By Eric Rosen
February 10, 2020
Courtesy of American Airlines

American Airlines is the world’s largest airline by fleet size and passenger capacity. With almost 1,000 planes, it operates nearly 7,000 flights per day to hundreds of cities in nearly 60 countries.

Just last year, members of the American Airlines AAdvantage frequent-flier program redeemed their miles for 13 million awards. If you’re not among them, it’s time to join the program. Here’s how to make the most of it.

Courtesy of American Airlines

American Airlines AAdvantage Program Overview

AAdvantage is the loyalty program for American Airlines. It originally launched on May 1, 1981, making it the oldest frequent-flier program still in existence. Although AAdvantage is much larger and more complex than in those early days, both frequent and occasional fliers can use a few simple strategies to maximize their earning and redemption opportunities for great rewards.

How to Earn American Airlines AAdvantage Miles

The two key ways to earn American Airlines AAdvantage miles are to fly and use the airline’s co-branded credit cards.

For over three decades, fliers would earn award and elite-qualifying miles based on the distance of their flight and the fare class purchased, with bonuses for passengers with elite status and those flying full-fare economy or in premium cabins. Back in 2016, however, the AAdvantage program completely overhauled how customers earn award miles and achieve elite status.

Elite-qualifying miles – the ones that count toward status levels like Gold, Platinum, Platinum Pro, and Executive Platinum – are still earned based on flight distances and fare classes (more on that below). However, passengers now earn between five and 11 AAdvantage award miles per dollar spent on American Airlines airfare, excluding taxes. This is true whether they purchase their tickets directly through American Airlines or via an online travel agency, like Expedia. AAdvantage award miles are the type of miles members can rack up, then redeem for free tickets, and they do not count toward elite status.

Fliers without any elite status earn five miles per dollar spent. Those with AAdvantage Gold status earn seven miles per dollar. Platinum and Platinum Pro members earn eight and nine miles per dollar, respectively, and those with Executive Platinum status earn 11 miles per dollar.

Adding another layer of complexity, these earning rates are totally different if you fly American’s various other airline partners, like British Airways, Cathay Pacific, and Qantas. Those earning rates are generally still based on the distance flown and class of ticket purchased. For instance, Japan Airlines flights that you credit to your AAdvantage account will earn between 30 and 150 percent of miles flown depending the type of ticket you purchase, ranging from discounted economy fares up to first class. When plotting your earning strategy on American’s partners, it’s important to pay attention to that one-letter fare code and check the partner’s earning page to see how many miles you can expect to rake in.

American Airlines miles expire 18 months after your last account activity. Activity includes earning or redeeming even just one mile either with American Airlines or one of its AAdvantage partners. So, keeping your miles active is not too difficult.

Now that earning AAdvantage award miles on American Airlines flights is spending-based, and the program has cut down on how many miles you can earn with cheap fares on partners, the most lucrative way to rack up AAdvantage miles is with one of the airline’s co-branded credit cards. Luckily, there are plenty of great options to choose from.

The most popular is probably the Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard. Its sign-up bonus tends to hover around 50,000 miles after making $2,500 in purchases in the first three months, though it sometimes goes up to 60,000 miles. Among the benefits cardholders can count on are free checked bags, priority boarding, a 25 percent discount on in-flight food and beverage purchases, and earning two miles per dollar on purchases with American Airlines as well as at gas stations and restaurants. Its annual fee is $99, though it’s usually waived in the first year.

The AAdvantage Aviator Red Mastercard is a competitor issued by Barclays, offering a sign-up bonus of 60,000 miles plus a $99 companion fare certificate, both of which are earned after making your first purchase in the first 90 days and paying the $99 annual fee. It also confers free checked bags, priority boarding, in-flight discounts, and up to $25 back on in-flight Wi-Fi purchases each year, among other benefits.

At the top of the range is the Citi / AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard. With a $450 annual fee, this card includes Admirals Club airport lounge access, free checked bags, and priority boarding, plus a Global Entry or TSA PreCheck application fee reimbursement once every five years. Its sign-up bonus is usually 50,000 miles after making $5,000 in purchases within the first three months, though it has been as high as 100,000 miles in the past.

How to Redeem American Airlines AAdvantage Miles

Now for the fun part: redeeming those miles for free things, including flights.

For now, the AAdvantage award chart for American Airlines flights can be found here. Award prices are based on which regions you are visiting, such as the continental U.S., Europe, Asia 1 (which includes Japan and Korea), or South America 2 (which includes Argentina, most of Brazil, Chile, the Falkland Islands, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Venezuela), among others. To find out how many miles are required for a specific redemption, click on the region you will be starting in and then look up the mileage requirement in your destination region. You can expect to pay different prices for the most sought-after MileSAAver awards versus the higher-priced AAnytime awards. There are even lower off-peak awards to certain regions such as Hawaii, the Caribbean, and Europe, among others.

Redemption levels for flights on American’s many partner carriers can be found on this page. As with awards on the airline’s own flights, redemptions are grouped by region and cabin class, including main cabin, premium economy, business, and first class. 

The award charts are helpful guideposts, but in practice, you will likely just visit AA.com to price out the specific ticket you're looking for. Simply enter your city pairs and dates, plus whether you want to travel one-way or round-trip. Then, be sure the “Redeem Miles” box is checked.

That should pull up results tabbed by class of service and day. You can also click on the “Calendar” button to see results over the course of a month and search for dates with the lowest mileage prices, which you can filter by class of service. American’s own flights tend to show up on top, so be sure to scroll down for all the options. Looking at a calendar of flight options also provides a snapshot of how much the award price of flights can vary and whether you are getting a good deal on your ticket.

In general, you will get more value from your miles if you redeem them for saver-level awards in business or first class on international flights with American Airlines or its partners. Just note that not all airline partner awards are bookable online. The AA.com search engine will not display Cathay Pacific, Japan Airlines, or Latam flights, for example, so you might have to call in to book those.

American Airlines has confirmed that it will be moving to a more dynamic pricing model in which the mileage required for a specific redemption will be directly tied to the price of a paid ticket. So, the more expensive a paid ticket, the more miles you will have to redeem for it. We have yet to see this put into practice fully, but saver-level awards do seem scarcer than ever, so higher-award pricing in general might be just around the corner.

Aside from award tickets, American Airlines AAdvantage miles can be redeemed for upgrades on American Airlines and some partner flights, for certain car rentals and hotel bookings, to purchase or renew Admirals Club membership, or for gift cards, magazine subscriptions, and charitable donations. These tend to be terrible values, though, so avoid them if you can.

American Airlines Partners

The AAdvantage program has some unique partnerships through which members can earn and redeem frequent-flier miles. First and foremost are the program’s airline partners. As mentioned above, you can earn miles on American Airlines flights, in addition to on those of Oneworld and other carriers. American’s airline partners include:

  • British Airways
  • Cathay Pacific
  • Finnair
  • Iberia
  • Japan Airlines
  • Latam Airlines
  • Malaysia Airlines
  • Qantas
  • Qatar Airways
  • Royal Air Maroc (starting March 31, 2020)
  • Royal Jordanian
  • S7 Airlines
  • SriLankan Airlines
  • Air Tahiti Nui
  • Alaska Airlines/Horizon Air
  • Cape Air
  • China Southern Airlines
  • Etihad Airways
  • Fiji Airways
  • Hawaiian Airlines
  • Interjet
  • Seaborne Airlines

Before booking, check the specific carrier's partner page to verify earning rates on it.

Aside from airlines, AAdvantage members can earn miles in plenty of other ways. The program has various car-rental partnerships where you can score bonus miles per day or per rental. Members can enjoy discounts and earn points on some partner hotel bookings as well as cruise fares. Members can also convert their points with hotel programs into AAdvantage miles, though this is usually not a great deal since the transfer ratios are so poor. Participating hotel programs include Choice Hotels Choice Privileges, Hilton Honors, World of Hyatt, IHG Rewards Club, Marriott Bonvoy, and Wyndham Rewards.

On the plus side, American Airlines fields an online shopping portal through which members can earn thousands of bonus points. Simply log in using your AAdvantage credentials. Then, browse the various merchants and check out the current bonus miles per dollar being offered. When you're ready, click through to the site of the retailer you're interested in and your purchases should automatically earn any bonus miles. Among the 950 partners are huge brands like Macy’s, Microsoft, and The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf.

Through the Dining Rewards Network, AAdvantage members can register their account and credit card to earn between three and five miles per dollar at thousands of participating restaurants.

Finally, in March 2019, American Airlines and Hyatt launched a new partnership in which members of the AAdvantage and World of Hyatt loyalty programs can enjoy reciprocal elite benefits while also earning points and miles on both flights and hotel stays. So, if you’re a Hyatt loyalist, check the benefits you might be entitled to on American Airlines.

American Airlines AAdvantage Benefits and Elite Status

Speaking of elite benefits, if you fly and spend enough, you might be able to achieve American Airlines AAdvantage elite status and earn perks like upgrades, free checked bags, priority boarding, waived change fees, and more. Here are the basics.

The AAdvantage program has four tiers of elite status. In order to reach any of them, you must hit certain flight and spending thresholds within a calendar year. Once you do, you can enjoy your elite benefits for the remainder of the current year and through the following one, until the elite tiers reset each Feb. 1.

The flight requirements are based on either the number of miles you fly (not only on flight distances, but also whether you buy economy or premium tickets) or the number of flight segments flown. Members must also spend a certain amount on airfare (or the equivalent in partner flying) to reach each level. Because earning elite-qualifying miles and dollars can fluctuate widely depending on the partner, let’s restrict our discussion to earning status based on American Airlines flight activity.

AAdvantage Gold status is earned by flying 25,000 elite-qualifying miles or 30 segments plus earning $3,000 in elite-qualifying dollars (basically spending this much on airfare) in a calendar year. Benefits at this level include earning seven miles per dollar instead of five on airfare, complimentary upgrades that might come through within 24 hours of your flight, free Main Cabin Extra seats at check-in, complimentary preferred seat assignments, and a free checked bag.

Those with AAdvantage Platinum status earn eight miles per dollar, have a shot at upgrades up to 48 hours before their flight, and score complimentary preferred seat and Main Cabin Extra assignments at booking. To hit this level, you need to fly 50,000 elite-qualifying miles or 60 segments and spend $6,000 elite-qualifying dollars.

The next level, Platinum Pro, is achieved at 75,000 elite-qualifying miles or 90 segments plus $9,000 elite-qualifying dollars. Expect a better chance at upgrades, two free checked bags, and earning nine miles per dollar spent.

American’s top tier of elite status is Executive Platinum, which is reached with 100,000 elite-qualifying miles or 120 segments plus $15,000 in spending. At this tier, members have the best chance of upgrades, get three free checked bags, earn 11 miles per dollar, and receive four ultra-valuable system-wide upgrades that can be applied to bump up passengers from economy to business or business to first class on American Airlines flights.

There are a few shortcuts to elite status that might make things easier for some fliers. If you have elite status with World of Hyatt, via the Hyatt-American partnership, you might qualify for a status challenge in which you can earn AAdvantage status much faster than usual by taking a certain number of flights and hitting some spending targets within a three-month period rather than a calendar year. Likewise, the airline will usually let elites from other airline programs complete similar challenges for a corresponding status level with American AAdvantage.

If you have either the Citi / AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard, you can earn up to 10,000 elite-qualifying miles by spending $40,000 or more on purchases in a calendar year. Folks with the AAdvantage Aviator Silver Mastercard from Barclays can also earn $3,000 elite-qualifying dollars after spending $50,000 on the card in a calendar year.

Pros and Cons of American Airlines AAdvantage

There are plenty of reasons to become a member of American’s AAdvantage program. It’s easy to rack up miles not only on American and partner flights, but also through everyday activities like credit card spending, dining out, and shopping online. Thanks to the extensive route networks of American and its partners, it's also easy to redeem miles for flights to all corners of the globe at a solid value — both for economy seats as well as for some fabulous business and first-class options.

On the downside, now that earning miles is based on spending, the AAdvantage program rewards premium fliers and those purchasing expensive airfares much more richly than the average value-hunting flier. As the airline moves toward a more dynamic award pricing model, customers can expect ticket costs for business and first class to shoot up, too.

Overall, however, American Airlines AAdvantage is a solid frequent-flier program with tremendous potential earning and redemption opportunities that everyone from sporadic travelers to hardened road warriors can maximize.

How to Sign Up for American Airlines AAdvantage

Signing up for American Airlines AAdvantage is fast and free. Simply head to the enrollment page, enter your details and preferences along with an email address, and you’re all set.

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