Anatomy of an Award: How to Fly a Peak Time with Off Peak Pricing and Add Two Free Oneways


I recently booked my friends a roundtrip award to Chile and Argentina, so that they can explore Patagonia next January for only 50,000 American Airlines miles each.

Lake District of Patagonia near Bariloche, Argentina

The award should have cost 60k miles each, but I saved them 20k miles by applying the same trick I used in the post 20k Miles to All of Europe All Summer, and I also added two free oneways onto the award, so that they already have half of their next vacation to Hawaii booked.

Here’s a visual representation of the award from that shows the free oneways from Chicago to Dallas and from Dallas to Honolulu in red and the main award in blue.

This Anatomy of an Award illustrates:

  • How to trick into giving you the off peak price all year round
  • How to add two free oneways to an American Airlines award

How did I book this award for my friends? How can you?

Inspired by my trip to Patagonia this year, my friends told me that they wanted to go on a two week trip through Chilean and Argentine Patagonia next year.

Good choice!

Panormaic View Near Bariloche, Argentina

I had talked one of them into getting 100k American Airlines miles by opening two credit cards last year, so they had 106k American Airlines miles to get two people on their dream trip.

American Airlines Off Peak Awards

American Airlines ordinarily charges 30k miles each way per person from North America to South America Zone 2, which includes Argentina and Chile.

But there is an off peak window each year from March 1 to May 31 and August 16 to November 30.

For Patagonia, those are indeed the off peak dates. The ideal time for the trip would be mid-December to mid-February, and my friends had January in mind. Unfortunately they didn’t have the miles for a January roundtrip, which would be 120k American Airlines miles.

Luckily there is a very big loophole in the way that American Airlines determines what constitutes an off peak award:

The relevant date for determining if an award is off peak is the date of the first flight of the award, not the date of the international leg.

As I wrote in 20k Miles to All of Europe All Summer, that means if you live at an international gateway city, you can start your award with a free oneway that occurs during the off peak window, then fly the main award at peak time and pay the off peak price.

Luckily my friends live in Dallas, which has direct flights to Santiago, Chile on American Airlines. And they had a weekend trip they were considering to Chicago this fall.

So I booked the return for that Chicago trip on November 10, which is an off peak date to South America Zone 2 and the Dallas to Santiago leg on January 26, which is very much in the peak window.

The result, as you would expect by now, was that the outbound for each person was only 20k miles, the off peak price.

On the return, no such tricks are available, so the return was 30k miles each. The total award was 100k miles for my friends, which was perfect since they only had 106k.

Booking the Award

American Airlines awards only allow stopovers on international awards at the North American International Gateway City–the city from which you exit or enter North America on a direct international flight.

My friends needed a stopover in Dallas on the outbound to set up the 20k-mile-saving flight from Dallas as explained in the preceding section.

That means that my friends needed a direct flight from Dallas to South America.

On the return, my friends didn’t need to add a free oneway, but they told me they’d love to add one to Hawaii for the Spring if possible. To add a later free oneway, they’d need a stopover in Dallas on the return, which again meant a direct flight from South America to Dallas.

All such direct flights are operated by American Airlines, so searching was the logical choice. Here’s video of how to book American Airlines awards online.

To search for the award, I selected an AAdvantage award search and specified multi-city to bring up the following screen. On the search screen, I specified the four parts of the award:

  • Chicago to Dallas (return of a weekend trip to Chicago and necessary to make the outbound price at the off peak price)
  • Dallas to Santiago (outbound of main award)
  • Buenos Aires to Dallas (return of main award)
  • Dallas to Honolulu (outbound of a Spring trip to Hawaii and a free oneway)

The results screen of such a big search is chaotic. The four parts of the award are laid out with their own color-coded award calendars.

The award calendars of Chicago to Dallas and Dallas to Santiago are intertwined. The calendar indicates that Chicago to Dallas adds zero additional miles to the award by purring a double dash (boxed in red “–“) where the miles needed would normally be.

And as explained above, Dallas to Santiago is pricing out at the off peak 20k price (boxed in red) despite falling during the peak period because it is preceded by Chicago to Dallas during the off peak period.

The second half of the award again shows the double-dash price on the domestic legs because the trip to Hawaii adds zero extra miles. The return prices at the peak 30k price because it is flown at peak time without any chance for a preceding segment during the off peak period.

After selecting the date of each segment from the available MileSAAver dates, you are taken to the screen where you select each flight. First I selected Chicago to Dallas again showing up with a zero mile price, then I selected each of the next three parts by clicking their associated boxes on the left side of the screen.

For the international legs, notice that only the direct flights show up.

I get a lot of emails about this when people try to recreate my American Airlines awards with stopovers. A person might write something like:

“I searched Dallas to Santiago and saw both a direct flight and a connecting one through Miami. But when I searched my award with a stopover (Chicago to Dallas, stop for a week, Dallas to Santiago), the award via Miami disappeared. What happened?”

Remember that you have to fly directly from Dallas to South America for Dallas to be the North American International Gateway City and hence eligible for a stopover. That means Chicago to Dallas, stop, Dallas to Miami to Santiago is not legal and the computer is correctly excluding it from the results.

Getting back to my friends’ award, I selected flights for each of the four parts of the award and got to the payment screen.

The award priced out at 100k miles + $170 total for two people. That included the international flights on their dream trip to Patagonia, half of the airfare for a weekend trip to Chicago and half the airfare for a Spring trip to Hawaii.

The price did not include intra-Patagonia flights–for which Avios and Delta miles are great–or the other half of the airfare to Chicago or Honolulu. Those flights could be purchased with cash, Arrival miles, Avios, Southwest points, Lufthansa miles, or any other type of miles that allows one way awards.


My friends used 100k total American Airlines miles to book a dream Patagonian vacation with some extra flights to Hawaii and Chicago thrown in for no additional miles.

The award “should have” cost 120k miles, but we took advantage of my American Airlines off peak trick to save 20k miles. The trick can also be used on economy bookings to Europe and Asia by those who live in North American International Gateway Cities (see a list).

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    • Exactly! Forgot to mention that they’ll get 10k miles back and still have 16k in their account for an effective price of 90k miles total.

  1. If your using JFK as the Intl gateway but you only have AA flights from your home airport to LGA, is a stopover still possible at JFK?

    • I can answer that, I just booked Omaha to LGA, stopover in New York, followed by JFK-OSL via Airberlin, and it was only 20k AA miles + $27. Airport doesn’t matter.

      • Thanks Andy and Gregg. To echo what they say, yes you can fly into LGA have a stopover and fly out of JFK as if they were the same airport.

  2. How would you handle booking a return with a free one way when the calendar for the free one way has not opened yet? For instance, a DUS-LAX on 07/03/14 and then LAX-HNL on 12/01/14. Would I be charged a fee to change the date of the free one way later on when the April 2015 calendar in available for booking? Thank you.

    • Keep in mind that all travel must be completed within one year of the booking date, so that seriously constrains how far you can push the free oneway back. But if you are brushing up against that one year problem, see –>

      “A stopover’s length is limited by the fact that all award travel must be completed within one year of its booking.

      I was booking in late February 2012, so all travel had to be completed by late February 2013. However, remember that I was booking the last possible day a flight could be booked (331 days out.) So how can I book a free oneway? The answer is that I couldn’t yet. I had two options:

      1. Book MEL-LAX-DFW-TPA for straight through travel, then wait a month until my desired free oneway dates opened, then change the LAX-TPA legs for free.

      2. Ask the agent to make a note that my award was to Tampa for dates that hadn’t opened up yet and call back at my leisure once the dates opened.

      I chose option two. Three weeks later when the dates of my free oneway (three weeks after arriving home in LA) opened, I called AA back. I added the two legs to Tampa. I had to pay an additional $5 at the time, which was the cost of the taxes on those legs. $5 for a domestic first class trip cross-country!”

  3. Nice example, though definitely requires some flexibility on the dates to grab Economy SAAver seats on American. And that is some layover you have in San Jose!

  4. That’s really awesome, is there any way I can get this exact same trip from SFO? I’m guessing no because SFO is not on your list of international gateway cities for AA.

  5. In your link to your list of gateway cities you list SFO as a gateway for: airberlin, British, Cathay, JAL, LAN, but not American. Doesn’t this mean that my flight options are more limited, as compared to someone who lives in chicago/LA?

    • That is a list of AA’s partners that have international flights. You can use all of those airlines’ flights for free stopovers/oneways. There is no distinction on AA awards whether AA or a partner flies a flight.

  6. I remember one time Mr. Pickles did a blog post about awards from the U.S. to Japan for 25,000 miles round-trip, using Avianca Lifemiles, and people were annoyed that he revealed it. One commenter even wrote, “if anyone knows a good hitman, then let me know”. Are you worried that doing this blog post might indirectly cause the deal to end?

    • I am not worried that United will go through the expense of reprogramming its computer to stop a very few people from doing what fewer still will want to do. But that’s always a valid concern.

  7. Quick question about free one-ways…..

    My free one-way on AA is 7 months before a summer trip to a secondary European market that has limited partner flights. Have you ever experienced a schedule change while you are on your extended stopover in the international gateway city? If so, how does the airline deal with it?

    Just wondering what might happen if the partner reduced the number of flights or even stopped flying to my destination after I had already started my travel.

  8. I’m very new to award travel and thank you for sharing your knowledge and expertise. I’m not sure I fully understand the free one way yet, but I have already booked award travel from Peoria, IL to Santa Ana and back in December on United. I also want to go to Honolulu in March. Could I have added Peoria to Honolulu as my free one way to my December trip? Now that the December trip is already booked, is that still possible?

    • The key concept behind a free oneway is a stopover at your home airport. You get zero stopovers on a United award within the continental US, so you could not add a free oneway onto the Peoria to Santa Ana trip. You do get one when going to Honolulu. You can use it in Peoria and a later free oneway, probably mainly to the east of Peoria.