A Trap to Watch Out for Booking American AAdvantage Award Tickets

I’ve been corresponding with a reader about a trip from the US to China using AAdvantage miles. His trip is coming in just a few days, and he put a Cathay Pacific first class award on hold.

Getting one first class award seat is a whole lot easier than getting two these days. Cathay’s daily Boeing 777-300ER Boston flight is a good bet for first class space opening up.

The problem is getting to Boston. And it’s a generalizable problem. You can often use your American miles on their partners, but if you don’t live in the gateway city you’re leaving the country from it’s rarely possible to find award space on American to get there.

Technically there’s a process to ask American to release seats ‘to complete an itinerary’ (or ‘to complete a party’ say if there’s 2 seats available but you need 3). However I don’t remember the last time I saw such a request approved.

  • This is why I say that almost all American AAdvantage awards have cash co-pays, not just awards on British Airways. You have to fly to the international gateway city and you usually have to pay for it.

  • But American has made buying a separate ticket to your departure city a trap.

American will no longer through check luggage on separate tickets, even with oneworld partners and even between two American Airlines flights with one exception. American’s policy is more draconian than United’s (happy to through check onto Star partners) and Delta’s (will through check onto SkyTeam partners, and I’ve even checked through onto non-SkyTeam partners despite policy).

This reader purchased a ticket to Boston and planned to check bags. He gave American more money as a penalty for American’s lack of saver award space. It was still within 24 hours of his purchase and he could cancel for a refund. So I offered advice about how to buy the ticket.

American will only through check luggage on separate tickets:

  • When the connecting airline is a member of the oneworld alliance
  • When the separate ticket is booked as part of the same reservation

Note though that the strategy doesn’t work with American’s non-oneworld partners. If you book an Etihad award or an Air Tahiti Nui award American’s policy is not to through check on separate tickets. Period.

The best strategy is to book the award ticket and then ask an American agent over the phone to sell the revenue ticket into the existing award PNR. If the agent you speak to doesn’t know how to do this, hang up and call back.

Otherwise — just buying separate tickets as part of distinct reservations — American will make you collect your luggage, re-check them, and re-clear security. It’s a waste of customers’ time, and on award tickets for little reason.

It’s one thing when there are two paid tickets.

  • Government regulations require the check bag fee to be split between the airlines, rather than allowing both airlines to charge fees. So US airlines stopped through-checking onto other domestic carriers with bag fees. Blame airline greed, but ultimately blame the government whose regulation makes this worse for flyers.

  • They want customers to book a single ticket, to prevent taking advantage of possible airfare savings breaking travel onto two different bookings. So they make the money saving strategy super inconvenient.

With award tickets, domestic to international, this really isn’t an issue. For elites and co-brand credit card holders who don’t pay checked bag fees anyway this is offensive.

This reader is an old school experienced frequent flyer that’s flown premium cabin award tickets all over the world. Most of his history is with US Airways, so he’s not unfamiliar with the program. Yet he wasn’t aware of this policy.

How many people know to call up American and ask them to sell paid travel inside their award reservation to protect their ability to through check bags?

And how many customers would just book a separate ticket — with a legal connection — and find on the day of travel there’s not enough time to leave security, collect bags, re-check bags, and re-clear security before boarding their international flight?

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. Can you buy the connecting ticket and then have it merged into the existing award reservation, or must you book over the phone to get them merged?

  2. Hi all. I’m the reader whom Gary is referring. And I’m very glad he used my experience to help other readers.

    There is one issue, however, with the suggestion that one should call AA to book the connecting flight in order to include it in the reservation for baggage-convenience purposes: the fare one finds online may not be available by the time a telephone agent tries to book it.

    For example, yesterday I was looking to fly PHL-BOS in fewer than 48 hours, and I needed to fly only after 5pm on 10/12, which is when these flights are in their highest demand. Fares were around $900! I then looked at the one-stop options and found an odd offer, connecting through LGA: $467 in Economy, but just $273 in First. Needless to say, I made sure to jump on that $273 fare.

    Now if I had previously known about the potential baggage headache that Gary describes above, I’d probably still jump on that fare because I have a 4+ hour layover, affording plenty of time to retrieve and re-check my bags.

    But if I had a short layover that didn’t afford enough time to retrieve and re-check bags? I’d have to call the agent and pray that the online fare was still available.

  3. If you rely on published connection times when booking separate tickets for continuous travel on the same day, I’d say you aren’t a seasoned traveler at all, either in the air or on the ground. Take the advice of train travelers, who routinely book itineraries on separate tickets, and allow plenty of time for connections. If a day seems unreasonable when positioning for a long haul overseas flight, maybe rethink your travel plans.

  4. @chancer: See my comment above. I have a 4+ hour connection in BOS. So luckily the “trap” Gary details won’t affect me. I am, however, concerned about my short layover in LGA! I’m trying to get on a nonstop instead.

  5. If they lose the bag, then explain to the baggage people the problem and hopefully, when they find it, they will send it to you. Make sure you have your next flight and hotel details. See my experience below.

    I actually had something like that happen to me recently. I had a roller bag and two small personal items. I could have probably compacted them into one bigger personal item or stuffed them into the roller bag. In a connection at DFW to EWR arrive at around midnight, the attendants made me gate check the roller bag explaining that “American uses videotape records to make sure the gate agents are not allowing two personal items”. I was really unhappy about having to gate check, since I had a two week trip to Thailand JFK-NRT-BKK at 12 noon the next day and I had not packed. I did not want to wait for my item while I should be packing. Of course, the bag did not appear. There were some personal items, in the roller bag that I had forgotten to move into my personal items. But I explained the situation to the baggage agent. He took JFK-BKK information and my hotel information (which luckily I was carrying with me).

    I did not get back to NYC until around 2:30 AM, and stayed up all night packing. Believe it or not, my roller bag caught up with me in Tokyo and was on my plane in to Bangkok on Thai Airways (not even the same Alliance).

  6. I’m not clear on this. Say you are buying a ticket Ord on American then are on an Iberia avios award ticket to Madrid. Do you need to combine the American ticket with the Iberian award ticket to get the bag thru checked?

  7. “Getting one first class award seat is a whole lot easier than getting two these days.”

    Isn’t it ALWAYS the case???

  8. I have never had trouble through check my luggage on 2 separate domestic AA tickets. Not sure about international or other One World airlines. Personally I think if you are elite and ask nicely, they will do it.

  9. First, I think it’s important to remind your readers who are trying to book CP with AA miles that you are wasting your time if you try to do it online. When you call AA reservations, you have to first get the agent to agree to waive the ridiculous fee for speaking to a live agent. If you can’t, (HUCA) “hang up and call again.
    I was able to get business class last year for BOS-HKG-CNX (Chiang Mai) and then KMG (Kunming)-HKG-ORD-PBI. 70,000 miles each way. When I made the reservation, for some reason the flights from ORD to PBI were not showing up as available for miles. This is where it is important to tell the agent “to put it in the notes field” so that when you call back months later, it may be available. Otherwise, as you stated, the domestic portion of the continuing flight will cost you a lot of money or miles.
    It turned out that the agent looked it up and saw, in the notes field, that I wanted to return home to Florida. The 70,000 miles should include Asia to your US city, not just the Asia to the CP gateway cities. Chicago actually had more availability than BOS, and so I chose ORD and actually elected to stay overnight in Chicago instead of continuing on the same day to Florida after the long trans-Pacific flight.
    We often choose to stay overnight in certain places along the way especially after a long flight even though we’re on our own as far as hotels. You can make a “legal connection” this way as long as it’s under 24 hours. But that 24 hours is good for your sanity. You have to retrieve your luggage in your US arrival city anyway.
    In our case, the ORD-PBI was available only in coach, but we were still happy to have this included in our ticket since it saved us about $150-200 per person for that part of the flight. Make sure that you remind the agent to put in the note field that the baggage allowance for the whole trip is the business class allowance even though the last leg was in coach.
    It always depends on the “attitude” of the agent that you get when you call. If you are friendly and polite, I have found that they will go out of their way to satisfy you.

  10. I avoid checking bags at all, even though I could do so for free with the credit card I have. Just too many things that can go wrong.

    I think the big elephant in the room here is the lack of Saaver Award seats in the first place. They’ve really killed the value of their program with this “copay” system Gary describes, and a host of other customer unfriendly changes, not to mention the deteriorating product itself. I now value AAdvantage miles at 1.1 cents. Said credit card will be canceled when the annual fee comes due, unless the fee is completely waived.

  11. I’ve never actually had Delta refuse to through-check a bag for me regardless of airline. Flew DCA-JFK with them and connected to Singapore to Frankfurt and Lufthansa to Barcelona (2 separate tickets). Delta agent happily checked my bag all the way through to Barcelona with a smile.

  12. @johnny since those tickets are issued by different airlines it is not possible to combine and american’s policy would be not to through check. Jerk move, huh?

  13. @Gardy — you cannot. You have to sell both tickets into the same reservation. Technically it can be done in either order, revenue ticket first then award or award ticket first then revenue, but it will be simpler and cleaner from a pricing perspective to do the award ticket first.

  14. When this happens to me (often on paid tickets mind you), it is often connecting from BDL to PHL to connect on to QR to DOH. In such instances, I have no qualms about booking a refundable seat on AA and using that to reclear security so I can keep my Pre-Check. That it denies AA the chance to sell the seat makes it all the more sweeter. F them and this policy.

  15. I’ve made about 150+ trans-Atlantic or trans-Pacific trips and in the rare circumstances where the above scenario presents itself, I have merely asked the agents to LINK the record locators so that they are connected to each other — and then I haven’t had a problem. Granted, I haven’t had to use this technique in a while and I’m happy to concede that rules and procedures have changed since then.

    I also always book directly with the airline and never through a 3rd party travel agent.

  16. I had this same issue come up. I’m AA Platinum and booked an award ticket SFO-MIA then a connecting flight MIA-DCA. I assumed since both flights were on AA there would be no issue with checking bags through but I was wrong. I had to wait for bags in MIA, recheck and go thru security again both ways. Checked with every agent I came across (check in desk, Admirals Club and Twitter) and all said the same thing. Terrible experience!

  17. Those of us who live in smaller cities (mine is one million) are constantly forced to deal with this chaos. We have essentially been abandoned by the USAlegacy3. We have one, perhaps two flights a day to their respective hubs, usually at 5AM and 7:30PM
    The international connections are generally intolerable: e.g. arrive Denver 5pm after a 24 hour flight, and 3 connections, with the next “connecting” flight out at 5am., 12 hours later. Or, buy your own ticket from Den and get “punished” by American. No, they will not release your luggage or Yes, you MUST collect your luggage immediately and go through local TSA as departing passenger.
    My next outward bound departure, I will have 4.5 hours waiting in Phoenix where I have a connection on the same ticket. But I am warned that I will be expected to collect my checked bag and recheck it again. Why? I am flying Skywest Airlines dba American Eagle connecting to an American Airlines flight number “provided” by British Airways. Everyone seems to have their own rules, few of which are for passenger’s well-being or convenience. Even fewer of those rules make logical sense.

  18. It is important to remember that AA will also charge you a telephone ticketing fee to insert the revenue space into the existing PNR for the award ticket. There is no way to have the revenue space inserted and then ticket from the website.

  19. I get all this, but I sort of reject the copay rubric you’re using for AA. Why? It’s a small step towards normalizing their abysmally shitty saver award space.

    I don’t want to let them off the hook for decimating their value proposition, and I adjust my spending and flying patterns according to who is giving me best value.

  20. Do you know how Business Extra awards are treated for this purpose? The same as AAdvantage awards? Example: DFW-HKG on a Business Extra award, then HKG-SIN on a Cathay paid ticket or AAdvantage ticket. Inconvenient to have to clear HKG customs, reclaim bags, and recheck.

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