There are five cardinal rules of American Airlines award tickets that I wanted to put together in one place for reference. All AA awards must comply with these rules and several other minor ones.
You should consult this post when planning an AA award, especially if you are trying to add a stopover or free oneway.
1. Stopovers must occur at the North American International Gateway City. The North American International Gateway City is the last North American city you transit on awards leaving North America.
On awards from other regions to North America, the North American International Gateway City is the North American city in which you first arrive.
North America is defined as the 50 US states, Canada, Mexico, Bermuda, Bahamas, and the Caribbean.
For a complete list of North American International Gateway Cities of all AA partners, see the list I compiled.
Examples: On the itinerary Melbourne to Sydney to Honolulu to Los Angeles to New York, the North American International Gateway City is Honolulu because it is where you enter North America. It is the only place on the itinerary where you can have a free stopover.
On an award from Los Angeles to New York to Boston to London, the North American International Gateway City is Boston because it is the city from which you leave North America. With this routing, Boston is the only place on the itinerary you can have a free stopover.
Of course, if you prefer a stopover in New York, you can change the routing slightly: fly Los Angeles to New York to London without a stop in Boston, and you can stop in New York.
What if you want a stop in Los Angeles on the way to London? Make sure Los Angeles is the North American International Gateway City by flying AA’s LAX-LHR flight.
What if you want a stop in Wichita? That’s not possible on AA awards because Wichita is not a possible gateway city–it has no international flights. Here’s a trick you can use to get a stopover in Wichita for 9,000 Avios.
What if you want a free stopover in London? That’s not possible on AA awards because London is not in North America. Here’s a trick you can use to get a cheap stopover outside North America on AA awards.
2. Each of the two directions-outbound and return–must not exceed AA’s Maximum Permitted Mileage for your origin and destination by more than 25% as flown.
This is not as complicated as that sentence makes it seem. Maximum Permitted Mileage (MPM) is a term of art. It is a number of miles that the airline puts on all city pairs for which it publishes a fare. MPM is not the direct distance between two cities; it is usually a larger number.
You can find the MPM for a city pair on Expert Flyer, the KVS tool, or by asking an AA agent. Here’s how to do it on Expert Flyer.
Example: Say you want to try this routing, LAX-BOS//BOS-NRT-TPE. In words, Los Angeles to Taipei with a stopover in Boston. First I would head to Expert Flyer, and I would look up the MPM for LAX to TPE since that is the origin and destination.
LAX-TPE has an MPM of 8,137 miles. (Note that this is much farther than the direct distance between the two, which Great Circle Mapper lists as 6,799 miles.)
Next I would multiply the MPM by 1.25, since we can exceed the MPM by 25% on awards. 10,171 miles is 25% greater than the MPM of LAX-TPE. Now, I can go to gcmap.com and check the distance of our putative routing. LAX-BOS-NRT-TPE is 10,669, which exceeds the allowable 10,171, so this is not a valid routing.
That means that AA would break this into two awards–LAX-BOS and BOS-TPE–and you’d have to pay more.
Crucial: If you want to tack a free oneway onto your AA award as described here, the free oneway is a part of the outbound or return, so make sure you include it in the MPM calculation.
For example, if you want to add a free oneway from Honolulu to Los Angeles before a direct Los Angeles to London award, you must look up the MPM for Honolulu to London. And you must compare it to the distance of flying HNL-LAX and LAX-LHR.
Why? AA doesn’t know what a free oneway is. They just see this as a Honolulu to London outbound (with a stopover at LAX.)
3. The airline that operates the flight that connects the two regions must have a published fare for your origin and destination city pair.
This is a rule that trips up a lot of otherwise awesome awards. It’s frustrating, and it’s not clear why the rule exists, but you have to know it.
Example: You want to fly MEL-LAX-JFK-BWI with a two month stopover at LAX and will fly on Qantas from MEL-LAX. That means Qantas–the region connecting carrier–has to have a published fare from MEL-BWI for the stopover to be valid and to avoid this being priced as two awards.
How do you figure out if there is a published fare between a city pair? I check on Expert Flyer. Here’s how. Another free, roughly accurate, way is to see if you can book a ticket between the city pair on the operating airline’s website or kayak.
Or you can just see if you can have it price as one award over the phone. If you can, you have a legal routing and stopover.
4. All award travel must be completed within one year of its booking.
You can have as long of a stopover as you want, you can stay at your destination as long as you want, and you can change your award to a later flight as many times as you want, subject to the fact that all travel must be completed within one year of the ticket’s issue.
Example 1: On January 1, 2013, you book MEL-LAX-JFK with a stopover in Los Angeles. MEL-LAX is January 2, 2013. Your maximum stopover in Los Angeles can be for nearly a year, you just need to complete LAX-JFK by December 31, 2013.
Example 2: On January 1, 2013, you book MEL-LAX-JFK with a stopover in Los Angeles. MEL-LAX is November 15, 2013. Your maximum stopover in Los Angeles is about a month and a half. You need to complete LAX-JFK by December 31, 2013.
Example 3: On January 1, 2013, you book MEL-LAX-JFK to be flown on November 15. In April, you decide to move the trip back. The latest you can move it back is to December 31, 2013 because all award travel must be completed within one year of the ticket being issued.
Bonus: Sometimes you may want to book a free oneway that occurs near the end of the one-year window. This can be impossible since AA only lets you book awards up to 330 days out.
This happened to me when I booked a Qantas flight from MEL-LAX 330 days out, and I wanted to add a free oneway to Tampa for a few weeks later. Here’s how to get your free oneway without having to pay a change fee to add it later.
When you call to ticket the award, tell the agent: “I want to stopover in LAX and add two more segments to Dallas then Tampa. The dates for those will be February 6. I know I can only book awards through January 15 today. Can you please add a note to the record about this, so that I can call back in to add those legs when they open up without incurring a change fee.”
Two-thirds of the AA agents I’ve asked to do this have done so. The other one-third, I hung up on, so I could call back to get a competent agent.
Double Bonus: The same trick can be used if you want to add a leg home that you think will open up later, but isn’t open yet.
I booked an award from Tokyo to Los Angeles to San Diego for a client who lived in San Diego. LAX-SAN didn’t show space, but I knew it would open in a few days. I told the agent, “”I want to stopover in LAX for a few weeks and later fly LAX-SAN. The dates for those will be February 6. I know I can only book awards through January 15 today. Can you please add a note to the record about this, so that I can call back in to add those legs when they open up without incurring a change fee.”
When the space opened up later, I added it for the day I wanted without incurring a change fee.
5. Awards between Region A and Region B cannot transit Region C unless specifically allowed.
Most airlines let you route however you’d like as long as you don’t exceed MPM. But not American Airlines. If you want to go from the USA to Australia, you can’t transit another region, say Asia, no matter what.
Another annoying one is not being able to transit the Middle East en route from USA to Africa. That makes it impossible to use Etihad.
Here is a list of regions you can transit from flyerguide.com, which I believe is complete and accurate.
Those are the five rules. Let me run through some itineraries based on ones that readers, Ryan from MA and kate, asked me about.
This itinerary is going from North America to Asia, so the international gateway city is the last North American city, JFK. The only valid stopover point is there.
Don’t be confused that Boston is the arrival point from Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico is part of North America according to AA’s inclusive definition: the 50 US states, Canada, Mexico, Bermuda, Bahamas, and the Caribbean.
This means that we don’t need to worry whether we can transit the USA en route between the Caribbean and Asia. The USA isn’t a “third region.” It’s part of the same region as the origin–North America.
The North American International Gateway City here is SFO. Remember AA’s expansive definition of North America includes Mexico, so the flyer hasn’t left North America until flying SFO-HKG. And the city where you leave North America is the only city on the outbound where you can have a stopover.
From above: LAX-TPE has an MPM of 8,137 miles. Multiply the MPM by 1.25, since we can exceed the MPM by 25% on awards. The MPM of LAX-TPE times 1.25 is 10,171. LAX-BOS-NRT-TPE is 10,669 miles, which exceeds the allowable 10,171, so this is not a valid routing.
This itinerary has the stopover at the international gateway city, and it’s about as direct as possible, so no exceeding-MPM worries. But does Japan Airlines, the overwater carrier from Tokyo to Boston. have a published fare from Tokyo to San Juan? YES!
JAL publishes a fare from NRT-SJU says Expert Flyer
I hope this post has cleared up AA’s confusing award routing rules by boiling them down to the five most important. Of course there are tons of other rules.
For instance, all segments must be at the SAAver level to get the SAAver price. Or on awards with any international flights, all layovers can be up to 24 hours before becoming stopovers. On domestic awards, layovers greater than four hours are stopovers.
But other rules are basically the same for all airlines or rarely come into play. Consult this post for the five cardinal rules for AA awards, so you can go into battle prepared the next time you want maximum value from your AAdvantage miles.