Why American has changed my perspective on mileage running

As I’ve mentioned probably a dozen times by now, I’m on an Executive Platinum challenge with American, and plan on switching about 100,000 miles per year worth of flying to them. While I’ve had a good understanding of American’s system for several years, I figured I’d share my thought process on them as I do more travel planning with them.

In the past I’ve always been a “pure” mileage runner. That’s to say that my flying domestically is exclusively on revenue tickets, while I redeem miles for international premium cabin award travel. While I have United systemwide upgrades, it can be impractical to use them as a leisure traveler, given that they require a minimum of a “W” fare to use (though my family members love them for travel on Lufthansa, where they’ve had pretty good luck upgrading day of at the airport). To Asia that often translates to a fare of at least $1,500 or so, at least from the east coast. It’s even worse from Australia.

One of the nice things about American is that their systemwide upgrades are valid on all fares, and you get eight of them per year. So as I look into potential mileage runs, I’m noticing that the best runs out there aren’t necessarily domestic ones, at least when everything is factored in. For example, just a couple of days ago, American launched service from Los Angeles to Shanghai, and through June they’re offering double miles on the route, even in discounted coach. The fares between Tampa and Shanghai are about $1,000 roundtrip all-in, which, while not cheap, isn’t half bad when you crunch the numbers.

They allow you to route from Tampa to Miami to Los Angeles to Shanghai, and back the same way. By my math, that’s about 18,650 actual flown miles. As a Platinum or Executive Platinum member you get a 100% mileage bonus, earning you 37,300 redeemable miles. Then as part of the double miles between Los Angeles and Shanghai promotion, you would earn double miles for those two segments as well, for an additional 13,000 or so miles. All in, you’re looking at about 50,000 redeemable miles for the trip.

Now, American doesn’t always have double miles offers on routes, though they do frequently when they launch new routes, much more so than United.

In other words, as an Executive Platinum member, for $1,000 bucks I’m looking at a vacation to Shanghai in business class, first class lounge access along the way, about 19,000 elite qualifying miles, and about 50,000 redeemable miles. If you conservatively value American miles at 1.5 cents each, you’re looking at $750 worth of redeemable miles, making the real “cost” of the trip $250.

Frankly, that sounds pretty darn good to me overall. So while Executive Platinum will likely cost me a bit more to achieve than 1K with United, this seems like a comfortable way to turn mileage runs into mini-vacations, something I haven’t found all that practical with United.

So as I write this I’m by no means trying to turn into an American cheerleader, because I’m not. United’s still my airline. But instead I’m just trying to give a United flyer’s perspective on American as I start to plan my trips with them. They’re a different “animal” in many ways, some good, some bad.

Filed Under: American, Mileage Runs
  1. The real question is how often does American overbook their flights and what do they offer as VDB compensation…

  2. Don’t forget to factor in your China visa, which is about $140 now I think. All in all, probably worth it if you get a chance to enjoy some Xiao Long Bao while you’re in Shanghai!

  3. $130something + Fedex costs for the Visa (as I assume there’s no consulate in Tampa). Shanghai is a nice city though especially if you go at the right time of year.

  4. As far as upgrades, is it true American doesn’t do domestic upgrades like UA’s UDU? And with the challenge do you get status first and then keep it or do you need to earn it? Not sure how your spending 1k and getting business class if you don’t have Systemwises yet?

  5. @Bonesaz: If you are ExPlat, my understanding is that you get UDU, while the lower elite levels have to use stickers (similar to the old UA e500s).. This means that you have a much better chance of getting the upgrade. You can also get upgrades on transcon flights, unlike UA.

  6. @ Erik — I believe so, though the issue is that you have to be in transit. If you’re flying nonstop to/from the US, I don’t believe it can be considered transit, unfortunately.

    @ Bonesaz — Executive Platinum members do get unlimited domestic upgrades, though not for companions. As @FriendlySkies said, lower tier elites have to use “stickers,” though in fairness you can buy them for $30 each, which is cheaper than what United used to charge.

    @ Steven — Travel is my job. Blogging, other writing gigs, and most importantly, travel consulting.

  7. @ Cash $ — It’s a mini-vacation. I’m not turning right around, but spending time in Shanghai.

  8. Excellent summary by Lucky. If I am in Lucky’s shoes and at his age, I will do the same.

    As an business traveller, I have little choice for MR and taking advantage of the various promotions. Network routes, alliance benefits and scheduling are more important to me than miles at the moment.

    However, I do appreciate Lucky’s sharing his analysis and experience. They are truly insightful and I am sure, in the future, I will take advantages of some of “tricks” he has shared with us.

  9. Lucky: Nice analysis. Thank you. If I had started at your age, I would have made AA my number #1 airline just for the lifetime Plat at 2 million miles from any source.

    But we are United flyers for the UDU as 1k and it is hard to switch. Kudos for dividing up your loyalties to your best advantage

  10. I think a lot of 1Ks have “AA” in the back of their minds while awaiting the rollout of the new UA FF program. Just in case things suddenly turn south.

  11. Yep, 48 hours transit in Shanghai. Worked just fine for us.

    Now you need some FFN’s to stay at the PH Shanghai — highest hotel in the world!

  12. Be aware that flying from the US to PVG and back to the US in less than 48 hours is NOT considered a transit by immigration for the purposes of the transit visa. You must come in from one country and out through another (and this is for PVG only) so consider routings through SIN, BKK or your other favorite Asian destinations.

  13. Lucky said… ‘In other words, as an Executive Platinum member, for $1,000 bucks I’m looking at a vacation to Shanghai in business class, first class lounge access along the way, about 19,000 elite qualifying miles, and about 50,000 redeemable miles. If you conservatively value American miles at 1.5 cents each, you’re looking at $750 worth of redeemable miles, making the real “cost” of the trip $250’

    The very first time that I mentioned something like this to my wife (as I was justifying a run to make UA PremEx in 2000), she laughed at me. I told her my trip was self-liquidating!

    I will say that she has ‘sort of’ come around, if you know what I mean. Wink.

  14. Lucky, how tight does American keep their upgrade inventory? Do you see a lot of confirmable space on those PVG flights?

    I always thought that if United eliminated the fare class restriction, I’d probably only see a 10-20% success rate in clearing on my frequent runs to Australia given the amount of higher fare traffic. Wonder if PVG is the same.

  15. @ hobo13 — Yes, FFNs would be lovely. Though the PH Shanghai isn’t the tallest hotel anymore. The Ritz in Hong Kong takes that title now.

    @ Darren — As far as I can tell it’s actually quite good, I see several days with confirmable space. That being said, I’m sure more “prime” routes are tougher, given that this is a brand new route. But overall EXPs seem to have great luck with international upgrades using eVIPs, even when waitlisted.

  16. @Lucky, you mention that you will travel in Business on this trip. Is that for all segments or are you hoping for an upgrade using your SWU’s? Just wondering.

  17. @ Despina — Well it’s not confirmed yet (I’m still looking into options), but I see many dates with confirmable upgrade space, so I’m hoping to use eVIPs to upgrade.

  18. I’ve done the 48 hr transit in Shanghai. Works just fine although can take a bit of convincing at the departure end to explain that to the check-in agents.

  19. @Lucky, while not a UA apologist I am a UA loyalist and so I am trying to poke holes in your argument so please bear with me. 🙂 It seems to me that the only reason that this particular MR on AA yields you more miles than an identical one on UA is because of the current double miles promotion that AA is running on the LA/Shanghai route, correct? Beyond that, I guess that your ability to upgrade on the cheapest economy class ticket is also a plus.

    Having said all of the above, we are heading to LA later this month and are flying Virgin America just to check out T2 at SFO, so I guess I’m not THAT much of a UA loyalist, although it will be our first flights on a non-*A carrier in over three years.

  20. Something else, as an EXP, that I appreciate, is that unlike United, the upgrade list isn’t sorted by fare class (though it obviously is by status). Therefore, those on cheaper “super saver fares” don’t have to take a back seat to those buying full-fare economy. All the EXPs are sorted strictly by when they bought their tickets.

    AA doesn’t have UDUs like United does, but that doesn’t really affect you as an EXP, as those people would be further back on the list regardless.

  21. @ Despina — A couple of advantages here to AA over UA. First of all, as you mention, the difference in fare class requirements for systemwide upgrades. That’s the difference between a “quasi” mileage run and just a vacation in terms of cent per mile. More importantly, though, American constantly seems to have double miles promotions to international destinations combined with reasonable fares, while I don’t remember the last time United has an international double miles promotion without fare class restrictions.

  22. It’s about time someone called United on the upgrade policy overseas. It bugs the cr*p out of me that they want $400 more so I can use an upgrade I’ve “earned.”

    As bogus as when they tried to make us co-pay for upgrades. Either it belongs to us or it doesn’t, when it comes to elite premiums. Call it what it is United, a “discounted” upgrade certificate. Ben isn’t the only one who has noticed the “unfriendly” international upgrade policy.

    Speaking as a guy with 800k United lifetime miles, I’d hate to move. But I’m seriously considering it. Thanks for hitting the nail on the head Ben.

  23. @Mark – $400 for the *chance* to use an upgrade.

    @Sean – AA does not overbook much, although bumps due to preceding cancellations occasionally occur. $500 transcon, $250 mid-con.

    Nice analysis Lucky, got me thinking about it now. Glad to see you giving AA a try. There are some good things here.

  24. Lucky Ben,

    What you are failing to realize is that AA Business does not equal UA/CO Business. On the physical side, both products are fully flat, and feature new IFE. And on United, new menus.

    Try connecting your ipod (or iphone) to an AA Business class IFE or better yet, try charging your USB based devices from your seat. You can’t.
    Because AA’s seat does not have this.

    Try charding your devices without a plug. Can’t also. You will need a cigarette adapter. ( Isn’t that 1980s technology???)

    And those people, Steven Pyles and co that cook the food might as well be ashamed of themselves. I told the FA to take the food back because it was in edible. The Sundae’s that everyone loves (in case you didn’t notice is rock hard frozen)


    I sleep flat.

    Not all products are the same, YMMV.

    So take the 8 worthless scraps for eVIPS.


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