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As I wrote previously, I love United Airlines frequent flyer miles. Part of it is its geography and being close to a United Airlines hub (Washington-Dulles)and the other part is its award availability. And aside from that, they do not play games that American Airlines and Delta Airlines play with redemptions.
First I’ll start with American Airlines. And an experience trying to help a friend book his stockpile of 300k+ American Airlines frequent flyer miles illustrates why I’m not a fan.
A Limited Airline Alliance Network…
My friend wanted to fly to either Australia or Europe using points for roundtrip flights in business class. He had over 300K American Airlines miles, so that should be easy, right? And who wouldn’t want to fly the 17+ hour flight to Sydney in lie-flat seats?
American Airlines is a member of the Oneworld airline alliance. Oneworld is the smallest airline alliance and has a limited reach compared to Star Alliance or SkyTeam, the two other major airline alliances. Qantas Airways, the flag carrier for Australia, is a member of the Oneworld airline alliance and therefore a partner with American Airlines. Unfortunately, award availability to Australia is notoriously horrible. It’s so horrible that some points blogs announce when they actually find award space between the U.S. and Australia. This is why it’s good to diversify your points portfolio with different currencies, especially travel cards that transfer to many different airline partners.
There are certainly redeeming qualities of the Oneteam alliance, and you’d think to have the only major Australian airline would be one of them. Qantas is a great airline, but in our case, its stingy award availability gives the airline little value when trying to spend AA miles.
…Especially When Trying to Book Award Flights to Europe
So I turned my attention to award flights to Europe. I first wanted to find award space on the transatlantic flight using AA miles, so I searched for availability from Philadelphia, an American Airlines hub. I found what seemed like a wide-open business class award space from Philadelphia to Prague (one of my friend’s preferred destinations).
So many options. However, almost all of those days with business class award availability were on British Airways. While British Airways is a well-respected airline and their frequent flyer program has many advantages, they also charge exorbitant fuel surcharges on long-haul flight redemptions. British Airways would charge $526.70 each way for each person in addition to the cost in AA miles. Total buzzkill.
So let’s try to avoid British Airways altogether. The AA website allows you the option to search only for non-stop flights from your origin to your destination. In the award space calendar, you’ll see a dropdown menu for “Number of Stops” just under the yellow box on the left side of the screen. If you change your number of stops to “Non-stop only,” you’ll see only the award space for American Airlines business class redemptions, since they are the only airline that flies non-stop between Philadelphia and Prague. This avoids seeing the British Airways award options since they would require a stop in London. After making this change, there’s not nearly as much award space as we initially thought.
So British Airlines charges way too much in surcharges and American Airlines has limited award availability. What about the other European partners?
The other European partners in the Oneworld alliance are Finnish airline Finnair, Spanish airline Iberia, and Russian airline S7. Haven’t heard of S7? That’s because they don’t have any destinations in North America. Never heard of Finnair either? Their only year-round flight to the United States is to New York City. Iberia is perhaps the best option for award flights between the United States and Europe, but they only serve five U.S. destinations year-round.
Compare those choices to Lufthansa (a member of the Star Alliance) which has 20 year-round U.S. destinations. And Lufthansa is only one of nine Star Alliance airlines with flights between Europe and the United States. So if you want to book award flights to Europe (which is probably most of us), AA miles don’t leave you with a lot of options.
Limited Award Availability on Domestic Flights
As I mentioned in the post about our trip to Chile, I signed up for the American Airlines credit card before I really knew how to play the points game. I had about 60,000 AA miles from the credit card signup, and they were burning a hole in my pocket. Since Washington National airport is a hub for American Airlines, my intention was to redeem those 60,000 AA miles for roundtrip domestic flights to somewhere awesome and on the other side of the country. Like Portland or San Diego.
Even from an American Airlines hub, I couldn’t find any good award availability. Part of it was my schedule, but even looking months in advance, I had limited options. It got to the point where I was willing to waste those miles on flights to Charlotte just because it was the only destination we could find two award seats for a quick weekend getaway.
I’m a bit spoiled living in Washington, DC, since I have three major airports to choose from (Washington-Dulles, Washington-National, and Baltimore). But if I had that much difficulty finding award availability from an American Airlines hub, just imagine how difficult it would be to find award space from a smaller airport. My friend, who wanted to go to Prague? He had to be willing to drive to Philadelphia since finding award availability to Philadelphia and then to Prague was nearly impossible. So not only are the Oneworld airline partners to Australia and Europe limited, but the connecting flights to take you to those long haul award flights are also hard to come by.
AA Miles are More Difficult to Accumulate via Credit Card Spending
I’ve talked about the various credit card currencies, and Marriott points are the credit card currency that can be transferred into AA miles. So besides opening an American Airlines credit card, the Marriott credit card is perhaps the best way to earn the equivalent of AA miles. Marriott points are super valuable and can be easily transferred into a wide variety of airline frequent flyer programs. The Marriott program also gives a 15,000 point bonus for every 60,000 points you transfer, so there’s an extra incentive to transfer large chunks of Marriott points into frequent flyer programs, such as American Airlines.
While I love the Marriott loyalty program, it’s not easy to accumulate points (and therefore AA miles) through credit card spending. That’s because the SPG/Marriott credit cards do not offer broad category spending bonuses, such as 3x or 2x points on dining and travel. These are standard bonuses for the Chase Sapphire and Citi credit cards, and they can really add up over the course of a year. If you are an infrequent flyer, credit card signups and spending is the best way to accumulate points in credit card currencies. Since Marriott doesn’t reward credit card spending as much as other credit card currencies, that also makes earning AA miles more difficult.
Advantages of AA Miles
It’s not all doom and gloom. There are also a few advantages of American Airlines miles.
One huge advantage is the ability to redeem American Airlines miles for flights on Qatar Airways and Etihad Airways, two of the three uber-luxurious gulf airlines. Qatar Airways is a member of the Oneworld alliance, and Etihad Airways doesn’t belong to any alliance, but still partners with American Airlines. I’ll say again that our flight in Emirates business class was pretty mind-blowing. But Qatar and Etihad Airways might be even better. Etihad Airways is known for offering a ridiculous first-class experience called the “Apartment.” As you can imagine, it can be hard finding award availability, but AA miles are one of the best ways to secure a spot in one of these “seats.”
And there are other Oneworld airlines that offer great redemption options. If you’re heading to Asia, Cathay Pacific and Japan Airlines are also fantastic airlines that can be booked using AA miles. In fact, you can use AA miles to book award flights on 4 of the 11 five-star airlines as rated by Skytrax, an airline rating service. Availability may be limited, but those kinds of aspirational redemptions make travel hacking fun.
As much as I throw shade on AA miles, I did just find two business class award seats between DC and Chile over Labor Day weekend. And my friend who wanted to fly to Prague? He was able to secure two roundtrip business class seats with all those AA miles. So it’s not completely impossible to find award space. Just be flexible with both your schedule and your destination.
At the end of the day, it all comes down to making the most of the frequent flyer miles that you have but I’ll still stick with my United Airlines miles. But it’s also good to diversify the travel credit cards that you own so you have a diverse portfolio and can access different benefits and perks.