts lasting much longer, now that Delta and United dropped their award charts.

  7. The AA program is very restrictive with available flights and they demand way too miles to book a flight. I am not an “elite” flyer but I am a 30 year customer whose recent experience with AA customer service was atrocious. I am leaving the AA program and booking Delta as much as I can. They let me use partial miles, partial $ for flights and at my level that is a big plus. So long AA!

  8. @ Gary — I am thankful that the main Delta blogger on BoardingArea is incompetent and that you are unaware of how amazingly Delta treats DMs. These things hwlp keep the secret that DL DM is the best status. Keep on bashing DL…

  9. What I like best about the AA frequent flyer program is the five day hold on award travel. What I like least is the lack of international business saver award availability. I do like being able to get a free stop over on United awards from USA to Europe. I am not sure when I will ever redeem my Delta awards?

  10. Eh, I disagree. No US program gives lounge access so that is off the table. Complimentary upgrades are dwindling across all programs and will continue to do so in all likelihood. So it really comes down to earn and burn. Sure *A is tough in F (though it isn’t like OW has that many options either, mostly BA with fees). But for me what does it is the *A J availability. I can still get to pretty much anywhere in the world with decent regularity in a good J product using UA miles. Really not the case with AA – just so little availability, with most of it being on BA with bad J seats and fees.

  11. “Similarly if you live in certain parts of New York – Staten Island, for instance – you’re going to fly out of Newark on United”

    What the hell are you talking about?

  12. Staten Island is much closer to EWR, that’s his point.

    But cheaper prices will still drive many to LGA/JFK.

  13. So my goal is not to start a flame war but I’ve been a UA Plat for the past 4 or 5 years. I’ve achieved this through PQD credit card wavier and mostly domestic travel with some international business trips where I will pay the difference between Y/Y+ and J. With UA new qualification system, UA Gold will be hard but likely attainable for me to make. I think its time to so switch to AA or DL each with its pros and cons….

    My situation is my home airport is BOS and domestic travel is usually southeast coast, ORD, or DEN. I will likely take a trip to HKG once or twice a year and a trip to NBO once or twice a year. My goal is to maintain DL Platinum or AA Platinum Pro since it seems like UA Plat will be unattainable in the future. I value domestic upgrades even though like @Steve I’m well under 50%. I don’t use same day changes as much as I could/should but those are quite useful. Any thoughts on whether DL or AA might be a better option?

  14. “Staten Island is much closer to EWR, that’s his point”

    Depending on where you live in Staten Island, the time difference between EWR, JFK and LGA ranges from “none” to “negligible enough that it wouldn’t impact the decision”

    It’s not like we’re talking about someone in Southern Miami choosing between MIA and PBI. We’re talking 15-20 minutes time difference for the vast majority of Staten Islanders.

    On a list of places in the NYC metro area where people’s airport decisions would be impacted by geography, SI probably ranks towards the bottom.

  15. Side note– AA offers a way to earn miles with banking, where the DL option is terrible and UA/WN/AS don’t exist.

  16. 90 to 95% of the seats are coach seats means 90 to 95% of their customers travel in a prison camp cattle car. I just flew 9+ hours in a 3 4 3 777-300 which is as close to torture any government would allow – even ours. Screw them

  17. The Chevrolet Malibu (AA) has a better warranty than the Toyota Camry (DL). So what? It’s still a Malibu.

    The frequent flyer program won’t change the lack of IFE, won’t change Oasis, won’t change the god-awful meals, won’t change the surly service, won’t change the operational snafus, and won’t make GAs complete all their tasks before D0. AA’s offering sucks, and no amount of lipstick will change that.

    The author is battling an extreme case of Stockholm syndrome mixed with confirmation bias.

  18. Respectfully, I disagree that American still publishes award charts with a “maximum price”. Last year for a direct flight around Thanksgiving week from LAX to OGG (Maui) they were charging 90k miles each way for economy. And, that was with wide open availability throughout the plane.

    The highest published award from 48 US states to Hawaii is 50k for “Anytime Level 2”.

    So, they do not publish a maximum price as they advertise.

    We’re going to try to book the same flights this year (except to HNL versus OGG) so it will be interesting to see how they price these out this year.

  19. A very good analysis by the OG himself. I think the best advice is: “The program that’s best for you will depend on your circumstances.”

    In addition to China Eastern you can use Delta miles to fly first class on a three or four class China Southern flight in China. CZ still has a FF relationship with DL even though CZ left SKyTeam and has a partnership with AA. You can book CZ awards on DL.com but not AA.com. I wonder if AA’s hard split with LATAM when it departs Oneworld is required or just a spiteful knee-jerk reaction.

    For those like me who do a fair amount of international travel on economy fares, EXP provides access to great first class lounges.

    But which program is best? It depends on individual circumstances, preferences, and goals. .

  20. Delta does give exit row seating (on most planes) for free to both silver and gold at booking, since they consider it “preferred”, not Comfort+. You could argue whether that equals AA and UA’s 50K level treatment, but it’s actually an advantage at the 25K level.

    I would also argue there is significant other DL elite program value — most notably rollover MQMs, which make the 125K level significantly less daunting than it otherwise might be, and choice benefits can offer significant benefits that AA doesn’t. That said, I also agree there are various benefits that AA has that Delta doesn’t, and generally agree with the mileage value comparison as well.

  21. Excellent article .I am am EP regular passenger between JFK – LHR . Mostly flights premium cabins are full on aa flights on these route . Still I managed to get fair amount of EVIP upgrade and Milage upgrades by calling EP desk 24 hrs ahead departure. American have dedicated Department to look after their premium Guest like Concierge Key and EP . You can identify them in different uniform . AT London and JFK they have amazing staff . Genuinely they are happy to assist you and they really appreciate your loyalty. They saved my life many times. Completely agree AA frequent flyer programme is best . Hopefully they add more F class in AA metal . Dont believe in the Delta campaign those who left AA for Delta now suffering….

  22. Important note about Award redemptions for DL Plat/DM earners: at these levels, we can cancel flights up to 72 hrs prior to departure WITHOUT PENALTY. That allows us to snap up cheap flights with easy cancel rights.

  23. From just available award seats viewpoint, AA loses. UA usually has more seat availability. With specials and partners, DL can have more seats than AA. AA is so bad with award availability, I do not even try. I am not tied to any of the domestic carriers. But usually DL wins out as I have had better experiences with DL.

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