Top Tips for American Airlines Awards

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Top Tips for booking American Airlines (AA) Premium Cabin Awards.

So you’ve saved your AA miles for decades (as they devalued over and over) or you simply churned a few credit cards and are now ready to book a coveted business class lay flat Instagram seat.  This blog post talks about international long haul business class seats. Why? Because booking domestic business with your AA miles isn’t a great use or value and why would you want to fly long haul in economy if you don’t have to.  If you are an experienced award booker or flyers this is fairly basic so you may know most of this.

Motivation

So first decide what YOUR travel goal is. Do you want to fly to London, Paris, Hong Kong or Buenos Aires. The world is your oyster, right?  In some ways yes but if you are trying to book AA awards not every place on the planet may work that great. For example you can get to Tel Aviv using AA miles but American doesn’t actually fly there so you’ll likely need to book on partner airlines.

Why AA Metal

Booking AA awards on partners comes with added cost. It isn’t required but if you can find an award route on American planes (AA Metal) then it will likely save you cost in fees and taxes. Take the Tel Aviv example above. In order to get there using AA miles you’ll need to fly on one of their OneWorld alliance partners. Likely British Airways (BA), Iberia (IB) or Royal Jordanian (RJ). BA charges the most in fees on award tickets. It could $1,000 or more to use your hard earned AA miles on a BA route. Iberia charges less fees but still could be $500 or more. RJ would be the best bet with less fees than Iberia.

So on a route that AA planes fly to, say Paris, you could fly BA and pay 57,500 each way for “Saaver” award dates plus say $500 in fees and tax, Iberia might be $300 but AA metal would likely be about $5 in fees and taxes.  There are other routes to places in Asia on carriers like Japan Airways that may have much less in fees and taxes than BA but will still be more than $5. Some cities are also more expensive to fly in or out of in general. London is a good example of this issue. Paris to a much less degree.  BA charges big fees but… you are flying on AA metal….right?  However there is another “3rd rail” (Besides BA) t0 avoid. It’s the UK’s APD or Air Passenger Duty tax.  This tax is tied to both the distance of the flight and cabin class. On top of that, airports also charge additional Passenger Service Charges, though they’re usually within normal tax ranges.

Here is an example of the UK APD and misc junk fee costs per ticket London to USA:

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But many of these taxes and fees only apply if you originate in the United Kingdom, which means you can save money by flying out of another city on your return to the USA. So instead of starting your return trip to the US from London, start in Lisbon, Amsterdam or many other European cities. Paris also has some high taxes but much less than London LHR. If you fly out of another city you won’t be hit with the APD tax, even if you connect in London on the way home.  In fact it’s so bad that many UK travelers will take a low cost carrier to another nearby Euro city before taking a long haul back through the UK to avoid this in their own country !

OK, OK enough with the negative

There is a ton more to cover but I’m just trying to cover the top few tips here.

One major downside of staying on AA metal is that the product may not be as nice as other airlines. I wouldn’t be that worried about it. Sure you may see people on super-lux middle east carriers or even on AA partners like Cathay Pacific but AA isn’t bad overall. The Champagne may be more pedestrian and there is no shower on-board the plane but it’s not a slum. Some carriers like BA really have some sub-par products to AA anyway.

On AA metal in business (or the few routes with actual international first) you will have a cool lay flat seat with your personal IFE (In Flight Entertainment) TV screen that will have some of the latest movies and TV shows. You will likely have Bose Noise Cancelling (reducing) headphones, good food, decent service (usually), free liquor, beer and wine. Free check bags, priority boarding (before the plebes in cattle class). Also on many routes you may get airport lounge access and should get pre-departure beverage.  But most importantly you will have space and can sleep on red-eye flights which are very common on long haul flights.  Arriving in Europe or Asia after a long flight after a nap can really help you with jet-lag for sure. Oh I forgot you can still post a selfie of yourself for your Instagram or Facebook friends as they likely won’t be flying business class.

Why not book AA metal “first” class. International First (not to be confused with Domestic First which is today’s International “Premium Economy”) on AA is a bit nicer than business class. The seats are bigger, food and drink selection slightly better, better chance at getting free pajamas and you might get access to a Flagship lounge, etc. but in general it’s really not THAT much better and cost a ton more miles. In addition it’s only on a few routes like DFW-HKG on the 777-300 (77W).

The cost difference: First on AA metal to Europe is 85,000 miles each way versus 57,500 for business. or 170,000 versus 115,000 round trip. Unless you have millions of miles saved up it’s not worth the difference to me. Even on a super long routes to Asia it’s really not worth an extra 40,000 miles each way.

When to Book an Award

The Saaver awards (which is really the only awards you’ll want to book) open up about 330 days out. So it’s mid January 2019 as I write this which means you can book as far out as 11 months or mid December 2019. I know it’s hard to plan that far out but if you can it’s best to try to. Now the weird thing is that as seats go unsold, etc. AA will release additional space during those 11 months and may even open up space the day before a flight. Keep in mind that unless you have elite status on AA (which means you won’t likely be reading this as you know all these things already) you will have to pay a $75 fee to book within 21 days of departure.

Basically there are less business Saaver award seats available than people wanting to book them so you’ll need to keep checking if you can’t find the seat you want. Also popular routes like Paris, London, etc. will “sell out” more quickly due to demand.

How to Book

I am not going to discuss all the details here as this is a high level overview but basically you simply go to AA.com and even if you aren’t logged on you can search award seats but clicking on the “Redeem Miles” box in the search field.

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However……keep mind you will want to primarily search AA metal, right…So instead of from this home screen you can do and “Advanced Search” by clicking the option on the bottom right:

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Once you get to the Advanced Search page fill in the routes and dates, etc. then along the bottom select” “American Airlines” only which “usually” filters out the other carriers like BA.

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Additional Search Tips

Many times you search a route and get punished by having to have some odd connection like this extra stop through Scotland on the way to Israel !

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While this isn’t the worst you can try to search by segments and piece together a route with availability.  So in this example you could search for dates that have non-stop award seats from PHL-LHR and then add in the others. Keep in mind that the online tool may not let you piece these together so you may have to call and get a CSR too book it for you over the phone. They usually charge a fee for phone bookings but if you tell them the online tool wouldn’t let you they may waive that fee.

But wait….Also beware of “mixed cabin” awards. So the example above seems great. You are excited to sleep from PHL to EDI across the Atlantic but wait……see the red type at the bottom about class of service. Expand the view and you find out:

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You find out that it’s really not a lay flat business seat on one or more segments. Watch the details so you aren’t surprised. It’s one thing to have a short connecting flight in the back but you want the good seats for the long haul parts.

Additional final tips

Not all partners of AA list flights on the AA.com search tool. I don’t cover this but you can look for these partner flights elsewhere and call to book but it’s a pain that I try to avoid because I’m lazy.

Things change. When you book 11 months out, flight times can change, flights and routes can cancel, your schedule can change, aircraft seats can change and it can cost money to cancel award flights and retain your miles. AA is good about refunding and cancelling flights if the changes are major like the flight time moved from 3pm to 9am or a connection changed and won’t work for you. You can use this to your advantage but be flexible and don’t have your heart broken because you planned to see Paris during a 12 hour layover at CDG only to have it cut to 1 hour later by AA.

One good rule of thumb is to log in and check your flight plans every few weeks and/or use award wallet to track changes. Known as “Gardening” or “tending the garden” It’s also a good idea to print or save the original itinerary as you can get an email from AA saying your seat or flight changed but have no idea what the original was. This also makes it easier to cancel the trip without the fee if the change is significant.

Other factors impact availability. You dream of that Summer vacation to Paris but so do many other folks. That’s why awards to Europe are very hard to find but awards to Europe in Winter are easier. Be flexible see Paris in March when the tourist aren’t there.  Also if you aren’t set on a place to travel think of places that have good availability like South America. Typically award to Europe are hard to find. Asia is easier and South America even easier. Those are 3 main regions that AA metal flies to outside North America. There are others but some like to Australia are nearly impossible to find awards on.

I hope some of these tips help you plan your dream trip and I know it doesn’t cover it all by far.

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Should I buy the AA Platinum Upgrade offer or just do the UA Economy Plus Subscription?

So in 2017 I was Gold with American Airlines. I reached that again by mid year but managed to miss Platinum by a hair at the end of the year. I just didn’t see the profit in doing a mileage run. So far in 2018 I have some AA flights booked and some long haul award trips on AA but some of my business trips have been moved over to United for various reasons in this first Quarter.

So here comes the offers. I can buy up to Platinum on AA for $795

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But after thinking about it I don’t think it’s worth that much to me. Sure I might see a few additional domestic upgrades but the main value is the MCE seats. And if I’m stuck flying United more than normal in 2018 I might be better off to just get an Economy Plus subscription for $499.

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I’m not sure it’s worth it for either one. I actually wish AA would have given me a bit cheaper of an option to move up to Platinum since I was so close but at least I’m still Gold with a bunch of 500 mile stickers for now. I don’t think it’s worth it to do a status match with United either but we’ll see.

Quick photo review of Killeen-Fort Hood Regional Airport in Texas GRK

Small airport but easy to get to and simple parking layout. Signage could be improved but you’ll figure it out.

Entrance drive.

Signage

First floor entrance.

Main hall.

Main check-in area on first floor. Spotless and new.

As you can see not a ton of flights but better than you’d expect. The only odd thing about this airport for me is that they don’t allow passengers through security until just before boarding times. So I arrived about 8:30am for a flight boarding at 10:05am but couldn’t go through security until 9am. This would be Ok but I was trying to get some work done on my laptop so I set up in the cafeteria type area and then had to shut down to go through security.

Cafeteria style area outside security. Like a bullpen. Airside gate area was about as big but without tables.

Old style jet bridges altough the longer gate 1 has a newer glass jet bridge.

Major feature for most food choices here in and out of security.

View from tarmac.

American Airlines Playing Games With Award Availability on Non-Stop Flights?

This isn’t an exact science but my theory says that AA plays games with award space to keep it’s loyal customers from booking the best non-stop routes with miles. So say you want to book an award flight from the USA to Europe. We’ll pick DFW to Madrid for an example. So I’m searching 11 months out for my example:

DFW-MAD

I’m thrilled because I found an actual non-BA flight with awards space for 2 passengers!

dfwmad

Now this is not bad but I don’t actually live in DFW so I’m willing to stage from my non-hub to other hubs like say Chicago ORD. Since I’d rather not have an extra leg I just want the ORD-MAD flight. It’s available as part of this booking, right?

Think again here is the ORD-MAD non-BA selections for this same date:

ORDMAD

Gosh that’s weird. Why isn’t that same non-stop Iberia flight available? Oh well it looks like I can just stage to JFK and pick one of the TWO Iberia flights for that date. Not as close for me and I’ll likely need to trek from LGA to JFK but it should work OK. At least I can save that extra leg from ORD, right?

jfkmad

Well think again. I’d have to fly to Boston I guess. Boston is not an easy connection for me but hey at least that one is available. Maybe I managed to corner AA enough into Boston? To me this is silly. It’s either a poor system that doesn’t work well OR….done intentionally to keep you from booking the best flights on awards for some odd reason.

bosmad

LAX Admirals Club Gate 52 Review (Remote Terminal 5)

I’m traveling out of the remote 5 (gate 52) terminal at LAX today and had a chance to visit this Admirals Club. This is a HUGE benefit if you’re flying out of this remote bus terminal. There are not a lot of amenities for these Gate 52A-52Z or well what ever letter. I had low expectations for this lounge as I’m used to visiting the United Lounges at IAH that are tiny and have no toilets.  I’m not sure how crowded this lounge gets but it was very nice, not over crowded at 6am to 8am on a Thursday but maybe that was just luck.

They offer a full bar, typical food. Super nice staff and 4 toilets (2 Female and 2 Male). You could even use this as an arrivals lounge but no showers. The toilets are very large and would be easy to change clothes, etc.

Silly but AA is flying some 4 hour type routes on Regional RJ Jets into this terminal. I’m getting ready to board a non-stop to MCI that clocks in at about 3:40’ish. Thankfully my upgrade cleared at a lowly AA Gold. This route doesn’t seem to be elite heavy on the days I fly this route. This is a nice route for our small’ish Kansas City airport as it gives us a non-stop to a large HUB on the West Coast.

Summary: American doesn’t always get things right but this is one bright spot in a not so awesome terminal area. Thanks AA

AMA Rick Husband Amarillo Airport Review

Fox news on the TVs -Pro

Glass jetbridges -Pro

low volume peak times – Pro

Nice new terminal -Pro

I really couldn’t find any negatives about AMA. It is a nice modern airport. It’s well located, rental cars are just outside the door from baggage check. I’d say the only thing I would change is to add rental car bypass the desk features which this airport lacks. That is pretty minor in my book. 

Quick trip summary El Paso Texas ELP

I was in El Paso for business recently and thought I’d post a few photos. I stayed at the Holiday Inn Express & Suites West hotel in the Northwest suburbs of town. Good hotel with good staff. I would recommend it if in the area. It’s a little ways from the airport, like say 20 minutes but not bad.

The ELP airport wasn’t bad but I was a bit disappointed in the AA gate employee. Super laid back and in no big hurry to board passengers. Not good about communications, boarded late, etc. It really didn’t effect the flight as it was on time and a small plane but in an IROP situation I can see where things could get ugly here.