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Or: A Letter to a Friend’s Mom
My friend’s mom wants to go from Los Angeles to London in early April with her American Airlines miles. This post contains all the information she needs to understand her options.
If you view the specifics of her situation as merely an example, this post should be hugely helpful to you in you want to plan an award to Europe with your American Airlines miles. This post hits on free oneways on American Airlines, fuel-surcharge avoidance, tax avoidance, when to book, specific examples of Aggravating Award Travel Fees and How to Avoid Them, and much more.
Dear Mrs. M,
You’ve got a few hundred thousand American Airlines miles and a trip in mind to London for April 2014. I’m jealous! You’ve got quite a few options to maximize the flights on your trip. It should be possible not only to book your roundtrip to London as an award in a flat bed, but also to add on a few free flights to Mexico, Canada, Hawaii, New York, or anywhere in between for no extra miles.
The Trip to London
American Airlines miles can be used on American Airlines flights and all their partners that make up the oneworld alliance. There are several European partners of oneworld including British Airways, airberlin, Finnair, and Iberia.
American and British Airways both fly LAX to London directly every day. Between the two, American Airlines’ own direct flight is the far superior option because flying British Airways with American Airlines miles incurs massive fuel surcharges.
In fact, the direct LAX to London flight on British Airways in business class one way would cost 50,000 American Airlines miles and $476.
The same route operated by an American Airlines flight would cost the same 50,000 miles, but only $2.50. That means flying British Airways would add about $1,000 to the cost of the roundtrip award in fuel surcharges!
Your best option, then, is the direct American Airlines flight, your second best option is American Airlines or one of its partners on an indirect route, and your worst option is an award that includes flying British Airways across the Atlantic.
Luckily the direct American Airlines flight is an amazing option because next spring it will be operated by American’s newest plane, the 777-300ER, which even features an onboard bar.
The plane has three cabins–economy, business, and first.
Economy should be like every economy flight you’ve flown in your life except that you’ll have a personal video screen at your seat with on demand TV and movies. Economy costs 20,000 miles each way. A roundtrip on your dates would cost 40,000 miles +$185.
Since you’ve never flown internationally in a premium cabin, business class would probably be the best flight of your life. The 777-300ER features business class seats that convert to fully flat beds at the push of a button. In business class, you’d have free meals and drinks, a bigger TV, noise cancelling headphones, direct aisle access, a bigger checked bag allowance, lounge access at the airports, priority check in, priority security, and better service from flight attendants.
I haven’t flown American Airlines business class, but here is a review of business class on this aircraft. I have flown international business class with flat beds before, and it is awesome. The only drawback is you might get used to it! Being able to sleep comfortably and arrive refreshed is worth a big premium to be.
Business class costs 50,000 miles each way. A roundtrip would be 100,000 miles + $289.
First class would be a slightly better experience. Here’s my review of AA First Class on a different plane. Your seat and bed would be even larger than business class. You would have an even better ratio of flight attendants to passengers. You can experience Flagship Check-In at LAX and Flagship Lounges at LAX and Heathrow.
Unfortunately the Flagship Lounge at LAX isn’t anything special, and a more private check in experience is probably something you never thought you needed.
First class costs 62,500 miles each way. A roundtrip would cost 125,000 miles + $289.
You may be wondering why your “free” award ticket has out of pocket costs of $289. The answer is that you always have to pay government taxes on award tickets. International tickets tend to have government taxes of around $100 or more roundtrip because governments love to charge big airport, customs, and immigration fees.
Tickets leaving the UK also incur a massive Air Passenger Duty that is even larger if you leave in a premium cabin. The Air Passenger Duty represents the majority of the $289 out of pocket on the business and first class redemptions.
You can save up to $150 by returning from Paris instead of London to avoid the Air Passenger Duty.
But if you fly back from Paris, you will incur expenses getting there from London, and you will destroy one of the two free oneway options I talk about below, so you may be better off just paying the taxes to leave London.
You can mix-and-match cabins, going one way in one cabin and the other way in another without issue. For example you can do the outbound in economy and the return in first class for 82,500 miles (20k + 62.5k) total + $289.
I don’t have a recommendation for which cabin to choose–all three have their strengths.
Economy class is much cheaper than the other two at 20k miles each way. Plus returning in economy will save you $100 in taxes compared to business or first.
Business class is a huge step up from economy with a fully flat bed and gourmet food in the sky plus lounge access and better treatment on the ground. It would turn the outbound redeye from a pain to a pleasure.
First class is a small step up in necessities but a nice step up in prestige for only 12,500 more miles each way.
With your mileage balance, I would definitely choose a flat bed for the outbound redeye. If you are going to choose first class for only one way, make it the return when you will be awake to enjoy the amenities for more of the flight because the comfort of the first and business class beds should be similar.
The other thing to keep in mind is that instead of choosing your cabin for each direction, you should let the award space availability dictate your final choice. At the moment, you should just determine your order of preference for each cabin.
American Airlines awards can be booked 11 months in advance, so your trip dates will become available in the next few weeks. I’ve looked at March 2014 award space to give you an idea of what you might expect to find for award space in April 2014.
[Technical note: each calendar shows availability only on the direct AA flight. I managed that by asking aa.com to search only AA, American Eagle, and American Connection on the search form, then selecting Non-stop only from the dropdown menu on the search results.]
Economy award space is the least available. Available dates are green. March has two available dates for the outbound and five on the return. That doesn’t give me much confidence we can find an economy award on the direct flights for your April 2014 dates.
Business award space is available almost every day in March 2014. That makes me very hopeful it will be available for you to book April 2014 in a few weeks.
First class is also widely available, so let’s hope that trend continues for the next few weeks.
Frankly the lack of economy space for March 2014 surprises me. We can be on the lookout for economy space for your dates as they become bookable. The good news is that I do expect business and first class space to be available on the days you want based on March’s wide open availability.
I promised you more than just the roundtrip award. For zero extra miles (and a pittance in taxes), we can add two free oneways to your award. For full details on free oneways, see Master Thread: Free Oneways on American Airlines Awards.
One of your free oneways will be:
- From nearly anywhere in the USA (including Alaska and Hawaii), Canada, or Mexico that American, Alaska, or Hawaiian serves to Los Angeles
- in the same cabin as your LAX-LHR flight
- between the date of booking and the date of LAX-LHR
The other will be:
- From Los Angeles to nearly anywhere in the USA (including Alaska and Hawaii), Canada, or Mexico that American, Alaska, or Hawaiian serves
- in the same cabin as your LHR-LAX flight
- between the date of LHR-LAX and one year from the date of the award’s booking
Here’s an example:
The free oneway is in first class from Raleigh to Los Angeles in September, seven months before your main trip. It precedes a business class award (domestic first = international business), and the total cost is 100k miles + $291.80. The Raleigh to LAX flight added zero miles and $2.50 to the price.
Think of the free oneways as half the airfare you need for separate trips. For example, look at this free oneway from Maui to LAX.
If you booked this award, you’d have half the airfare of a trip to Hawaii for fall 2013. The other half–LAX to Maui–would need to be booked as a separate award or oneway cash ticket. It’s not a free trip to Hawaii. It’s a free oneway or a half price roundtrip.
Your first free oneway has more value because you can fly it any time between now and next April. Your second one may have no value to you because you have to fly it between next April and next May, and you may be worn out from London and not want to travel in that one month window.
You can book free oneways speculatively and change them. Changing the date is free up to three weeks from the flight when a date change would be $75. Changing the destination would cost $150. Cancelling the free oneway would cost $150. Under no circumstances should you skip the first free oneway without flying it. That would cancel the rest of your award. The second free oneway can be skipped without flying it, since it is the last segment of the award.
Your game plan here is to use the first free oneway for another trip you know you have to take or want to take in the next 11 months. The second free oneway should be booked even if you think there is a low chance of using it, since it’s free.
One final thing to note about the free oneways: You destroy the less valuable second free oneway from LAX to somewhere else between April and May 2014 if you don’t fly directly from Europe to LAX. You would thus destroy the second free-oneway opportunity by returning from Paris on American Airlines via Chicago–the itinerary I mentioned above that would save $150 in taxes.
Booking the Award
When it’s 11 months from your desired outbound date, we can book the first free oneway plus the outbound online at aa.com in ten minutes.
When it’s 10 months and 29 days out from your desired return, we’ll book the return plus a free oneway for the next day. A month later, we’ll change the free oneway’s date to your desired date for free by phone.
You’ll be on the hook for $200 to $300 in taxes that you’ll be paying with a credit card when you book the awards at aa.com. I have an idea to make sure you don’t actually pay those taxes.
If you open the Barclaycard Arrival World MasterCard and spend $1,000 on it, you’d unlock 40,000 miles that can be used for statement credits for travel purchases at a rate of 1 cent per mile. If you paid the $289 in taxes on the award with the card, you could redeem 28,900 miles to remove the charge from your statement.
Application Link: Arrival World MasterCard
Your Los Angeles to London award will be bookable in a few weeks. At that time, you’ll have to decide between economy, business, first, or a mixture of cabins to cross the pond. At the time of booking you can book up to two free oneways to unlock even more value.
We’ll fly you on the direct American Airlines flights to maximize comfort while eliminating fuel surcharges. You could return from Paris instead of London to save taxes, but if that’s inconvenient, you’ll just have to pay the up-to $290 in taxes. Luckily you can even get out of the taxes by applying for the Arrival World MasterCard.