American Airlines Explorer Award: The Rules

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This is the first part of a multi-post Anatomy of an Award series about American Airlines Explorer Awards, which are ideal for around-the-world trips, trips with multiple destinations, and other “trick” itineraries.

American Airlines Explorer Awards are an incredible value with three main uses:

  1. around-the-world (RTW) trips
  2. trips with many destinations in one region
  3. combining multiple trips within one year onto one Explorer Award

When I say “incredible value,” I mean 150,000 miles to go around the world with ten stops in business class. That’s only 50% more than a run-of-the-mill business class award to Europe.

I mean saving tens of thousands of miles on a trip to Asia while adding in more stops than you could have on a normal award.

I mean saving 100k+ miles on several trips to Europe.

In the coming weeks, I will be posting a lot about Explorer Awards. After the rules today, I’ll post an Anatomy of an Award about a recent around-the-world Explorer Award I booked for a client. Then I’ll discuss the other main uses of Explorer Awards–many destinations in one region and many trips on one award–in later posts.

How to Get the Miles Necessary for an American Airlines Explorer Award

I’ll talk more about getting the miles at the end, but if you want to get a head start, you should apply for these cards now.

The offers below have expired. Click here for the top current credit card sign up bonuses.

Application Link: US Airways Premier World MasterCard with 30,000 US Airways miles after first purchase

Application Link: Citi American Airlines MasterCard with 30,000 miles after $3,000 in spending in the first three months.

For an explanation of why I recommend these cards, why I heartily recommend these cards today, and why a US Airways card is slipped in, check out How to Exploit the American Airlines/US Airways Merger.

Rules

The best copy of the American Airlines Explorer Rules I can find online are at http://aa-ow-awards.blogspot.com/.

There are 14 major rules.

1. Explorer Awards can only use award space on American Airlines and its oneworld partners.

That means you can’t use American Airlines’ other non-oneworld partners like Hawaiian Airlines, Alaska Airlines, or Etihad.

2. You must use at least two oneworld partners other than American Airlines.

You can use American itself, but you don’t have to.

Flying an airline and its subsidiary like Cathay Pacific and Dragonair only counts as one partner.

Valid Explorer Award 1: flights on American, Qantas, and Cathay Pacific

Valid Explorer Award 2: flights on British Airways and airberlin

Invalid Explorer Award: flights on American and British Airways; there need to be flights on two or more oneworld partners other than American Airlines

3. An itinerary may not exceed 16 segments.

Each flight number is one segment even if it is not a nonstop flight. For instance, Malaysia Airlines flies from Los Angeles to Kuala Lumpur via Tokyo on one flight number. Flying that flight would count as one segment.

4. Flying into one airport and out of another airport counts as one segment. This is true even if the airports are coterminal. The only exception is that an open jaw between your very first city and very last city does not count as a segment.

Example: New York-JFK to Paris-CDG, Paris-ORY to Berlin, Berlin to London, London to Miami counts as five segments.

  1. JFK-CDG flight
  2. the hole between CDG and ORY
  3. ORY-TXL
  4. TXL-LHR
  5. LHR-MIA

The open jaw between the starting airport (JFK) and ending airport (MIA) is not a segment.

5. One open jaw is permitted anywhere on the itinerary.

In this case, an open jaw means flying into one city and out of another. Flying into one coterminal airport and out of another is not an open jaw.

Example: Flying into Charles de Gaulle and out of Orly in Paris is not an open jaw. Flying into Charles de Gaulle in Paris and out of Heathrow in London is an open jaw.

Here are the listed coterminal airports:

6. You can only stopover once per city.

If you route through a city more than once, you can only have one stopover in it. A stopover is defined as a layover of more than 4 hours within the US or more than 6 hours outside the US. But if there are no scheduled flights within 6 hours, you have up to 24 hours to make a connection without it being considered a stopover. (In practice, I expect you would have 24 hours in all cases at international airports.)

7. You may not stopover in the origin or destination city.

This rule limits our ability to cram together multiple vacations onto one Explorer Award by returning home after each trip and having a stopover at our home airport. But there will still be ways to cram multiple trips onto one award.

8. Other than rules six and seven, you can have unlimited stopovers on an Explorer Award.

Want a stopover after every segment? That’s fine.

9. You can only connect through a city two times.

These two connections are in addition to the one stopover, so you can go through the same city up to three times: one stopover and two layovers.

Example of valid routing:

  • Los Angeles to Hong Kong (stop for three days)
  • Hong Kong to Manilla (stop for three days)
  • Manilla to Hong Kong to Seoul (with just a two hour layover in Hong Kong)
  • Seoul to Hong Kong to Phuket (with a 20 hour layover in Hong Kong)
  • continuing on from Phuket however you’d like except that you can never go back through Hong Kong on this award since you’ve already stopped there once and connected two more times.

10. The total countable miles of a trip includes all miles flown, so layover and stopover cities are relevant.

Airlines don’t release their official distance for flights, but you can get very close by using gcmap.com.

Land segments do not count toward total countable miles.

11. All travel must be completed within one year of ticketing.

If you ticket an award on March 1, 2013, all travel must be completed my February 28, 2014 whether the first flight of the Explorer Award is March 15, 2013 or December 15, 2013.

12. After ticketing, you can change the date and time of a segment for free.

13. After ticketing, you cannot change the name of the passenger, the routing, or the airline for a segment at all.

You cannot change the routing at all including the connecting (non-stopover) cities. You cannot even change a Hong Kong to Tokyo flight from JAL to Cathay Pacific.

All you can ever change is the time of a flight as long as the airline and routing remain the same.

14. Most other American Airlines award rules and practices apply.

For instance, you can fly in economy class on a business class award and business or economy class on a first class award.

You will be responsible for government taxes, fuel surcharges on British Airways and Iberia segments, and a $25 phone fee.

Are all these rules enforced?

On the last Explorer Award I booked, I heard the AAgent adding up the mileage of the segments. If the computer isn’t doing that, I doubt the computer is enforcing many of these rules. That would mean a human is enforcing many of the rules, and I can assure you that few AAgents know all of the above rules.

That means Explorer Awards may be a US-Airways-award situation, where you can get away with more than the stated rules. Some rules you might be able to bend? One open jaw total and only one stopover/two connections per city.

Award Chart

The American Airlines Explorer Award Chart is online. I’ll discuss the best values in future posts with specific examples.

Read Next: Planning an Explorer Award


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48 COMMENTS

  1. Thanks for writing this and I look forward to your future posts about these awards. I have heard about them before (and seen the list of rules you reference), but details about booking them will definitely be appreciated.

  2. There are better offers (40k or 30k) for the US Airways card, with a first-year waived $89 annual fee. They also include 10,000 miles annually. A better value by at least $200 by your valuations.

    • I think the best public offer was the 40k one included in this post. I see that the link changed to a 30k offer today, so I have updated this post to reflect that. This change could very well make the offers you are talking about better. I am going to look into that in the next few days because I always want to link to the best posts. I wish I could look into it faster, but I am moving to Argentina in 48 hours. Thanks for the tip.

  3. FYI, your link to the US Airways card claims it’s 40K after first purchase, but it’s really only 30K. Best offer or not, it’s being misrepresented.

    • Thanks, Scott. You are correct. This must have changed today. The link was going to a 40k on first purchase card. I didn’t receive any notice from FlexOffers about the change, but I will correct the copy.

  4. There are US Airways card offers that have 35,000 bonus on first purchase with the first year annual fee of $89 is waived. There is a thread about it on flyertalk.

    • I think the best public offer was the 40k one included in this post. I see that the link changed to a 30k offer today, so I have updated this post to reflect that. This change could very well make the offers you are talking about better. I am going to look into that in the next few days because I always want to link to the best posts. I wish I could look into it faster, but I am moving to Argentina in 48 hours.

  5. When I click the link to Citi American Airlines Visa I don’t see anything about the rewards. Have things changed?

  6. Woah Woah Woah! Your telling me that rather than spending 100k miles to fly round trip from the US to Berlin in business class I could only spend 90k miles AND stop in London, Berlin, and Paris so long as I sit in a BA and AB seat?

  7. Does united consider paris cdg and orly coterminal. and is there a shuttle for first class/business class passengers? i know AA does, but not finding if UA does.

  8. Is there a maximum length for “overland” (not flown) segments. For example, could I fly back to NYC and then resume my trip in MDE (after a B6 flight)? One can drive there.

  9. Sorry this is late, so hopefully you’re still getting notifications on this…is this a valid routing? (my problem lies in that there is no way to easily get to Seoul to Shanghai without going over my 4k alotted mileage). KIX-GMP then purchase out of pocket ICN-PVG…continue the Explorer award from PVG-HKG-BKK-SIN (end trip). My confusion comes from the open jaw between Seoul and Shanghai as well as the first and last cities constituting an open jaw. Does this mean that this routing has 2 open jaws and not 1? I would hate to be “forced” to fly back to the origin city so that I’m allowed the open jaw between Seoul and Shanghai. It seems silly, but what I’ve been reading from this post and others doesn’t make it 100% clear…

    thanks for your time 🙂

  10. I’ve spent the last two months creating a special RTW trip itinerary, and it was validated for 150k miles. I got to the point of booking, then paying for the ticket, and several rules came up that aren’t mentioned here.

    For the explorer award, you cannot cross more than two oceans–IE: Pacific or Atlantic, not both. I don’t see how this itinerary would be possible? I’m on the phone with american now and they are destroying my round the world trip because of this rule and the open jaws that I had, so I condensed to 2 open jaws and two tickets (giving me an extra open jaw by the timing between the two tickets), but they don’t allow ‘one ways’. IE: An open jaw IS a one way, because the destination is different than the origin.

    Any thoughts?

    • How did this work out? I thought I saw a rule that you had to cross 2 oceans but that could have have been the other 1 world ticket option

      • Simple incompetence from AA agents and supervisors. It was absolutely ridiculous the amount of time I spent on this. One world Explorer Awards are not the same as One World Explorer Round the World tickets, so the idea is basically, I can do whatever I want on a One World Explorer Award, and the award is calculated based on mileage and usage of 2 other carriers outside American. Long story short, don’t ‘rely’ upon AA agents to know anything about the rules of your itinerary, because after the itinerary is booked, it goes to a different department anyway for approval. 🙂

  11. Scott,
    Which miles should I use for our next Nov. trip to Japan, Australia/New Zealand and China? AA Explorer Award or UN miles before they get devaluated?
    We plan to fly business/first
    Oct. 5, 2014 – from Munich to Tokyo
    Oct. 16, 2014 – from Tokyo to Sydney
    Nov. 01, 2014 – from Sydney to Beijing
    Nov. 27, 2014 – from Singapor to Bangkok
    Dec. 05, 2014 – from Bangkok to Tampa
    May 14, 2014 – from Tampa to Munich
    What would be the best use of our miles?
    We have both 145k on American but can transfer 75k from SPG
    We also have 200k and 90k on United and could add 35K from an United/Chase Explorer card.
    Have 120K each on USAir and 55K each on Lufthansa.
    What would you recommend we do?
    Thanks

  12. When booking an American Airlines explorer reward, do I have to do a full lap of the world and end up back in my origination country like a typical RTW ticket? Say I just want to go LON-CPT-PEK or something and it comes in at 19k – can I use my 100,000 AA points for the Zone 6 explorer award and fly home from
    China on my own dime or would I have to use it to go back to the UK?

    • You can have an open jaw between first city and last city. So LON-CPT-PEK is fine as long as all other rules are met.

  13. Just finished booking a business class Explorer Award tonight (DFW-Asia-Europe-DFW). I followed the advice on your site and only ran into one problem. I booked a flight from Hong Kong to Kuching that had a stop in Kota Kinabalu. The award required that I ticket each segment, but Malaysia Air would not issue two tickets for the same flight. AA contacted me by email, and after three calls to their call center, they finally rerouted me HKG-KUL-KCH. The AA agents were as helpful as they could be, but my problem kind of stumped them.

    When using the BA site to find seats, move forward one week then back, and more available seating appears.

    AA could not reserve on Cathay, but they gave me the Cathay record locator, and I reserved my own seat through Cathay’s website (no FF membership required).

    By following your tips and being flexible, prepared, and patient, I was able to book RTW much more easily than I thought. Thanks!

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