Review of AAdvantage, American Airlines’ frequent flyer program (pros & cons)

Friday newsletters always feature luxury travel conteststipsseries, or news.

Today (January 19, 2018): Review of American Airlines’ frequent flyer program.

I have previously published (and continuously update) my reviews of the most important hotel loyalty programs (including Starwood Preferred Guest, World of Hyatt and Marriott Rewards to name a few). This year, I will publish a series of reviews of the world’s best frequent flyer programs, which are mostly (but not always) managed by the world’s largest airlines. Today, I start with an in-depth review of AAdvantage (with pros and cons).

AAdvantage is the frequent flyer program of American Airlines. Launched in 1981, it was the second such loyalty program in the world (after the first at Texas International Airlines in 1979) and remains the largest with a reported membership of more than 100 million. For decades, AAdvantage was by far the best and most rewarding loyalty program, not only for American citizens living nearby the American Airlines hubs of Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, and Dallas) but also for travelers based outside the USA. However, that all changed after USA Airways took over American Airlines, keeping the brand name and the loyalty program, but introducing a massive devaluation and – last year – a revenue based earning system. But despite these changes, I still consider AAdvantage to be the best frequent flyer program in the world because of the many benefits.

AAdvantage features in my top 10 list of the best frequent flyer programs to join in 2018.

What is your opinion about AAdvantage? Leave a comment below.

In this overview, I explain the AAdvantage program and how to benefit from it:

  1. AAdvantage elite levels
  2. How to earn AAdvantage miles in the air
  3. How the earn AAdvantage miles on the ground
  4. How to spend AAdvantage miles (and travel for free)
  5. Best and worst AAdvantage redemptions
  6. Pros & things I like about the AAdvantage program
  7. Cons & things I don’t like about the AAdvantage program
  8. Poll: what’s the world’s best frequent flyer program?


1. AADVANTAGE ELITE LEVELS

There are four elite levels that you can work your way up to when you join the AAdvantage loyalty program. AAdvantage Gold is the entry-level; AAdvantage Platinum the second level; AAdvantge Platinum Pro the third level; and Executive Platinum is the top-level. Each level has benefits and as you move from AAdvantage Gold to Platinum then Platinum Pro and finally Executive Platinum, these benefits become more valuable. There are 2 ways to qualify for AAdvantage elite status based on your activity during the calendar year: either by elite qualifying miles or by elite qualifying segments (number of flights) flown on American Airlines and/or one of the One World alliance airlines. In addition, you are also required to spend a minimum of at least $,3000 USD (elite qualifying dollars) with American Airlines per calendar year to qualify for elite status.

  • Gold status is reached after 25,000 qualifying miles or 30 qualifying segments per calendar year in addition to $3,000 USD minimum annual spending level. AAdvantage Gold members are equivalent to Ruby status members in the One World alliance and enjoy the following benefits:
    • Complimentary auto-requested upgrades on flights 500 miles or less
    • 24-hour upgrade window
    • 40% elite mileage bonus
    • 50% off main cabin extra seats (complimentary at check-in)
    • Complimentary preferred seats
    • 1 free checked bag
  • Platinum status is reached after 50,000 qualifying miles or 60 qualifying segments per calendar year in addition to $6,000 USD minimum annual spending level. AAdvantage Platinum members are equivalent to Sapphire status members in the One World alliance and enjoy the following benefits:
    • Complimentary auto-requested upgrades on flights 500 miles or less
    • 48-hour upgrade window
    • 60% elite mileage bonus
    • Complimentary main cabin extra and preferred seats
    • 2 free checked bags
    • Access to One World Business Class and frequent flyer lounges
  • Platinum Pro status is reached after 75,000 qualifying miles or 90 qualifying segments per calendar year in addition to $9,000 USD minimum annual spending. AAdvantage Platinum Pro members are equivalent to Sapphire status members in the One World alliance and enjoy the following benefits:
    • Complimentary auto-requested upgrades
    • 72-hour upgrade window
    • 80% elite mileage bonus
    • Complimentary main cabin extra and preferred seats
    • 2 free checked bags
    • Access to One World Business Class and frequent flyer lounges
  • Executive Platinum status is reached after 100,000 qualifying miles or 120 qualifying segments per calendar year in addition to $12,000 USD minimum annual spending level. AAdvantage Executive Platinum members are equivalent to Emerald status members in the One World alliance and enjoy the following benefits:
    • 4 one-way systemwide upgrades (with the ability to earn 4 more for a total of 8 per year)
    • Complimentary auto-requested upgrades
    • 100-hour upgrade window
    • 120% elite mileage bonus
    • Complimentary main cabin extra and preferred seats
    • 3 free checked bags
    • Access to One World First and Business Class and frequent flyer lounges


2. EARNING AADVANTAGE MILES IN THE AIR

There are two different types of miles that you can earn with AAdvantage: elite qualifying miles and award redeemable miles.

  • Elite qualifying miles can be earned on flights operated by American Airlines, airlines of the One World alliance, and Alaska Airlines. The only purpose of these miles is to determine your eligibility for AAdvantage elite status during a given calendar year (cf supra). The elite qualifying miles you collect during a calendar year become invalid the next year and cannot be redeemed for any sort of rewards. Elite qualifying miles represent a percentage of the actual miles flown (including applicable minimum mileage guarantees) based on the airline and the booking code purchased. For example, the following number of elite qualifying miles is earned on American Airlines operated flights (check here what you earn on other airlines):
    • Full Fare First/Business Class ticket (F, J): 3 elite qualifying miles per mile flown
    • Discount First/Business Class ticket (A, D, I , R): 2 elite qualifying miles per mile flown
    • Premium Economy Class ticket (W, P): 1.5 elite qualifying miles per mile flown
    • Full fare Economy Class ticket (Y): 1.5 elite qualifying miles per mile flown
    • Economy Class ticket (H, K, M, L, V, G, S, N, Q, O): 1 elite qualifying mile per mile flown
  • Award redeemable miles can be earned on flights operated by American Airlines, airlines of the One World alliance, and several other airline partners. These miles can be exchanged for a wide variety of great rewards (more on that below). The more you spend, and the higher your elite status, the more award redeemable miles you will earn, although there is an earning maximum of 75,000 award miles per ticket:
    • AAdvantage member without status: 5 miles for every U.S. dollar
    • Gold member: 7 miles for every U.S. dollar (40% bonus)
    • Platinum member: 8 miles for every U.S. dollar (60% bonus)
    • Platinum Pro member: 9 miles for every U.S. dollar (80% bonus)
    • Executive Platinum member: 11 miles for every U.S. dollar (120% bonus)

American Airlines offers one of the best frequent flyers in the world to boost and maximize your mileage earnings because it has so many partner airlines:

  • Award and elite qualifying miles can be earned on all 13 airlines of the One World Alliance, which all enjoy high-flying reputations for quality service. These carriers include American Airlines, British Airways, Cathay Pacific Airways, Finnair, Iberia, Japan Airlines, LATAM Airlines, Malaysia Airlines, Qantas, Qatar Airways, Royal Jordanian, S7 Airlines, and SriLankan Airlines.
  • AAdvantage also allows its members to earn award and elite qualifying miles on Alaska Airlines, a non-One World alliance airline.
  • Award qualifying miles (but not elite qualifying miles) can also be earned by traveling on several non-One World alliance airlines with whom American Airlines partners. These airlines include Fiji Airways, Etihad Airways, Hawaiian Airlines, Gulf Air, Jet Airways, Seaborn Airlines, and Westjet.

In addition to elite qualifying and award redeemable miles, American Airlines regularly launches generous promotions to earn lots of award redeemable bonus miles (often 20,000 bonus miles or more) for flying eligible (mostly transatlantic or newly launched) routes in their premium cabin. Those promotions are often launched in conjunction with its One World partners Iberia, Finnair and British Airways, that run identical promotions at the same time.


3. EARNING AADVANTAGE MILES ON THE GROUND

The possibilities to earn award redeemable miles and boost your account are endless within the AAdvantage program, even when not flying, by making use of the more than 1,000 additional AAdvantage partners.

  • Each time you stay in a hotel which partners with AAdvantage, you can earn miles. This will mostly be around 500 to 1000 miles per hotel stay. All you need to do is present your AAdvantage card number at check-in.
  • Several hotel loyalty programs allow you to convert your hotel points into AAdvantage miles. These programs include Best Western Rewards, Club Carlson, Hilton Honors, World of Hyatt, IHG Rewards Club, Marriott Rewards, Wyndham Rewards, and Starwood Preferred Guests (you can read my reviews with pros and cons of most of these hotel loyalty programs here). Starwood Preferred Guest – the loyalty program of Starwood Hotels – has the best conversion program as it allows you to convert Starpoints to AAdvantage frequent-flyer miles on a 1:1 basis, including a 5000 conversion bonus when you convert 20,000 Starpoints.
  • AAdvantage members earn award redeemable miles every time they rent a car with one of the major car rental companies, including Herz, Avis, Budget, Sixt, Payless, Alamo, National, Dollar, Thrifty, Carmel, and Europcar. The exact number of miles you earn for a car rental depends on the company and ranges from 50 to 500 miles per day.
  • Award redeemable miles can also be earned when you make use of one of the USA based airport taxi services, such as Groundlink, Supershuttle, and ExecuCar.
  • American Airlines not only offers flights, but also holiday packages (flights + hotels) as well as cruise holidays (in collaboration with major cruise companies such as Norwegian Cruise Line, Celebrity Cruises, Royal Carribean, and Carnival). Every time you book a holiday or a cruise via the dedicated American Airlines website, you will earn miles.
  • Members earn AAdvantage miles by shopping online in the AAdvantage eShopping mall, a collection of 950+ stores that offers deals exclusively for members. Occasionally, there are promotions that give you more miles for your money.
  • Members earn miles when they grab deals on Groupon, buy flowers, or attend a Broadway show (click here for more information).
  • Members earn miles when they make use of the products offered by American Airlines’ financial and business partners, for example when you buy or sell your home.
  • Members earn miles when they make use of the products offered by American Airlines’ health and lifetime focused partners, for example travel insurance, green energy, and spa companies.
  • One of the easiest ways to earn (a small amount of) free miles is to join an opinion panel – such as e-Rwards or Miles for Opinions – and take surveys geared toward your interests.
  • AAdvantage also offer the possibility to directly purchase tens of thousands of miles without flying, which can be an interesting option to explore if your mileage account is just short off an award ticket. Promotions are regularly launched where you will receive bonus miles in addition to the purchased miles.
  • You can dramatically increase your AAdvantage mileage earning with credit card spendings: 
    • You can transfer program points from the American Express or Diner’s Club Rewards Programs into your AAdvantgage account to boost your mileage account.
    • One of the fastest ways to earn AAdvantage miles is by using an American Airlines co-branded credit card (only available in the USA and the UK). These credit cards also offer considerable bonus miles upon your first purchase (often enough for a reward ticket).


4. SPENDING AADVANTAGE MILES

The best way to spend your AAdvantage miles is to redeem your miles for free flights on American Airlines or one of its partner airlines to nearly 1,000 destinations worldwide. The number of miles you need will depend on the route, the cabin, and the airline:

  • You can use this award chart to estimate the number of miles you may need for a one-way award on American Airlines. You have the option between three different award categories: MileSAAver, AAnytime awards, and off-peak rewards.
    • If your plans are flexible, MileSAAver awards can be extremely beneficial as a MileSAAver Business or domestic First Class ticket cost the same number of AAdvantage miles as an AAnytime Economy Class ticket on the same route.
    • AAnytime awards are booked as a full-fare (Y) tickets and allow more flexibility when it comes to changing or canceling award flights.
    • Off-peak awards aren’t technically listed as separate on the AAdvantage website, because they have the same restrictions as MileSAAver awards, but they are a great way to make your miles go further if you can make yourself available for travel during the off-season.
  • You can use this award chart to estimate the number of miles you need for a one-way award on one of American Airlines’ One World alliance partners. These include American Airlines, British Airways, Cathay Pacific Airways, Finnair, Iberia, Japan Airlines, LATAM Airlines, Malaysia Airlines, Qantas, Qatar Airways, Royal Jordanian, S7 Airlines, and SriLankan Airlines.
  • You can use this award chart to estimate the number of miles you may need for a one-way award on one of American Airlines’ non-One World alliance partners. These include Alaska Airlines, Fiji Airways, Air Tahiti Nui, Etihad Airways, Hawaiian Airlines, Gulf Air, Jet Airways, Seaborn Airlines, and Westjet.

Besides redeeming them for free flights, there are several other ways to redeem your hard-earned AAdvantage miles:

  • You can use your miles to upgrade to the next cabin on most domestic and international flights marketed and operated by American, as well as upgrade your seat on flights operated by British Airways and Iberia. Calculate here the number of miles you will need for an upgrade with one of these 3 carriers.
  • You can use miles or combine cash and miles for car rentals, hotel stays and vacations at more than 150,000 properties in over 500 destinations worldwide. Flexible payment options allow you to use miles, or a combination of cash plus as few as 1,000 miles, to pay for your reservation. You can even use miles to book activities and tours.
  • You can donate your miles to make the world a better place and help people in need.
  • You can buy or renew Admirals Club membership with miles. Admirals Club refers to both the membership program and network of lounges operated by American Airlines.

5. BEST AND WORST AADVANTAGE REDEMPTIONS

Although there are several ways to spend your AAdvantage miles, not all options are equally good, considering that AAdvantage miles are valued at a rate of 1,5 cent (in USD currency) each on average.

The best way to use your AAdvantage miles for maximum value is to redeem them for an award seat on an international flight operated by one of American Airlines’ excellent partner airlines. These are several sweet spots on the AAdvantage award chart:

  • Etihad A380 First Class Apartment from Paris/London to Abu Dhabi, and then continuing in Business Class to the Maldives (62,000 miles one way).
  • Qatar Airways Business Class from Europe to the Maldives, which includes a journey in the new SQuites when you depart from London or Paris (42,500 miles one way).
  • Cathay Pacific First Class from New York City to Vancouver (55,000 miles one way).
  • LATAM Business Class from the USA to Peru (30,000 miles one way).
  • Air Tahiti Nui Business Class from Tokyo to Tahiti (40,000 miles one way).
  • Air Fiji Business Class from Hong Kong to Fiji (40,000 miles one way).
  • Japan Airlines Economy Class domestic flights (7,500 miles one way)
  • Japan Airlines First Class from the USA to Japan or South Korea (80,000 miles one way) is probably the best First Class redemption for USA based travelers.

The worst way to spend your AAdvantage miles is for rewards with lower than 1,5 cent per mile values and I suggest you don’t even consider them. These include domestic flights on American Airlines, Admirals Club membership fees, hotels, car rentals, and gift cards.


6. PROS & THINGS I LIKE ABOUT THE AADVANTAGE PROGRAM
  • The strongest point of AAdvantage is that you can earn and redeem miles on the program’s many partner airlines. These include all the One World carriers (American Airlines, British Airways, Cathay Pacific Airways, Finnair, Iberia, Japan Airlines, LATAM Airlines, Malaysia Airlines, Qantas, Qatar Airways, Royal Jordanian, S7 Airlines, and SriLankan Airlines) but also several non-One World carriers (Alaska Airlines, Fiji Airways, Air Tahiti Nui, Etihad Airways, Hawaiian Airlines, Gulf Air, Jet Airways, Seaborn Airlines, and Westjet). It means that you can earn and spend your miles to nearly 1,000 destinations worwide.
  • If you fancy flying the world’s best Business/First Class products for free, then collecting AAdvantage miles is your best way to do so. You can redeem AAdvantage miles on Etihad Airways A380’s First Class Apartment, Etihad Airways’ B787 Studio Suite, Qatar Airways B777’s QSuite, Japan Airlines’ B777 First Class, and Cathay Pacific’s B777 First Class.
  • AAdvantage has the best award chart around. As outlined above, there are several sweet spots on the award chart, such as 42,500 miles for a one-way Business Class ticket from Europe to the Maldives (cheaper than most competitors); 40,000 miles for a Business Class ticket from Asia to the South Pacific islands of Fiji and Tahiti (not bad for a 10+ hour flight); and domestic flights within Japan for 7,500 miles in Economy Class. Compared to its main competitors Delta and United, American charges fewer miles for Business Class redemptions between the USA and Europe and between the USA and Asia.
  • If you love holidays in the Pacific Ocean, then you’ll love the AAdvantage program since it has established collaborations with all of the region’s main airlines. American Airlines allows you to both earn and redeem miles on Hawaiian Airlines and Fiji Airways, and allows you to redeem (but not earn) miles on Air Tahiti Nui.
  • The AAdvantage program is very valuable when you live close to one of American Airlines’ major hubs: Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, John F. Kennedy International Airport, Los Angeles International Airport, Miami International Airport, Chicago O’Hare International Airport, Charlotte-Douglas International Airport, Philadelphia International Airport, and Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport.
  • By calling the AAdvantage customer service center, you can hold an award booking for five days at no charge, allowing you to finalize your travel plans in between.
  • All awards are considered one-way journeys, so it’s easy to book open-jaw itineraries, and mix cabins in one and the same itinerary.
  • AAdvantage does not charge high fuel surcharges when booking an award seat (the only exception is awards on British Airways flights departing from the UK).
  • AAdvantage allows you to reach elite status, not only by flying on American Airlines and its One World partners, but also by flying Alaska Airlines (which is a great feature for USA based travelers).
  • AAdvantage offers a generous amount of bonus miles to its elite members. Executive Platinum members earn a 120% bonus, Platinum Pro members earn an 80% bonus, Platinum members earn a 60% bonus and Gold members earn a 40% bonus on top of base miles earned traveling with American and participating airlines.
  • AAdvantage members earn (much) more miles when flying on the One World airlines as compared to the loyalty program of its European partner British Airways. The reason is that American Airlines gives its elite members an elite mileage bonus on all One World airlines, while British Airways only gives this bonus to its elite members when they fly British Airways, American Airlines, Iberia and Japan Airlines. So, flying Cathay Pacific, Malaysian Airlines, Finnair, LAN, Qatar Airways, Srilankan Airways, Royal Jordanian or S7 airlines is more beneficial for the mileage accounts of AAdvantage members than for the accounts of British Airways Executive Club members (regardless of status).
  • AAdvantage Executive Platinum members receive four system-wide upgrades per year to be used on American Airlines marketed and operated flights.
  • When you have flown one million miles, you will be rewarded with Million Miler status, which includes AAdvantage Gold status for the life of the program and 35,000 AAdvantage bonus miles. At two million miles you’ll get AAdvantage Platinum status for life and four one-way system-wide upgrades. At each additional million miles, you’ll get another four one-way system-wide upgrades.
  • American Airlines has a special relationship with all 3 Middle East airlines (Qatar Airways, Emirates, Etihad Airways), that are considered by many to offer unmatched service in the skies. While this partnership is evident for Qatar Airways (One World partner) and Etihad Airways (additional airline partner) – with the possibility to earn and collect miles on both of them – this is less clear (and not well known) for Emirates. You cannot redeem AAdvantage miles on Emirates, but you will earn AAdvantage elite qualifying and award redeemable miles (plus bonus miles) when you fly Emirates metal on the Kangaroo route between Europe and Australia on condition that your ticket is booked under a Qantas codeshare number (Qantas and Emirates have close ties these days). A couple of years ago, I collected more than 40,000 AAdvantage miles and reached the AAdvantage Executive Platinum threshold by flying Europe to Sydney in Business Class on Emirates’ magnificent A380 airctaft (read my trip report here). How cool is that!

7. CONS & THINS I DON’T LIKE ABOUT THE AADVANTAGE PROGRAM
  • Although it was the last of the big three USA airlines to do so, AAdvantage is now revenue-based, meaning miles are awarded based on dollars spent rather than number of miles flown. On flights with American Airlines, the ‘elite qualifying dollars’ you earn are based on the price of your ticket excluding taxes and fees. When traveling with One World partners, you will earn elite qualifying dollars as a percentage of the distance flown and the fare class of your ticket. As mentioned above, the following thresholds are needed for status with American Airlines (although these treshold can be lowered if you use your American Airlines branded credit card):
    • Gold: $3,000 elite qualifying dollars
    • Platinum: $6,000 elite qualifying dollars
    • Platinum Pro: $9,000 elite qualifying dollars
    • Executive Platinum: $12,000 elite qualifying dollars
  • Your mileage credit will be forfeited if your account is inactive for 18 months. American allows you to pay to reactivate your mileage credit.
  • The AAdvantage website only shows award availability and only allows online bookings for awards on American Airlines, Alaska Airlines, British Airways, Finnair, Hawaiian Airlines, Qantas Airways and Royal Jordanian Airlines. To request and/or book award seats on other partner airlines, you need to call the AAdvantage customer service center, which can be inconvenient and expensive when you’re not based in the USA.
  • AAdvantage charges several fees for changes to a booked award itinerary: a $150 USD fee for changes to arrival or departure location, and a $150 USD fee for cancellation and miles redeposit, plus $25 for every additional passenger on the same itinerary. The fee is waived for Platinum Executive members.
  • AAdvantage does not allow stop-overs on award tickets.
  • AAdvantage charges a $75 USD fee to book a flight or change date or time on a reservation within 21 days of departure.
  • When you’re not based in the UK or USA, you cannot make use of an American Airlines branded credit card, thus missing one of the best opportunities to boost your mileage account.


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