Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Big Finagle Part 1: Award Chart Sweet Spots

This is the first in a multi-part series on getting the most of your AA frequent flier points for those just looking to get there in coach, and not particularly concerned about flying business or first class.

Part 1:  This Page
Part 2:  Using the International Stopover to Bundle Trips

If you have ever flown on Southwest or Jet Blue and are reading this, you know what coach feels like and you somehow managed to survive it. Congratulations, you can handle the rough and tumble of life without the constant coddling that those delicate, high-maintenance flowers up front require.  If you are like me, you will use your hardiness to your advantage and save your miles.  (There is one exception to this rule.)

If you are looking to get the most bang for your points buck, the first thing you want to do is look at the award chart and find the "sweet spots".  Since most of us have earned our points through American Airlines AAdvantage program credit card promotions, I will use that as an example, but you could apply the same methodology to any program.

Partner Awards

From the point of view of a flyer residing in the United States, the AA award chart for partner airlines, which is how you get anywhere American doesn't fly or is a good way to mix and match for complex routings and stopovers, has four sweet spots, boxed below (current as of this posting, in April 2012):

These are one-way awards.  Since I need 4 tickets for my family (no small feat), I'm looking for a roundtrip to another continent for under 50,000 miles, meaning a one-way for under 25,000 miles, or less if I can find it.  Since my daughter's school has spring and fall breaks, I'd like to try to take advantage of the off-peak awards.  If we also travel during the summer, we usually drive or otherwise travel domestically.

As you can see, that gets you to some pretty interesting places:

  • For 17,500 points each way any time of year, you can visit  South America Zone 1, which is Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, or Venezuela.
  • For 20,000 miles each way, you can visit the rest of South America in the off-season, meaning March through May or late August through November.
  • For 20,000 miles each way in the off-season, you can fly to Europe.  We went to Paris in March 2012 on this award and had a lovely time.  We flew American Airlines and it really wasn't bad at all.
  • For 25,000 miles each way, you can visit Japan, Korea, or Mongolia (!) in Fall, Winter, and Spring.  We may do this next year, and we will probably bring our kids with us.

Note that the partner chart does not specifically show "MileSAAver" awards but you can probably assume that these award rates are heavily capacity controlled.

The Exception

Note also that I highlighted one business class fare that I might someday consider taking: North America to Central America or South America Zone 1, which is Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, or Venezuela.  An international medium- to long-haul trip in business class for 30,000 miles one way is a pretty good deal.

There is another case when I might find it to be worth splurging on a business class ticket: if I think my frequent flier program will devalue its miles in the near future, or even cease service on a route you are considering.   This can happen:  in 2008, a terrible year for airlines generally, I had converted my American Express rewards points to the Frontier Airlines frequent flier program.  Frontier had recently initiated a nonstop from Sacramento to Guadalajara, which we wanted to visit.  Before I got a chance to book the tickets, they ended service after only about a month since it was announced.  Apparently Frontier had to suddenly sell the plane they were using for that flight in order to meet a debt payment. In cases like that, if the miles would otherwise be a throwaway, live for the moment and pull out all the stops.  (or donate them.)

American Airlines Awards

The AA award chart is here.  Since it isn't in picture format I couldn't easily paste it.  If I can fly somewhere on AA, the options are similar, but AA adds two more off-peak MileSAAver sweet spots:
  • Mexico or Caribbean for 12,500 miles one way
  • Central America, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, or Venezuela for 15,000 miles one way
The last one is something worth thinking about: one-way to a part of South America for 15,000 miles.  A round-trip is only 5,000 miles more than a domestic MileSAAver round-trip trip costs.

Domestic Flights

There is no shame in visiting locations in North America.  I live here and I love it, and there are a number of places I still would like to visit or return and see again.  MileSAAver domestic awards are 12,500 miles, and haven't really increased in the number of miles you need since the mid-1990s.  (The underlying airfares certainly have, but hopefully you were able to get your miles using credit card promotions.)

Domestic flights can be a particularly good deal for cross-country routings into small airports which often have very high airfares, since their airports are nearly monopolized by one or two carriers, but may still have good award availability if you plan well in advance.  Another big advantage to flying domestic: compared to flying someplace far away, you spend less time on an airplane and more time where you are going.

To Be Continued

In upcoming posts, I will discuss the following topics:

  • The art of using the stopover to bundle trips.  (I'm still researching the details.)  If you live near Miami, one of AA's international gateway cities to South America, you could conceivably bundle a one-way 15,000 mile trip to South America with a separate domestic one-way trip, say to Hawaii, at another time, for fewer miles than it would take you to get to Hawaii alone on AA (17,500), albeit almost certainly with more taxes.  That said, if you lived in Miami, it may not be worth the trouble to take a 10-hour trip to Hawaii when the Bahamas and many other islands are an hour away.  However, you could potentially bundle a one-way trip to Peru, say, with a separate one-way trip to the Caribbean, or take a separate trip anywhere else in the U.S. or Canada.
  • Avoiding high taxes and fuel surcharges.  (Basically this means avoiding British Airways or Iberia.)
  • Mixing and matching miles from various programs (if you have them, or maybe your traveling companions do) to take advantage of their relative sweet spots, in order to get to a few places that, say, the American AAdvantage program demands too many miles for.  (I'm looking at you, Middle East.)  

Stay tuned and thanks for your interest!


  1. Doug, how do I copy an image like the award chart then make minor edits like your red boxes? I think it would really improve my blog if I had that basic proficiency.

    Are the steps simple enough to tell me or to point me to a site that explains it?

    1. I did a copy and paste into microsoft paint, and then drew boxes. I am sure there is a better way.


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