Monday, April 30, 2012

The Big Finagle Part 2: Using the Stopover to Bundle Trips

This is the second 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:  Award chart sweet spots
Part 2:  This page

When Daraius interviewed me recently, he asked me what I now know that I wish I had known when I started collecting points and miles.  My response was:
I also only fully understood the power of an AA international stopover only a few weeks before we left for Paris.  Had I realized this when we booked our reservation, we could have looped in one-way tickets to Hawaii on the return end to use later this year.  Doh!  By the time I understood this, the change fees would have made it not worth it.  I was really kicking myself for letting that one slip by.
I've gotten multiple questions to explain what I was talking about.  Here is the post some of you seem to be waiting for.  In this post we will attempt to book a one-way flight using a stopover, which is a way to effectively get two separate one-way flights on a single international travel award.

First, a disclaimer.  In retrospect, I don't know if I could have done a stopover at LAX on the way back from Paris and continued onto Hawaii.  Even if I could, I probably wouldn't, since I don't live in Los Angeles.

Second, proceed with caution.  As you will see, this is pushing the envelope of what you can do with your points and is only for the extremely dedicated and focused frugalist.  If it were easy, everyone would normally think of getting two trips out of every frequent flier ticket.  They don't, because it isn't.  You have been warned.

Also, for those just getting started, I suggest using the "two browser trick" to get a pair of AA credit cards with a combined 100,000 mile bonus.  More on that here.  If you are married or in a domestic partnership, or otherwise have a sufficient level of trust in someone else, one of you can apply and designate the other as an authorized user with their own card, in order to get your bonuses as soon as possible.  Then the other can apply and designate the first as an authorized user to get their bonuses.

The Goal

Our ultimate goal is to use frequent flier points to buy a one-way ticket that is really two separate one-way trips, with a mid-trip stopover at home.  This home stopover can last up to a year, and flights can be postponed, if similar award seats are available.  Each of the two segments effectively apply to separate vacations.  The first segment is your return home from your trip this year, and the second segment is your flight out to your trip next year.
  • The first is a trip outside North America, say, to Europe, South America, or Asia.  Where you can go depends significantly on where you live. 
  • The second is a trip within North America, more or less in the other direction.  Currently, American Airlines includes Hawaii as part of North America when routing international trips.

Do your homework:  Find possible flights

It is important to understand what flights are possible for the international portion of the reservation.  The international portion of your reservation - your flight from North America to another continent - needs to leave directly from your stopover point. 

Also, we are going to ignore U.S. points for both British Airways and Iberia, since those airlines tack on fuel surcharges that undermine the notion of free travel. 

MileValue has posted a good list of  gateway hubs.  My closest gateway is San Francisco, from which my options are:
  • AirBerlin
  • British Airways
  • Cathay Pacific
  • JAL
  • LAN
You may have different criteria for choosing a destination than I do.  For the sake of exposition, I will try to determine my best award options with relatively few miles and cash expenditure, leaving from San Francisco as an example.  This is a good exercise for the purposes of this discussion because it has relatively few options.

Nail down the international destination

Even if you do the domestic portion (before the stopover) of your itinerary before the international portion, it will be easier to nail down the international destination first since there are usually relatively fewer flights and seats on the international leg.  Here is how I would go about that.

First of all, I am not interested in British Airways because of the fuel surcharges.  I also am going to skip Cathay because of the hefty 35,000 mileage requirement for China and beyond.  That leaves AirBerlin, JAL, and LAN.

From a fair amount of legwork using the user-unfriendly AirBerlin website, I have found that the flight that serves San Francisco (nonstop to Dusseldorf, not Berlin) is seasonal service 3 days a week.  The AirBerlin season goes from May to November.  However, the off-peak 20,000 mile award is only valid for travel October 15 through May 15.  Thus, it seems there are only about 18 flights a year in each direction that will qualify for the 20,000 mile award: 3 flights per week during a four-week span from late October through mid-November, and another two-week span in early May.  

If those don't work, that leaves JAL and LAN, both of which also have user-unfriendly web sites. in particular is terrible, takes forever, and doesn't seem to work at all with Google Chrome. It worked much better with Internet Explorer.  

JAL has a daily nonstop to Tokyo Haneda airport; this has heavily capacity-limited seating at 25,000 miles.  

LAN has a daily nonstop to Lima; this is a very good deal at 17,500 miles one way, year round, and you can transfer to elsewhere in Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, and Venezuela.  You can also use this routing to travel to the rest of South America for 20,000 points during the off-season (March through May and late August through November).  You can bundle it with the earlier domestic flight as long as you leave the U.S. from the stopover city, which in this example is San Francisco.

I think it might be fun to visit Buenos Aires, so I will be using those cities as my target international destination for this exercise.  You can sign up for a LANPass account to see how many miles are required for each segment.  However it is unintuitive, and is particularly obtuse with respect to the number of miles you need for various routings.  I will poke around to see when flights use the fewest miles.  There seems to be a LAN award for about 23,000 kilometers between San Francisco and South America; I'm guessing this is the award that can be booked by American Airlines / OneWorld fliers although I was not able to figure that out for certain. Once I find a day and flight where that low-kilometer routing exists on the long-haul SFO-LIM flight, most likely I will be dealing with the AA agent on the phone and gently nudging her to a routing that uses the that flight.

Look for the Domestic Leg

The domestic leg does not need to be a nonstop into the gateway city.  However, MileValue says that the starting point and ultimate destination must be a published routing on the airline that you use for the intercontinental flight.  While I haven't found this in writing on the AA web site myself, I have no reason to doubt his expertise.

In our case, we want to fly from Maui, Hawaii.  You can use the Hawaiian web site to determine availability.  A good walk-through is here.  It is a good idea to find a flight you know will work before calling AA, (if you need to).

Off-Peak Reservations

When I first published this blog, I included erroneous information, thinking that both segments needed to qualify for both off-peak periods.  However, I now realize that this is not the case.  Rather, to get off-peak award pricing, each segment must occur during the inter-continental off-peak period. For example, Hawaii's off-peak periods are Jan. 12- March 8 and August 22-December 15.  Meanwhile, South America 2's off-peak periods are March 1-May 31 and August 16-November 30.  If you are trying to get an off-peak award from Hawaii to San Francisco to Buenos Aires -if space is available - you would be restricted to traveling both segments during the South America 2 off-peak period, i.e. March 1-May 31 and August 16-November 30.    

I believe you can book different segments across the disjoint off-peak periods.  For example, I could go from Maui to SFO on March 6 and SFO to Buenos Aires on October 15, if seats are available.  If instead you were going from Chicago to Peru via a San Francisco stopover on LAN, there would not be any off-peak date to worry about since neither of those destinations have off-peak periods.

Can I combine a stopover with a sweet spot to save points?

Maybe, I'm not sure.  What does not seem to work - it may be possible, but I haven't been able to do it - is to book a Hawaii leg during the off-peak South America segment in order to take advantage of South America's different off-peak period and/or lower mileage cost.  I was trying, for example, to book Honolulu to Miami to Lima off-peak for 15,000 miles, but was not able to do this online.  I'm not sure if the software specifically excludes a routing like this in order to keep folks from booking the entire route for 15,000 miles and only using the Hawaii-to-lower-48 portion (which would cost 17.500 miles by itself), or if there were no seats available on AA during the several months I was looking.  This of course would have the externality of booking an award seat from Miami to Lima that you have no intention of using, thereby preventing someone else from using that scarce award seat.

However, I was able to do this using a first/business class MileSAAver seat, at 30,000 miles (compared to 37,500 miles for a business class mileSAAver seat from Hawaii to the lower 48 alone).  This leads me to believe it may be possible to book an off-peak coach routing if seats are available.

Booking on

Currently, you can book your itinerary online if you can complete it using AA, Hawaiian, Alaska, British Airways, or a combination thereof.  Just go to, and on the home page, select a one-way multi-city routing using AAdvantage miles.  If you search for flights in accordance with all of the rules and seating is available, the tool will price the domestic segment for zero miles (shown as "--") and the international segment will show the miles requirement.

Booking by Phone

Unless you can do the whole thing on AA, Hawaiian, Alaska, or British Airways, you will need to book by phone and pay an extra $25/ticket.  Call the AAdvantage reservations line at 1-800-882-8880 and be sure to request an international agent.  I've found AA international reservations agents to be fairly knowledgeable most of the time, and they can usually help you find the seats you are looking for.  However, they are not always aware of the stopover privilege, or all of its permutations.

You want to sound somewhat educated on the possibilities, especially when it comes to trying partner airlines, without being pushy or rude.  Be humble: I may not have explained all of the rules here, and you may have made an error with off-peak periods, etc.  Also, there are generally very few MileSAAver seats available on each flight, so successfully booking a complicated itinerary with four or five different flight segments will be that much harder.

Do not say you want to fly, say, from Maui to San Francisco and from San Francisco to Buenos Aires using points and stopover privileges to route it all on a single 20,000 mile award!

Instead, say something like

"Hello, I'm trying to do something a bit complicated and I hope you can help me.  I would like to book a one-way award ticket from Maui to Buenos Aires, with a stopover in San Francisco."

Let him/her try a few things.  Then if (s)he can't you can politely ask if there are any flights on Hawaiian or Alaska from Hawaii to SFO. If there are MileSAAver tickets available she can hold them, if she can't find the dates you wanted on AA but you have seen them on Alaska or Hawaiian during your Internet research you can ask her to try those airlines on those dates.  Sometimes alternate airports within a city area will work also.  However, the routing of this portion isn't so important.

For the SFO-Buenos Aires portion, (s)he may try to book you on a flight completely on American or LAN through Miami, Dallas, LAX, or another city.  This will price out as two separate awards. 

Ask the agent (nicely!) to check LAN and see if she can try various routings.  I think you are more likely to be successful if you ask her to explain each itinerary.  If she finds one that uses the SFO-LIM flight, accept that one.

This should automatically price the whole one-way itinerary at 20,000 miles, as long as all of the conditions are met (including peak/offpeak periods).  Sound pleasantly surprised when this is the case.  If not, you can say thank you for your time, and hang up and try again.

Try to book just the single one-way point-to-point-to-point reservation on a single phone call.  That is, don't try to book the earlier outbound flight (to Hawaii) or a return flight (from Buenos Aires) during the same call.  Once you have your reservation and locator code, thank the agent for their help and end the call.  It will simplify what you are trying to do, and it will avoid a situation in which the reservation agent might ask any unnecessary questions about why you would stop twice in a city near your home address on two different itineraries.  Also, it will give you some time to think again about how to route your next itinerary with a stopover.  Once you have done that, call back and work with a different agent.

Taxes and Fees

As long as you are not flying BA or Iberia, the total taxes per ticket should be approximately $5 per flight segment, plus landing or departure taxes (usually less than $50 per person), plus the $25 service charge for booking by phone.  In total it usually will be on the order of $50 to $100 per person.

When to book

Normally, the rule of thumb is to book frequent flier tickets as early as you can, because they are capacity constrained.  That is certainly true in this case, but there is a tradeoff to consider.

If you are trying to book a series of reservations, each of which contains a long-term stopover, you may be looking to book a long time in advance.  You can change your flight dates without charge, as long as you do not change people or destinations, which makes it easy to book a trip a long time into the future, and then you can firm up the exact dates when you are ready.  

However: all travel must be completed a year from the date you ticket your reservation (i.e. convert your miles to a confirmed reservation).  For those of us who work for a living and can only take two vacations a year, this rule can push trips very far into the future, and potentially limit the number of stopovers I can use.  For example, suppose my travel plans for the next 18 months are
  • Hawaii 4 months from now
  • South America 10 months from now
  • New York 16 months from now
each time returning to my home in Northern California.  I'd like to bundle the return from Hawaii with the outbound to South America, and also bundle the return from South America with the outbound to New York.  However, there is a problem using a stopover for the return from South America combined with the outbound flight to New York:  The routing is acceptable, but American only accepts reservations up to about 11 months in advance, and my flight must be completed within a year of ticketing.  

A potential workaround is to book my Hawaii-California-South America reservation now, and wait 7 months to book the South America-California-New York reservation.   This might work if my plans are extremely flexible.  However, there is a reasonable chance that the return seats I would like from South America which are available today will not be available in 7 months.  In that case, I run the risk of having an outbound flight without being able to book a return flight! 

If I do decide to take the risk of waiting 7 months to book the South America-California-New York reservation and my flights are no longer available, one option is to book seats that are available after the date I would like to fly.  Then, three weeks before I want to fly, they will likely open up more seats.  However, a change within 3 weeks of my travel date is subject to a $75 fee.  Only you can decide if this is worth it to you.

Caveat Emptor

Or in English: Buyer beware.  There are a number of factors you will want to consider before trying to book a fare like this:
  • Remember, the reservation is really a single trip from one destination to another with a stopover near your home.  The first segment is the return from one trip.  The second segment is the outbound on a separate trip.  The stopover is your time spent at home between trips.
  • Your two segments - a flight home from one place, plus a flight to another place, are a single reservation.  If you don't show up for the flight before the stopover, your flight to the second place will be cancelled.  So if you are thinking of first going to, say, Hawaii, and then to, say, Buenos Aires, you need to get to Hawaii and take the first segment back from Hawaii or else your segment to Buenos Aires will be canceled.  
  • The only way to change routings is pretty much to cancel the whole itinerary and try again, with a fee of I believe $150.  Every fee undermines the notion of free travel and brings you closer to what you would have paid for a regular fare along with the Hoi Polloi, and is to be avoided.
  • For the above reason, you may consider booking only the free stopover on an inbound international flight, rather than also on an outbound flight.
  • When you have successfully gotten yourself a one-way reservation, say thank you and get your reservation locator code (6 letters).  Don't ticket it yet; AA will hold it for a week.  
  • You will then need to book a reservation home.  Do this on a separate call.  Make sure you can get yourself home!  You will obviously need the miles for this in your account.  If you can finagle another stopover home for a time that works for you, great.  This will usually mean coming home on the same nonstop flight to the stopover city.
  • If you can't find a routing through your stopover city on the way home, you can just try to book a seat through any other routing.  However, a stopover can only be at the US international gateway city.
  • After you have both directions finagled, it's probably safe to ticket the reservation.
  • Some may consider this an abuse of the stopover privilege.  For that reason, it couldn't hurt to sound surprised when you find that you were able successfully to book separate trips on one frequent flyer award.
  • By taking all these flights without paying any money to American Airlines, you are not doing anything to help American Airlines emerge from bankruptcy.  

Please Comment

Please share your experiences with booking these complex itineraries in the comments below so we can all learn from them.  In particular, note the routes you were able to book, the dates (or peak/offpeak periods), and the taxes and fees you were asked to pay.  Also, if you think I am in error with any of the rules, please let me know that in your comments as well.


  1. Instead of checking LAN availability on LAN, I think you should check on or

    If they show availability, AA has it too. Whereas if LAN shows availability at, AA may not have it for a variety of reasons: it's not low-level award space, more space is released by LAN to its members only, etc.

    I've had a lot of success with the free oneways that the AA stopovers allow. Here are some example I've done:

    Melbourne to Los Angeles (where I live), free stopover for a month then a free trip LAX to Tampa to visit my mom on a separate vacation.

    My brother is flying Melbourne to Sydney to Honolulu (where he lives), free stopover for two months then a free trip to LAX to visit me.

    The cool thing is we're both leaving Australia on Qantas business class, so we get to fly the domestic US free segments in first class.

    1. won at craps and my brother won his tennis tournament, so it was a fun time. 3 nights at the IP for $86 was pretty sweet too.

  2. Thanks, I haven't spent enough time with the Qantas or BA web sites. Good to know that they show LAN availability.

    That sounds like a great trip. Enjoy.


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