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.

$474 fuel surcharge!

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.

Economy Roundtrip Award

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.

Business Class Roundtrip Award

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.

Roundtrip First Class Award

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.

Save $150 in taxes by returning from Paris instead of London

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.

Outbound in Economy and Return in First

My Recommendation

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.

Award Space

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.

March 2014 LAX-LHR in economy
March 2014 LHR-LAX in economy

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.

March 2014 LAX-LHR in business
March 2014 LHR-LAX in business

First class is also widely available, so let’s hope that trend continues for the next few weeks.

March 2014 LAX-LHR in first

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.

Free Oneways

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:

Example free oneway from Raleigh to Los Angeles in first class

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.

Free oneway: 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.

Free taxes?

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.

I wrote about the card last month.

Application Link: Arrival World MasterCard

Recap

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.

45 COMMENTS

  1. Scott, “A month later, we’ll change the free oneway’s date to your desired date for free by phone.”, why one month? is that the rule by AA? Thanks.

    • Because she needs to fly the second free oneway in the month between the return and the one year limit to fly all flights. We originally have to book the free oneway for the day after the return because we can only book 11 months in advance. After waiting one month, that 11 month booking window will extend to end of her free oneway window, so that’s when we’ll change the date of the free oneway. We can change the free oneway date whenever we’re within 11 months of her desired free oneway date, which will be at most one month after booking.

    • +1. Why book the free OW on the return one date right after reaching LAX and why wait for a month to reschedule? Any rules that are being followed here?

  2. Scott,

    I got to know your blog a few months ago and I have been impressed by your creativity in booking award trips. Right now, your blog is probaby the best in terms of hacking an award trip. However, when it come to credit card offers and applications, I feel that it is misleading in many places. This one for example, you redeem the sign-up offer, which you would have got from many other travel cards (maybe in a different form) for tax and call it tax free. I feel that you tried to make it more exciting but it is misleading, IMHO.

    • I don’t know of any other current credit card offer that could be redeemed for the taxes on this award. I don’t consider that part misleading at all. I consider it cutting edge, and a brilliant way to use the Arrival World MasterCard that I’ve never before seen discussed to make an award trip truly free (tax free).

      • You aren’t paying the taxes out of pocket, but you’re using up an asset that could otherwise be put to other purposes of the same value, right? If you look at the opportunity cost, it’s really just another way of paying the same taxes, which may be a convenient alternative to some. But I would only consider it tax free if taxes were actually waived.

        • Yes, my suggestion gets no extra value from the sign up bonus because there is no way to beat 1 cent per mile for this type of “miles.” My suggestion is primarily valuable for infrequent travelers like my friend’s mom because she wouldn’t otherwise use that sign up bonus, and people who only want miles for first class international trips because they wouldn’t otherwise use that sign up bonus.

    • Unfortunately tougher since we can’t get two AA cards at once, but very possible with AA personal, AA business, and SPG cards (or even flying paid flights.)

    • I’m almost 100% sure that Seth (Wandering Aramean) is correct.
      If necessary, one can book the return as a separate one-way award to preserve the free one-way.

      • Booking an AA award as two oneways or one roundtrip has no effect on free oneways. See my answer to Seth below. (He is right; I just left some things out of the article for clarity an brevity.)

    • I believe it’s because with American you can add a stopover (allowing for the free one-way, in effect) only at the “North American international gateway city”, which in this case would be Chicago if she connected there.

    • CDG-LHR-LAX would preserve the free oneway certainly, but it prices at $230–only a $50 tax savings over LHR-LAX. At that small difference, I can’t imagine it’s worth her while to go to Paris to catch the flight, so I left out that free oneway option. If she is going to Paris, it would be for the low CDG-ORD-LAX taxes. And if she flew CDG-ORD-LAX, she would not get a free oneway from LAX.

    • No. AA sees the award as one continuous itinerary with a stopover, so it has to be free oneway-LAX-LHR for the outbound, not LAX-LHR, LAX-free oneway.

  3. @Wandering Aramean:

    I believe it’s because with American you can add a stopover (allowing for the free one-way, in effect) only at the “North American international gateway city”, which in this case would be Chicago if she connected there.

  4. What a killer post. You really laid out all the details.
    I know there’s a big jump up in quality from economy class to business class. However, is first class that much better than business class? Or is it better to save those extra 25,000 miles?

  5. What I try to say in the post is that the First Class food, seat, check in, and lounges aren’t worth much extra to me compared to business on this specific flight because this features the new, improved business class bed and AA first class is not exactly aspirational. But on the other hand, the price differential is small, so if you want First Class, and you have the miles, why not?

  6. Great – so much for my spring break family trip LAX-LHR in business THAT I HAD BEEN PLANNING FOR MONTHS! What time do I need to set my alarm clock for now to book these?

  7. I hadn’t seen it in a blog, but I got the Barclay Arrival card specifically to get rid of those fees that have kept me from keeping my promise to my wife of free travel! (She would rather drive just about everywhere, but I’m not sure how our car would fare going from Texas to Paris.)

  8. Hey Scott,
    I am finding that when I do a OW search for the TATL leg and select only AA, American Eagle, and American Connection on the search form I can avoid BA altogether and get to see the AA only flights. As soon as I use a multi-city search to utilize the free stop over, and add the free leg preceding the TATL leg, even though I have the “AA only” options checked, it forces BA flights on the TATL leg, thereby shooting up the taxes (miles stay the same, so I know I am going to get the free OW). Is this where I may need to call AA to feed them the flghts I saw previously that bypass British and/or even LHR altogether? I was toying with LIH-PHX//PHX-FCO in October time-frame.

  9. Very useful post. I had been seeing the Miles and More program as simply not much good, but this helps to show some niches where it could be useful. I’ve been trying to figure out what to do with my 54k miles from their promotion two years ago (before they expire), and this offers some useful ideas.

    • An open jaw has no affect on AA free oneways. Flying CDG-ORD-LAX destroys the free oneway because LAX is no longer the gateway city. MAD-LAX-HNL is fine.

  10. Would you mind showing how to select the nonstop only from the dropdown on the search results? I can’t find it. I can only sort by # stops when I actually click on a date, but that means having to click on every date until I find one.

  11. Great information! With your help, I booked my very first free one-way on United. Not sure where to ask this, but I’m trying to book another to round out the trip, and am encountering a problem.

    I have a free one-way on an itinerary from SBN-DCA-PLS-DCA. I’d like to book the return from DCA-SBN as a free one-way to add to an itinerary from SBN-PRG: DCA-SBN-PRG-SBN. But for some reason, United isn’t allowing this as a routing. Can you please tell me why?

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