Every year, the points and miles community cycles through a painful internal struggle over the relative value of different U.S. frequent flyer miles. This is not a heartening reflection, but rather a deduction of which program has suffered the least in the preceding 12 months.
Like their Delta SkyMiles and United MileagePlus compatriots, American AAdvantage collectors felt heart-and-hunger pangs in 2017 and 2018 as the airline pulled the plug on some of its more generous perks and awards. During the same period, American released fewer of its own seats for low-level awards than Delta or United.
As a Delta flyer, I’m left Mohave-desert-thirsting for miles bonuses in other currencies.
American had been on the periphery of my travel sphere for at least several years now, but in June I was lured back into the frAAy by nice offers on Citi and Barclays AAdvantage cards.
Add the delightfully easy-to-use AAdvantage Shopping extension for Firefox (it proactively tells me when I can earn AAdvantage miles while I’m in the act of committing online retail), and I quickly amassed 130,000 or so AAdvantage miles, on top of another 40,000 or so that had been sitting idly in my account.
My timing, it turns out, could not have been better.
During a pre-holiday period when Delta and United have competed over mileage futility, perpetuating the Scroogian travel tradition of “no award seats under the tree for you, young man,” American has heaped delight and joy on my travel plans. In all,172,500 AAdvantage miles netted me the following — all booked in the peak of holiday travel.
- Two international business class awards
- Two domestic first class awards
- An incredibly valuable transcontinental flight award
A Holly Jolly First ClAAss Holiday
No one pays cash for first class tickets around Christmas and Thanksgiving. I have been on numerous holiday flights where just about every individual sitting in the premium cabin was on a mileage award, a complimentary upgrade or a promo buy-up upgrade. How would I know this?
Because three days before departure the first class seating chart would look like this:’
This tradition has continued. Before and after Thanksgiving, and the same before and after Christmas, all four U.S. major airlines have first class cabins empty enough to facilitate small New Years Eve parties.
That AAdvantage has accommodated nearly all of my holiday travel plans reads not so much as an endorsement of generosity, but of basic courtesy.
Redemption 1: Turkey Gravey
American AAdvantage Redemption: Newark (EWR) to Portland (PDX) on Alaska Airlines first class for 25,000 AAdvantage miles and $5.60. This, at the same time as economy tickets were on offer for upwards of $300 one-way.
What United Wanted: A nasty, 53,000-mile Everyday award rate to catch a connecting flight. The diminutive first class cabin on UA’s nonstop was unavailable for mileage redemption.
What Delta Wanted: An unseemly 48,000 miles or more for its NYC-PDX nonstops.
What Alaska Wanted: 40,000 miles for the same flight
Redemption 2: Monday Before Christmas
American AAdvantage Redemption: Houston (IAH) to Portland (PDX) on American first class via Dallas Fort Worth for 25,000 AAdvantage miles and $5.60.
What United Wanted: 50,000 Everyday-rate miles for a seat in this completely vacant cabin.
What Delta Wanted: More coal in the stocking, or 58,000 miles for a connecting itinerary with abundant empty seats all around.
Redemption 3: Sunday Before New Years
American AAdvantage Redemption: New York (JFK) to Tokyo (HND) via Dallas Fort Worth in American Flagship business class (later changed to Japan Air Lines business nonstop), 60,000 AAdvanage miles for $5.60.
What United Wanted: 155,000 miles to fly from New York to Tokyo on this date, nonstop or with 1 or 2 connections.
What Delta Wanted: 240,000 miles to fly from New York to Tokyo on this date with a connection.
Delta and United: Charging marked-up awards in cabins that are as populated as Denali is the equivalent of slapping your loyal frequent flyers in the face. You will not sell those seats for prices worth the cost of their loyalty.
Redemption 4: Brazil for Carnaval
A college friend living in Sao Paolo is driving to Rio for Carnaval the Friday before Carnaval Saturday. Normally, this period is a wasteland for points and miles redemption.
American AAdvantage Redemption: New York (JFK) to Sao Paolo (GRU) nonstop in American Flagship business, 57,500 AAdvantage miles and $5.60.
What United Wanted: 60,000 miles for a mixed economy-business class award on Copa Airlines with an itinerary of 18 hours, 45 minutes. 175,000 miles for the nonstop Polaris business class equivalent.
What Delta Wanted: 375,000 miles minimum. No more words.
Redemption 5: Icing on the Pumpkin Pie
Mile-for-mile flown, this might be my single highest value redemption ever on a domestic flight. I’ve been needing to book something to get to a wedding in San Luis Obispo, California this March. San Luis Obispo is a beautiful coastal location, but not the easiest to get to by air. Los Angeles is two hours south, on a good day, and San Francisco three hours in the other direction. The small regional airport in San Luis Obispo is home to just a few flights a day.
I had been looking at cash fares hovering around $450 round-trip when I slid over to AA.com and discovered the best quirk that is AAdvantage web specials. New York (JFK) to San Luis Obispo (SBP) for 5,000 AAdvantage miles and $5.60.
Not only is 5,000 miles an incredible rate for a transcontinental flight, but this is also to an obscure airport on the fastest available connection. With a return available for 11,000 miles, the round trip cost 16,000 AAdvantage miles and $11.20 for a flight that otherwise was listed at $422, for a redemption rate of 2.4 cents per mile.
What United Wanted: A still-reasonable, but not-at-all comparable, 12,500 saver-level award miles.
What Delta Wanted: About 30,000 SkyMiles round-trip to fly on a “basic economy” award to LAX, and for me to find my own transportation northward to San Luis Obispo from there. They don’t fly there.
WhAAts Up With American AAdvantage Miles?
It seemed like three years ago everyone was scrambling to move their travel to American in the wake of disastrous dynamic pricing moves by Delta and United that made award redemptions unpredictable. The two latter airlines had also introduced spending requirements on elite status recognition. American had not, yet, but soon would.
Is this wave of AAward success a fluke, or perhaps a fleeting moment? Given that American has spent much of the last year reconfiguring and rolling out new award search and award pricing methods, I would estimate that it’s unlikely that American would dramatically change its partner award pricing beyond the current test bed model in the next 12 months. From there, all bets are off.
As far as the generous and timely business class redemptions, premium cabin availability on AA flights has always been a hot-and-cold phenomenon. Alaska airlines drops off the table for AAdvantage members in Februrary (*tear*).
Intuitively, however, it seems that American is actually using its new dynamic award pricing scheme more aggressively than its competitors. Delta has offered fire sales on SkyMiles awards since going full dynamic, but they are typically either very limited flash sales, or more commonly they coincide with cash fare sales. American is offering web saver specials on routes that otherwise are priced at high margin, something that neither Delta nor United have shown a willingness to do.
And as far as those international awards go, it’s just hard to beat Oneworld to Asia. AA’s burgeoning China Southern partnership will likely improve those prospects. Likewise, I expect a new Royal Air Maroc partnership to bring about a generous helping of business class award seats in the coming year.
I am impressed enough with this string of success to actually consider moving more of my spend over to American cards, and even to move some of my small business card spend to a new Citibusiness or Barclays AAdvantage card.
Add to that the fact that all of American’s cobranded card products are offering generous sign up bonuses (in excess of 60,000 miles after some spending) just before the holidays should make for a very happy new year.
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