The Updated Ultimate Guide to Booking Award Tickets Using American Miles

Booking American AAdvantage Awards: Your ability to book an award, and how much it costs, is a function of:

  • Whether (and what kind of) award seats are open on the flights you want (availability)
  • The mileage program’s award chart (miles pricing)
  • Whether they impose fuel surcharges or other fees (cash pricing)
  • If the mileage program lets you combine those flights into a single award or makes you redeem multiple awards (routing rules)

I really like American AAdvantage’s award chart for premium cabin redemptions. The mileage price for most destinations, in business and especially first class, is quite good.

They also only add significant fuel surcharges onto British Airways awards (and modest fuel surcharges onto Iberia awards). This makes the cost of transatlantic awards expensive in cash, since BA is their largest partner across the Atlantic. In contrast, Delta adds fuel surcharges onto awards that originate in Europe or that are on certain partners (like China Southern and China Eastern) and United does not add fuel surcharges onto award tickets at all.

What I don’t like is that American has the most complex routing rules of any frequent flyer program and they do not publish those rules publicly at all so members are often left scratching their heads as to why an award costs a certain price.

I’ve written guides on this in the past, but since those rules have recently had some minor tweaks (and there have been a handful of such tweaks since the last time I updated the guide) it makes sense to walk through them again.

As I said, American doesn’t publish this information anyway. So what I know about these awards comes from hundreds of award bookings I’ve made, discussions with others, and of course checking against the knowledge that’s been published by a definitive source online in the form of unpublished rules shared over at TravelingBetter.com.

This will show you the rules, tips, and tricks to make the most of your American miles for international award tickets on American’s own flights and on their airline partners.

How to Book American AAdvantage Awards: One-Way Partner Awards

Here’s American’s partner award chart.

It used to look like this:

Booking American AAdvantage Awards

But they now have a separate chart for each region of the world. It looks like this:

Booking American AAdvantage Awards

This is the chart for flights starting from North America (the prices are the same if you are going to North America). For other regions of the world, say you’re originating in Europe and want an award to the Middle East or India, you select Europe as the region whose chart you want to look at.

And here are the rules.

Stopovers: Stopovers are not permitted. Anything over 4 hours on a purely domestic award, and (what’s relevant for this purpose) anything 24 hours or longer on an international award would constitute a stopover and require a separate award. When you’re putting together an international award, the 24 hour rule applies even to your domestic connecting segments.

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 an extra award.

This restriction means no more ‘free one-way awards’ using American miles.

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” often do not count either, although I’ve also had them accepted. 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.

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 – 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 from 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 American or South America Zone 2 and Africa can connect in Middle East/Indian Subcontinent if the flight arriving in and departing from that third region is on Qatar Airways.

  4. Travel between North/Central/South America and Asia 2 can connect in:Asia 1

  5. Travel between the Indian Sub Continent/Middle East and Asia 1 or South Pacific can connect in:Asia 2

  6. Travel between Africa and Asia 1 can connect in Asia 2 or in Middle East/Indian Subcontinent provided that connection arrives and departs on Qatar Airways.

  7. Travel between Africa and Asia 2 can connect in Middle East/Indian Subcontinent provided that connection arrives and departs on Qatar Airways.

  8. Travel between Asia 1 and Europe or South Pacific can connect in:Asia 2

  9. Travel between Europe and Asia 1 can connect in Middle East/Indian Subcontinent provided that connection arrives and departs on Qatar Airways.

  10. Travel between Europe and Asia 2 can connect in Middle East/Indian Subcontinent provided that connection arrives and departs on Qatar Airways.

  11. Travel between Europe and South Pacific can connect in Middle East/Indian Subcontinent provided that connection arrives and departs on Qatar Airways or now arrives and departs on Qantas.

  12. Travel between North America and Indian Subcontinent/Middle East can connect in Europe & Afghanistan /Bangladesh /Bhutan /British Indian Ocean Territory India /Nepal /Pakistan /Maldives /Sri Lanka

  13. Travel between Central/South America Zone 1 and Indian Subcontinent/Middle East can connect in Europe & Afghanistan /Bangladesh /Bhutan /British Indian Ocean Territory India /Nepal /Pakistan /Maldives /Sri Lanka

  14. Travel between South America Zone 2 and Indian Subcontinent/Middle East can connect in Europe & Afghanistan /Bangladesh /Bhutan /British Indian Ocean Territory India /Nepal /Pakistan /Maldives /Sri Lanka

  15. Travel between North America and Indian Subcontinent may be via the Pacific if your transpacific flight is on American Airlines or Cathay Pacific and onward travel is on Cathay Pacific, SriLankan, or Jet Airways.

So you can fly from the US to Africa via London or from the US to Africa via Doha on Qatar Airways but you cannot fly from the US to Africa via Abu Dhabi on American’s partner Etihad as there’s no exception allowing transit in the Middle East region unless that transit is on Qatar Airways which would mean connecting in Doha.

And you can fly from the US to Hong Kong via Tokyo but you cannot fly from the US to Tokyo via Hong Kong as there’s no exception allowing transit in Asia 2 on a ticket from the US 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”).

This of course requires you to know American’s definition of regions.

For instance, South America 1 is Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Venezuela. The rest of South America is ‘South America 2’.

And ‘Asia 1’ is Japan, Korea, and Mongolia. The bulk of Southeast Asia will be ‘Asia 2’. American groups places like India, Pakistan, and the Maldives in the same region as the Middle East (Israel and Tajikistan!) calling it ‘Middle East / Indian Subcontinent’.

By knowing where your destination is located you can find where on the chart you’re flying between and thus how much your award should cost.

There are both extreme values in this approach, and odd costs. For instance you can fly first class between the US and Asia 2 for 67,500 miles one way. A first class award from the US to Sri Lanka (which is in Asia 2) is thus 67,500 miles as long as you follow an allowable routing for North America-Asia 2 meaning US – Hong Kong – Colombo works, and flying via Tokyo (Asia 1) is allowed, but flying via the Middle East is not.

Meanwhile a first class award to Male (the capital of the Maldives), which is 483 miles away from Colombo, is 90,000 miles one-way. You can route via the Middle East but you cannot route via Hong Kong on one award.

Correct pricing: American’s system automatically prices award tickets. It’s usually correct based on the rules above, but is not always correct. 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 charges $30 for domestic awards booked by phone and $40 for international awards. They do not charge this fee for Executive Platinum members and they do not charge this fee for awards you can’t book on the website.
  • Close-in booking fee. Awards for travel less than 21 days out costs $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 plus only $25 for each additional passenger. This fee is waived for Executive Platinums.
  • 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.

How to find availability:

For award travel that includes most American AAdvantage partner airlines, you are going to have to call to book the award.

The American website only displays availability for airberlin, Alaska, British Airways, Finnair, Hawaiian, Qantas, Royal Jordanian, and US Airways (and those airlines’ eligible affiliates).

The American website is often the best tool for searching those because they have a fairly good award calendar. But the AA website isn’t nearly as extensive in terms of searching for partners as the Qantas and British Airways websites. As a result you probably need to sign up for frequent flyer accounts with both of those airlines as well and use those sites to search for award space.

The Qantas site adds access to Iberia, Cathay Pacific, Qatar, S7 Airlines, LAN, TAM, and Sri Lankan which AA.com doesn’t support.

The British Airways site adds access to Iberia, S7 Airlines, Cathay Pacific, Japan Airlines, Malaysia AIrlines, Qatar Airways, LAN, TAM, and Sri Lankan which AA.com doesn’t support.

The BA site, therefore, has the most additional partners and also partners not found on the Qantas site. However I personally find the Qantas site easier and faster to navigate. Thus I tend to use it for quick searching, and the BA site for JAL and Malaysia.

These sites are not perfect, and they do occasionally show ‘false positives’ (seats that aren’t really there and will error out when you try to book) or seats that American agents can’t see when you call (usually that just means you have to hang up, call back, or the American computer isn’t showing space when searching a connecting itinerary and they need to search just the segment you’re looking for, or even occasionally vice versa). Sometimes there are just data/connection or syncing issues.

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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Comments

  1. Hey Gary!

    Wanted to thank you for replying to my question on your recent “ask anything” post!

    Anyways, I have an first class award booked from AUH>JFK on Etihad in August for 90,000 AA miles and need to get to LAX. To my understanding I can fly first class within 24 hours from JFK>LAX correct? Also, do I have to find MileSAAver availability in first class to get on that flight? The return date I am not seeing anything in First MileSAAver from JFK>LAX within 24 hours of landing in New York…Any help or info would be greatly appreciated, thanks!

    Levi

  2. @Levi yes, within 24 hours, and yes you need saver availability for that (you could also take saver business or economy and downgrade). And you can connect.

  3. I need to fly BOM-CPT, and the oneworld interactive route map shows Qatar through DOH connecting to British Airways in Johannesburg. Since this exception does not appear on your list, will I be charged for 2 awards rather than just one, even though it’s a published routing and there is no way to get from india to africa on oneworld without transiting a third region?

    Similarly, to fly from CMN to CPT requires transiting MAD and LHR. So 2 awards?

    Thanks.

  4. Great post.

    However, I’ve got some questions. Do you know what are the off-peak dates for Asia Region 2 for AA? I’m planning to redeem my AA miles from CMB to TPE. I have tried searching on BA and found available flights. However, I don’t know if those Avios shown will apply as the same rate as AA, as on AA site it’s said 22,500 miles for Business Class (One way).

    And is it possible to book a flight from CMB to TPE?

    I’m so sorry as I’m super new in this miles game.

    Thank you so much in advance.

    Have a great day

  5. Gary, is this post’s rules & exceptions list still valid with all of the AAdvantage changes in 2016?

    I’m in the middle of securing an award to a smaller town in Argentina (Mendoza), and am running into issues with one segment (MDZ-SCL) is unavailable, and thus at the moment I have an open jaw itinerary (LAX-SCL-MDZ-(open)-SCL-LAX). I have 3 days left on my hold.

    I’m nervous that the advice the AA phone agent gave me is too optimistic… She said I would be able to add in missing segment for free if / when it opens up, but I worry that it would be considered a change to the origin of the 2nd one-way, and thus be subject to the $150 change fee.

    On a side note, how often are you frustrated that BA & Qantas’ sites don’t have all the world’s airport codes loaded? MDZ doesn’t show up on either site, though sometimes it will work and other times it will error out. How hard can it be to have a database connection with a complete list?? //Rant over.

    theBOAT

  6. I have a award on hold from SFO to BOM on ETIHAD, would i be able to add the LAX to SFO segment to the award at the same miles cost?

    Somehow LAX to BOM doesnt show any availability at all the way to April, only shows availability one week from today.

    If i add, LAX to SFO on the award, and if the space opens up from LAX later on, would it be considered as change in origin?

  7. Gary – Question for you. I am flying to JNB and then on to LVI. My flight to JNB arrives at 10am but the flight to LVI (one daily…) departs at 11am – not enought time to clear customs, re-check bags, etc. Will this still constitute a stopover in JNB?

  8. Question Gary,

    AA’s site is showing me no sAAver space on direct flights for an itenerary (lax-dfw), but searching a different itinerary for the same date (lax-mia), it’s showing sAAver space on a direct dfw-lax leg as a connection en route to MIA. Does AA provide variable award space depending on itinerary? Or is award space fixed “per flight”, and this is just a tech glitch with their site?

  9. @Gary (and anyone interested)

    I called AAdvantage and was able to book it, and the agent had no trouble finding it. It was an economy sAAver award. Expertflyer indicated it was the last one available, so I don’t know if you’ll be able to replicate the situation, but here’s what it was:

    Oct 12, 2016 AA 2561 LAX-DFW 10:15-15:20

    Of possible interest, this flight is scheduled to be on their new 787-9 aircraft, though I don’t see how or why that should have any bearing on this issue.

  10. I think simple questions: I booked an AUS-PHL, and then PHL-AUS round trip award ticket on American for December using 25,000 miles.

    1. If I don’t use the first award segment, is my second award segment still valid? Or, does the whole award ticket cancel out? I know the policy for AA revenue tickets, but I’m not sure about award tickets.

    2. Or, can I change my award ticket to MIA-PHL for first segment, then keep the PHL-AUS return segment, without incurring any change fees? Assuming the 12,500 miles are available for my MIA-PHL date in December.

    Any magic words to use with the AA phone representative (I’m currently GOLD).

    Thanks.

  11. I am looking for two business class saver award flights on AA (HTS-DUB) anytime in September, 2017.
    There are flights available for one seat, but when I change to two tickets, it says there are none available. How can I get the two tickets?
    Thanks

  12. I wish to use AA advantage points to fly one way from Puerto Plata, DR to Lima, Peru using AA via Miami then LAN to Lima how many points would it take? Can I commence my travel in the Dominican?

  13. I want to book a 14 day trip for MSP to Athens Greece. There’s 4 of us total 2 adults, 1 child (3yrs) & a 1 yr old who will be lap child to save $. I have 144621 points.
    I am fairly open to when we go. I know I will have to buy at least 1 adult ticket.
    The best deal I have right now 11:50 flight AA471 to PHL then 4:25 flight AA478 to ATH cost 47.5 K miles
    BA 641 leave ATH 3:30 BA183 LTH 7:50 pm – overnight long flight ideal for the 2 kids
    overnight in JFK leave LGA next day to get to MSP cost 30K

    Problem is I’m 10K+ short with this plan. I can do a crappy flight to Athens for 30K but I love the idea of only 1 stop on the way there.

    Any tips for booking this better?
    Any tips for great ways to transfer/buy/earn 10K

  14. Gary, a question:
    I am looking to book 4 award seats in Bus/First class from SYD-BAR return. I can see plenty of availability on the BA website for Qatar Airways on different days but when I ring AA, they can’t see any of the award seats I can see.
    Any suggestions ? Thanks

  15. Hi Gary – I was trying to book MAA-AUH-JFK (EY) -YVR (CX) and the agent wasn’t able to price it out (although she confirmed availability on all sectors). Do you know if this routing is illegal, and if so, why?

    Them you!

  16. Hi @Sid — American AAdvantage requires you to follow the routing rules of the most significant carrier on your itinerary. Etihad fares for MAA-YVR aren’t generally going to provide for routing via JFK or travel on Cathay. The reservation WILL price, just as two separate awards (MAA-JFK // JFK-YVR)

  17. Thanks Gary. That makes sense but is unfortunate 🙁 AS may be a better bet for the last segment.

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