American Airlines AAdvantage Program: The Complete Guide

American Airlines AAdvantage Program: The Complete Guide

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What’s inside

  1. How much American Airlines miles are worth

  2. How to earn AAdvantage miles

  3. How to redeem AAdvantage miles

  4. American Airlines partners

  5. AAdvantage program status levels

  6. Credit cards that earn AAdvantage miles

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Founded in 1930, American Airlines is one of America’s three “legacy” carriers and one of the most visible brands in aviation. In 2015, US Airways merged with American’s former holding company to create the world’s largest carrier based on fleet size, destinations served and revenue. With the merger came expanded routes and additional opportunities for award redemptions.

American is the dominant carrier at its home airport of Dallas-Fort Worth and also operates hubs in Charlotte, Chicago (O’Hare), Los Angeles, Miami, New York (LaGuardia and JFK), Philadelphia, Phoenix and Washington, D.C. (Reagan National). Today, the airline operates an average of 6,700 flights every day, serving 350 cities across 50 countries.

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If your home airport is an American Airlines stronghold, or if you just choose to fly the carrier regularly, getting acquainted with the AAdvantage frequent flyer program is a good first step.

In this handy guide, we will introduce all the different ways you could earn and redeem AAdvantage miles. We will also discuss elite status and AA’s Oneworld and independent airline partners.

How much American Airlines miles are worth

Based on our most recent analysis, NerdWallet values American Airlines miles at 1 cent apiece. To determine the value of reward miles, we compared cash prices and reward redemptions for economy roundtrip routes across several destinations and dates. We divided the cost of the cash ticket by the cost of the reward ticket to determine a “cent per mile” value for each flight, then averaged this value across several flights and dates. Read more about how we arrived at these figures.

This is therefore a baseline value for American Airlines miles, based on real-world data collected from hundreds of economy routes, not a maximized value. In other words, you ought to aim for award redemptions that offer 1 cent or more in value from your American miles.

To determine the value of your miles for specific flights, divide the cash value of the ticket (less any applicable taxes/fees if you redeem miles) by the number of miles required for the flight. So if the ticket would cost either $100, or 15,000 miles + $10 in taxes/fees, the math would be as follows:

($100 – $10) / 15,000 = 0.006, or 0.6 cent per mile.

How to earn AAdvantage miles

American Airlines’ frequent flyer program is called AAdvantage. You earn miles when you fly on American or with one of its partner airlines, and through hotel stays, car rentals, vacations, cruises, dining, shopping portals, various promotions or simply by buying miles (usually a bad idea). You can redeem them for award flights, upgrades, car rentals, hotel stays, vacations, Admirals Club airport lounge access and much more. Although they’re called “miles,” you earn them based on how much money you spend on tickets, not how far you fly.

In general, AAdvantage miles will expire if you go 18 months without earning or redeeming miles on American or one of its partner airlines. However, as of July 1, 2020, members under age 21 are exempt from mileage expiration. Also, if you have an American Airlines-branded credit card, your miles will remain valid as long as you continue to use the card.

Earning AAdvantage miles when you fly

Earning on American: The number of miles you earn for a flight depends on how much you spend on the ticket (in base fare and carrier-imposed fees). If you have AAdvantage elite status, you will earn additional bonus miles for your trip.

NOTE: You earn miles only on airfare and airline fees. Government-imposed taxes and fees do not earn miles.

Earning on other airlines: American’s partner airlines in the Oneworld alliance distribute frequent flyer miles based on which class your tickets are booked in. The cheapest economy tickets may only earn 25% to 50% of flown miles, while premium economy, business-class and first-class tickets can earn 100% base miles and a cabin bonus between 10% and 50%.

However, not all routes or flights may qualify. If you purchase a flight on a booking code not listed as eligible for awards, you will not earn any award miles for your flight. In addition, some routes or affiliate airlines may not earn miles. To better understand how many miles you could earn with American’s Oneworld partners, visit the American website.

Earning AAdvantage miles with a credit card

American Airlines offers co-branded credit cards through both Citi and Barclays.

NerdWallet's favorite credit card for the AAdvantage program is the Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite™ Mastercard®. It gives you:

  • 2 AAdvantage® miles for every $1 spent on eligible American Airlines purchases.

You also get a great sign-up bonus to start: Earn 50,000 American Airlines AAdvantage bonus miles after making $2,500 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening.

The annual fee is $99 — but the checked bag benefit on this card can make up for it rather quickly. The first checked bag is free for you and up to four others traveling on your reservation. You also get preferred boarding, so you can get on the plane relatively early and find space for your carry-on.

Earning AAdvantage miles through partners

  • Hotels: You can earn AAdvantage miles at most major hotel chains. In some cases, you earn 1 or 2 miles per dollar spent; in others, you earn a flat number of miles per stay. See partner hotels and earning rules here.

  • Dining: Register a credit card with AAdvantage Dining, and every time you use that card at a participating restaurant, club or bar, you'll earn 1 to 5 miles per dollar spent. There are more than 11,000 participating locations.

  • Auto rentals: Most major car rental agencies offer an option to earn AAdvantage miles. See the rules here.

  • Shopping: When you shop online through the AAdvantage eShopping mall, you earn miles for every dollar you spend at more than 950 retailers.

  • Vacations: When booking a flight and hotel through AA Vacations, you could earn extra miles.

  • Cruises: You could earn 3 miles per $1 (up to 30,000 AAdvantage miles) for booking a cruise through AA Cruises.

Buying additional AAdvantage miles

Purchasing miles through American's website can work to your advantage, particularly if you have certain international awards in mind. But in most cases, we recommend you stay away from buying miles, as it's an expensive way to accrue them.

Miles generally cost 2.95 cents each, although American regularly offers sales that work out to a somewhat better value. However, even with any discounts, purchasing miles should be a last resort (e.g., only do this to top up your account for an award redemption or keep miles from expiring).

How to redeem AAdvantage miles

AAdvantage miles are redeemable for flights through American Airlines and its partners in the Oneworld alliance. In most cases, you can redeem by booking through American’s website. Some airlines do not show up on AA.com, and in those instances you need to call American Airlines and ask to waive the phone booking fee.

Three types of award redemptions

American Airlines has a region-based award chart and offers three kinds of award redemptions: MileSAAver (including off-peak), AAnytime and Web Specials.

  • MileSAAver award seats are bookable for as little as 7,500 miles on certain one-way trips in North America. MileSAAver awards may be available in all classes, but the price you'll pay for business or first-class award seats is often more expensive than economy seats. Given the low price of MileSAAver seats, there may be only a limited number of them available on a given flight. AA also offers off-peak MileSAAver awards to Hawaii and international destinations based on dates the airline considers to be low-season for travel. The discount for off-peak awards ranges from 8% to 33%, which offer a considerable mile savings. You may find that the flight you want has no MileSAAver seats, or that they’ve all been taken. In this instance, all that will show are AAnytime awards.

  • AAnytime award seats are available for almost any flight, but they’re significantly more expensive. A flight that costs 7,500 miles for a MileSAAver seat can cost as much as 40,000 miles for an AAnytime seat. Booking these awards is generally not advisable given the poor cent-per-mile value.

  • Web Specials are extremely discounted awards (as low as 5,000 miles) to certain destinations. The miles price varies by region and date, and the award tickets have some restrictions. American Airlines doesn’t publish its Web Specials on any specific landing page, but a quick search will tell you whether the route you want falls under the discounted rate.

Special discounts for credit card holders

If you have an American Airlines credit card, you can get a discount of up to 7,500 miles on round-trip MileSAAver awards, depending on the card and your destination. These discounts are available only if you book by phone. See American’s page on reduced mileage award seats.

Good redemption options

Generally speaking, the best redemptions are in business and first class cabins. Why is this? Because the cash cost increase from an economy ticket to a business or first class ticket is less than the cost increase in miles from an economy ticket to a business or first class ticket.

For example, a round-trip award from the continental U.S. to Europe costs 60,000 miles in economy or 115,000 miles in business class.

Economy award

That same ticket in cash costs $540.

After deducting the cost of taxes, you arrive at a 0.8 cent per mile redemption, which is slightly below our valuation.

Business class

In business class, the redemption looks very different given the high cost of the flight.

In miles, that same exact flight costs 115,000 and $131.45 in taxes.

This redemption results in a value of 2.4 cents per mile, which is more than double our 1 cent per mile valuation.

Although the award price increased 92% from 60,000 miles in economy to 115,000 miles in business class, the net cost in dollars increased from $459 to $2,761 (502%). This disproportionate miles to money increase explains why a premium cabin award often provides a much higher redemption value.

However, this is merely an illustration — we’re not saying a lower value redemption isn’t advantageous. Everyone has different travel preferences and destination goals, and some people may not care at all about a premium cabin experience. Remember that miles should be used for travel rather than hoarded for the best imaginable redemption. As long as you feel like you’re getting a good value, that’s all that really matters.

Bad redemption options

Using your AAdvantage miles to book a hotel with points yields a low value.

In one search for a hotel in Miami, the value of using the miles for a hotel room was around 0.6 cent per mile, which is below our 1 cent valuation, roughly half the value of using the miles for domestic travel. A better bet would be to use hotel points or rewards earned from a cash-back credit card for hotel bookings.

For example, a two-night stay at the JW Marriott Marquis Miami is $1,116.

If you were to book this using AA miles, it would cost 175,100 AA miles + $56.60 in fees.

As seen below, this redemption would result in a valuation of only 0.6 cent per mile.

American Airlines partners

In general, you can earn AAdvantage miles on flights with Oneworld partners and redeem your miles for flights on Oneworld airlines.

Oneworld alliance members

Oneworld partner airlines are:

  • British Airways.

  • Cathay Pacific.

  • Finnair.

  • Iberia.

  • Japan Airlines.

  • Malaysia Airlines.

  • Qantas.

  • Qatar Airways.

  • Royal Air Maroc.

  • Royal Jordanian Airlines.

  • S7 Airlines.

  • SriLankan Airlines.

Other partner airlines

On airlines outside the Oneworld alliance, your ability to earn or redeem miles is more limited. You may be able to earn miles but not redeem them, for example, or you may be able to redeem only for certain flights. Other partner airlines include:

  • Air Tahiti Nui.

  • Alaska Airlines/Horizon Air.

  • Cape Air.

  • China Southern Airlines.

  • Etihad Airways.

  • Fiji Airways.

  • GOL Airlines.

  • Hawaiian Airlines.

  • Interjet.

  • Seaborne Virgin Islands.

Although you can redeem miles for most of these partners on AA.com, you will have to call the airline to book some awards. Awards not bookable online include:

  • Etihad Airways.

  • China Southern Airlines.

  • GOL Airlines.

The flight award chart for partner airlines tells you how you can earn flights on carriers other than American for no cost.

AAdvantage program status levels

Anyone can sign up for the AAdvantage program, but basic membership only comes with a frequent flyer number and an account where your points accumulate. The real goodies come when you earn elite status.

AAdvantage elite levels and benefits

How to earn elite status in AAdvantage

To earn elite status, you’ll need to understand three key terms: elite qualifying dollars, elite qualifying miles and elite qualifying segments.

Elite qualifying dollars, or EQDs for short, are earned based on how much you spend on tickets with American and its Oneworld partners (excluding government taxes and fees). Your earnings will change based on which class of service you book, and partner restrictions.

Elite qualifying miles, or EQMs, are the actual miles you fly every year aboard American and its Oneworld partners. They’re calculated by taking the mileage of the flight and multiplying it by the fare class:

  • Full-fare first or business class: EQM = miles flown x 3.

  • Discount first or business: EQM = miles flown x 2.

  • Premium economy class: EQM = miles flown x 1.5.

  • Economy: EQM = miles flown x 1.

  • Basic economy: EQM = miles flown x 0.5.

Your earnings may vary on other partner airlines, based on what class of service you book. Visit the American website to learn more about what qualifies for elite status and how it may affect your plans.

Elite qualifying segments, or EQSs, are earned based on how many takeoff-to-landing flight segments you take. A nonstop flight from L.A. to New York would earn one EQS — but if you had a layover in Chicago, it’d be two EQSs. To earn elite status, you need a minimum number of EQDs plus a certain number of EQMs or EQSs

Gold

Platinum

Platinum Pro

Executive Platinum

To earn this status, you must have EQDs of at least:

$3,000

$6,000

$9,000

$15,000

AND EITHER this many EQMs:

25,000

50,000

75,000

100,000

OR this many EQSs:

30

60

90

120

Credit cards that earn AAdvantage miles

American Airlines is unusual among U.S. airlines in that it has credit card agreements with two different issuers — a legacy of its merger with U.S. Airways. Cards that earn AAdvantage miles include:

From Citi

  • 2 miles for every $1 spent at gas stations.

  • 2 miles for every $1 spent at restaurants.

  • 2 miles for every $1 spent on eligible American Airlines purchases.

  • Annual fee: $0 intro for the first year, then $99.

  • 2 miles on every $1 spent on eligible American Airlines purchases.

  • 2 miles on every $1 spent on telecommunications services, car rental merchants and gas stations.

  • 1 mile per $1 spent on everything else.

  • Annual fee: $0 intro for the first year, then $99.

  • 2 miles on every $1 spent on eligible American Airlines purchases.

  • 1 mile per $1 spent on everything else.

  • Annual fee: $450 — not waived in the first year.

  • 2 miles for every $1 spent on eligible American Airlines purchases.

  • 2 miles for every $1 spent at grocery stores, including grocery delivery services.

  • 1 mile per $1 spent on everything else.

  • Annual fee: $0.

From Barclays

AAdvantage® Aviator® Red World Elite Mastercard®

  • 2 miles per dollar spent on eligible American Airlines purchases.

  • 1 mile per dollar on all other purchases.

  • Annual fee: $99.

AAdvantage® Aviator® Business Mastercard®

  • 2 miles per dollar spent on eligible American Airlines purchases.

  • 2 miles per dollar spent at eligible office supply, telecom and car rental merchants.

  • 1 mile per dollar on all other purchases.

  • Annual bonus of 5% of your earned miles.

  • Annual fee: $95.

Need more help deciding?

We've covered all the basic details of the American Airlines AAdvantage program. But if you still aren't sure whether a frequent flyer program is worth the effort, see our absolute beginner's guide to frequent flyer programs.

The information related to Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite™ Mastercard® has been collected by NerdWallet and has not been reviewed or provided by the issuer or provider of this product or service.

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