Category Archives: ExpertFlyer

Free First Class Next Month 4.0: Using Expert Flyer to Redeem Delta and American Airlines Awards

This is the twentieth post in a monthlong series that started here. Each post will take about two minutes to read and may include an action item that takes the reader another two minutes to complete. I am writing this for an audience of people who know nothing about frequent flier miles, and my goal is that by the end, you know enough to fly for free anywhere you want to go. Previously Using Delta.com to Redeem Delta Miles.

Expert Flyer is a paid service–$100 per year, $10 per month, free for a five day trial–that I use frequently for several distinct purposes.

Expert Flyer provides at least some award search capability on all these airlines.

I find Expert Flyer incredibly useful for Delta award searches because it shows Delta partners Aeroflot, Aerolineas Argentinas, Air Tahiti Nui, China Southern, China Eastern, China Airlines, and Saudia among others.

To perform an award search, click Awards & Upgrades on the left side after signing in.

Type in the departure and arrival city. You can also type in the connecting airport city if you want to limit the possible routings the search will produce. I am generally searching segment-by-segment for direct flights and leave that blank.

Select an airline and the classes for which you want to see award space. Pay close attention to the names. The correct fare class will usually be named something simple like Award or Classic Award.

You can select just one date if you are searching oneway or input two dates for a roundtrip. Next to each date you can specify a search of up to +/- 3 days, which is a full week search.

I usually select Direct/Non-Stop only, although that is not possible for Alitalia searches. The next screen will show results for your search, broken down by cabin. For some airlines, Expert Flyer will display 0 if there is no space. For others, it won’t show the flight at all if there is no space.

This search shows great Boston to Rome space in economy and business class on Alitalia in October.

To book on Delta, you would note the flight number and date and go to delta.com, since Alitalia was added to delta.com recently. I usually write down the fare code–the letters associated with the award space, in this case Z and U–because some agents don’t know how to find space without them.

The above search result shows one of Expert Flyer’s annoying quirks. A Boston to Toronto to Rome itinerary was returned that includes a flight on Air Canada. Air Canada isn’t a Delta partner, so there is no way to get on that itinerary. Results like that are why I prefer to search segment-by-segment on Expert Flyer.

Beyond Delta partners, ExpertFlyer is also useful for American awards on non-oneworld partners El Al and Air Tahiti Nui.

Should You Pay for Expert Flyer

Expert Flyer charges $10 per month for its premium package, $5 per month for its basic package, or $100 per year for its premium package. I have the annual premium package. The basic package only allows 250 award searches per month, which is far fewer than I do for my Award Booking Service.

This page compares Basic and Premium. If you click on Premium, you will have the opportunity to start membership with a five-day free trial.That means you can try out the service for free and see if it’s worth the money to you. Or you can use the service strategically for one award-planning session then cancel. Just remember to cancel within five days to avoid your credit card being charged.

I also use Expert Flyer for several other things like searching MPM, finding published fares, and setting award space alerts, which I explained in a previous incarnation of Free First Class Next Month.

Anatomy of an Award: Membership Rewards to Argentina

I recently booked a family of four an economy award from Miami to Buenos Aires with their Membership Rewards. It was an interesting award that I think demonstrates the complexities and fun of booking with American Express points.

I won’t talk about that award specifically, but I’ll use it as a jumping off point for discussion since it illustrates a typical Memberhip Rewards situation. Imagine you have a family of four trying for an economy roundtrip from Miami to Buenos Aires for two weeks in October with 300k Membership Rewards.

Membership Rewards are awesome because they can be transferred to any of the three airline alliances, so you can use them to book on almost any airline in the world.

But Membership Rewards are frustrating because they transfer to programs with which you may be unfamiliar like ANA or programs with major drawbacks like British Airways’ fuel surcharges.

I would approach an award like this looking first at the flying options, then at the transfer options. I know if I could find award space, I can probably find a transfer partner with access to that space. And if I find several ways to get to Buenos Aires, I cancompare the transfer options to see which is the best deal with Membership Rewards.

From checking the Buenos Aires international airport’s (EZE) wikipedia page, I know there are direct flights to/from Miami on American, LAN, and Aerolineas Argentinas. Of course, United and Delta also fly to Buenos Aires from their hubs.

Aerolineas Argentinas

Aerolineas Argentinas is the state-owned flag carrier of Argentina. I haven’t heard too many kind words about it, but it does have a direct flight from Miami to Buenos Aires. The best way to search for the space is on ExpertFlyer.

ExpertFlyer only displays economy award space on the airline. The space that Aerolineas’ SkyTeam partners like Delta have access to is T class space.

Aerolineas Argentinas flies twice daily between Miami and Buenos Aires–its only US route–once in the morning and one redeye. Up to seven seats are widely available on each!

The return is also wide open.

This was a promising start!

American

American has direct flights from Miami to Buenos Aires also. The best place to check for space on those flights is aa.com.

I can look at the whole month of October in just a few seconds with AA’s awesome calendar view. Unfortunately there is no MileSAAver outbound space–the low-miles-price space open to partners– in October, though there is some space on return flights.

Outbound: No Saver Space

Return: Some Saver Space

LAN

LAN is another oneworld airline with direct flights from Miami to Buenos Aires. I go to ba.com to check for LAN space to Buenos Aires, since aa.com doesn’t display LAN space.

I ca’t find any LAN space on ba.com, though it did pick up the same American Airlines space I’d seen on aa.com.

ba.com not finding any LAN space

…but it did find the same space on American Airlines

Delta

Yes, it seemed like a complete longshot that Delta would have space for four from Miami to Atlanta to Buenos Aires at the low-miles-price because Delta has putrid availability to South America, but I checked anyway.

Green shows low-miles-price itineraries. There actually are some returns possible.

While oneway tickets with Delta miles are a huge mistake since Delta charges the roundtrip price for all awards even oneways, I kept the returns in mind because AMEX has some transfer partners like Flying Blue that can be used to book oneway Delta awards reasonably.

United, TACA, Copa

The final place I checked was united.com to see what United, Copa, or TACA award space there was that I could snag with a transfer to a Star Alliance partner.

Green and yellow days have an award with four economy seats.

I found a few more possible awards to add to the bounty.

Search Results

I found space in both direction on Aerolineas Argentinas’ two daily flights. I found space in both directions on connecting United and Copa (via Panama) flights. I found return space on American Airlines and Delta, but no outbound space. I found no space on LAN.

Transfer Options

Delta

We can transfer Membership Rewards to Delta to book the Aerolineas Argentinas space and/or the Delta space. Delta charges 60,000 miles roundtrip to Argentina in economy class whether you fly it or one of its SkyTeam partners like Aerolineas Argentinas.

Although Delta does charge fuel surcharges for awards on a lot of its partners, it does not collect fuel surcharges on Aerolineas redemptions.

That means a transfer to Delta would mean the transfer of 240,000 Membership Rewards to 240,000 Delta miles. American Express charges $7 per 10,000 miles transferred to US-based airlines, with a maximum charge of $99, This transfer would incur that $99 charge. The award itself would have government taxes of around $75 per person, meaning a total cost of 240,000 Membership Rewards and approximately $400 for four people.

In return for that outlay, the family could get direct flights in each direction or could sub a one-stop itinerary on Delta on the return if they really didn’t want to fly Aerolineas Argentinas.

Flying Blue

Air France’s frequent flyer program, Flying Blue, is not always the best option because it levies heavy surcharges on several partners. But it doesn’t levy surcharges on Delta or Aerolineas Argentinas. And it’s price from the US to Argentina is 25,000 miles each way.

I’m not sure why the taxes collected exceed those collected by Delta by $15 per person, but that’s a minor concern. Flying Blue costs 25,000 miles each way, and it can be used to book oneways, which is a far better deal than Delta’s 60k miles roundtrip, which is the price whether you book oneways or roundtrips.

That means for 200k Membership Rewards and $360, a family of four could get on the same flights as with Delta miles: Delta and Aerolineas Argentinas flights.

British Airways

We can transfer Membership Rewards to British Airways Avios, but that would only enable booking the return leg in this case. Avios can be used to book American or LAN flights. We found only space on American, and only on the return.

The good news is that it’s only 25,000 Avios from Buenos Aires to Miami.

That means the return would be 100k Membership Rewards and $300.

ANA

I recently sang the praises of All Nippon Airways as a Membership Rewards transfer partner. ANA has a distance based award chart. You add up the distance of all the segments and see how many miles that trip will cost. Here is the economy chart.

Miami to Houston to Buenos Aires roundtrip is just over 12,000 miles. That works out 60,000 ANA miles (60,000 Membership Rewards) roundtrip. That’s not fantastic or awful.

But Miami to Panama to Buenos Aires is under 9,000 miles, meaning it is only 43,000 ANA miles roundtrip. That’s the lowest miles total we’ve seen.

image from gcmap.com

In neither case would there be fuel surcharges. ANA never charges fuel surcharges on United or US Airways flights, and Copa doesn’t collect fuel surcharges on this routing.

No fuel surcharges on Copa from Miami to Buenos Aires, so ANA won’t collect any.

That means ANA miles used to fly Copa would be 172k Membership Rewards and about $480 in taxes.

Transfer Options Summary

To summarize:

  • All the options here receive 1:1 transfers from Membership Rewards and incur only government taxes–no fuel surcharges.
  • Transferring to Delta is a bad idea. Why pay 60k Membership Rewards for a roundtrip when the same flights are 25k each way via Flying Blue? Total: 240k + $400
  • ANA is the cheapest option overall at 43k roundtrip if we route through Panama on Copa. Total: 172k + $480
  • British Airways and Flying Blue are the cheapest direct options at 25k each way. Total: 200k + $300

If you really value direct flights, take the Aerolineas Argentinas flight one direction for 25k Flying Blue miles and return on the American Airlines flight for 25k Avios.

If you really value the cheapest flights or want a free stopover in Panama, look for Copa flights for 43k ANA miles.

Recap

Membership Rewards have awesome versatility, which also means it’s more work to figure out the best deal. For a simple Miami to Buenos Aires roundtrip, all three alliances are possibilities.

Because some transfer partners have region-based charts, some have distance-based charts, some charge fuel surcharges sometimes, and some never do, you have to investigate every option for the best deal.

For Buenos Aires to Miami roundtrip, the best deals are with ANA miles on Copa to take advantage of the distance-based chart of a combination of Flying Blue miles and Avios to take advantage of their partners’ direct flights.

Free First Class Next Month: Using Expert Flyer to Redeem Delta Miles

This is the twenty-fourth post in a monthlong series that started here. Each post will take about two minutes to read and may include an action item that takes the reader another two minutes to complete. I am writing this for an audience of people who know nothing about frequent flier miles, and my goal is that by the end, you know enough to fly for free anywhere you want to go. Previously Using Delta.com to Redeem Delta Miles.

Expert Flyer is a paid service–$100 per year, $10 per month, free for a five day trial–that I use frequently for several distinct purposes.

Expert Flyer provides at least some award search capability on all these airlines.

I find Expert Flyer incredibly useful for Delta award searches because it shows Delta partners Aeroflot, Aerolineas Argentinas, Air Tahiti Nui, Alitalia, China Southern, China Eastern, China Airlines, and Saudia among others.

To perform an award search, click Awards & Upgrades on the left side after signing in.

Type in the departure and arrival city. You can also type in the connecting airport city if you want to limit the possible routings the search will produce. I am generally searching segment-by-segment for direct flights and leave that blank.

Select an airline and the classes for which you want to see award space. Pay close attention to the names. The correct fare class will usually be named something simple like Award or Classic Award.

You can select just one date if you are searching oneway or input two dates for a roundtrip. Next to each date you can specify a search of up to +/- 3 days, which is a full week search.

I usually select Direct/Non-Stop only, although that is not possible for Alitalia searches. The next screen will show results for your search, broken down by cabin. For some airlines, Expert Flyer will display 0 if there is no space. For others, it won’t show the flight at all if there is no space.

This search shows great Boston to Rome space in economy and business class on Alitalia in October.

To book on Delta, you would note the flight number and date and go to delta.com, since Alitalia was added to delta.com last week. I usually write down the fare code–the letters associated with the award space, in this case Z and U–because some agents don’t know how to find space without them.

The above search result shows one of Expert Flyer’s annoying quirks. A Boston to Toronto to Rome itinerary was returned that includes a flight on Air Canada. Air Canada isn’t a Delta partner, so there is no way to get on that itinerary. Results like that are why I prefer to search segment-by-segment on Expert Flyer.

Beyond Delta partners, ExpertFlyer is also useful for American awards on non-oneworld partners El Al and Air Tahiti Nui.

Should You Pay for Expert Flyer

Expert Flyer charges $10 per month for its premium package, $5 per month for its basic package, or $100 per year for its premium package. I have the annual premium package. The basic package only allows 250 award searches per month, which is far fewer than I do for my Award Booking Service.

This page compares Basic and Premium. If you click on Premium, you will have the opportunity to start membership with a five-day free trial.That means you can try out the service for free and see if it’s worth the money to you. Or you can use the service strategically for one award-planning session then cancel. Just remember to cancel within five days to avoid your credit card being charged.

I also use Expert Flyer for several other things like searching MPM, finding published fares, and setting award space alerts, which I explained in a previous incarnation of Free First Class Next Month.

Continue to Planning Awards with Wikipedia and Kayak.

 

A System to Get to Europe with Delta SkyMiles

I use three steps to get to my European destination with Delta SkyMiles. For each direction:

  1. Find transatlantic space.
  2. Find domestic space within the US on Delta or Alaska from my home airport to the international gateway.
  3. Find intra-European space to my destination.

Those steps are roughly in order of difficulty–though many times finding domestic space on Delta is impossible at the low-miles price. In those cases, I have to buy a positioning flight or look on different dates.

A few months ago I decided to make a list of SkyTeam flights to Europe, so that I could more systematically search for awards to Europe for my clients with SkyMiles (or AMEX Membership Rewards or Flying Blue points.) Having a list to refer to made my Award Booking Service run much more smoothly.

This is not every SkyTeam flight to Europe, but it is every Air France, KLM, Alitalia, Aeroflot, and Air Europa flight between the US/Canada and Europe. Plus every Delta flight to London and Paris and from JFK to Europe. (Correct me where I’m wrong please.)

Air France

CDG (Paris) to ATL, BOS, ORD, DTW, IAH, LAX, MIA, JFK, SFO, IAD, YUL, YYZ

Alitalia

FCO (Rome) to BOS, ORD, LAX, MIA, JFK, EWR, YYZ

MXP (Milan) to JFK, MIA

KLM

AMS (Amsterdam) to ATL, DFW, ORD, IAH, LAX, JFK, SFO, IAD, YYC, YUL, YYZ, YVR

Aeroflot

SVO (Moscow) to LAX, MIA, JFK, IAD

Air Europa

MAD (Madrid) to JFK

Delta

LHR (London) to ATL, BOS, DTW, MSP, JFK

CDG (Paris) to ATL, CVG, DTW, MSP, JFK, SLC, SEA and seasonally to BOS, ORD, PHL, PIT

JFK (New York) to AMS, BCN, BRU, DUB, FRA, LHR, MAD, MXP, SVO, CDG, VCE and seasonally to ATH, CPH, IST, AGP, PSA, KEF, PRG, SNN, VLC, NCE, ARN

Finding Transatlantic Space

I search Alitalia, KLM, Air France, Air Europa, and Aeroflot space on Expert Flyer. See Free First Class Next Month: Using expertflyer.com.

I search Delta space as a oneway award, just the segment I want. For instance, if I want to fly from San Francisco to Salt Lake City to Paris, I just search SLC-CDG oneway on delta.com.

Why they’re called SkyPesos. Only medium availability in April in economy class.

Unfortunately the calendar doesn’t match up with direct availability. For instance, April 5 has low-level business availability according to the calendar. That must be for an itinerary with a stop because SLC-CDG direct is at the high price of 325k miles.

Not a good deal

Low-level Delta space will display as 60k/100k oneway in economy/business because Delta charges the roundtrip price for oneways. If you see that price, note the flight number and time, so you can build your award around it.

All partner space will cost the low-level price.

Finding Domestic Space

I also search delta.com oneway at a time for this. There aren’t really any tricks, and Delta’s award space is pitiful.

The only thing to keep in mind is to check for both economy and first class domestic space on your business class awards. You can add domestic economy class to international business class without increasing the award’s price.

Finding intra-Europe Space

I use expertflyer.com to search for award space intra-Europe. It’s usually readily available.

I have two tips. The first is not to hold out for business class. Intra-Europe business class is economy class with a meal and no one in the middle seat. It’s worth about $15 more than economy class to me, so I’m happy to book an economy class seat to get a better flight time.

The second is not to check the box for a classic Europe award on Expert Flyer for KLM and Air France searches. Delta has access to Classic Award (X), not Classic Europe Award (T) for these airlines.

Air France’s fare classes. Delta miles can be used only for O and X.

Putting It Together

Once you’ve found your transatlantic, intra-Europe, and domestic award space, you can put it all together. If you’re lucky and delta.com can find it and price it correctly, you are set.

If delta.com can’t find it or price it correctly, call 800-323-2323 to book. But don’t pay the phone fee. See How to Avoid the Phone Fee on Award Bookings to save $25 per ticket.

Recap

Booking awards to Europe with Delta miles can be time consuming, but there is a systematic approach that yields results. First, find the transatlantic space. I’ve included a list of great flights to search on all SkyTeam partners.

Second, find domestic space. Third, find intra-European space. Piece it all together on delta.com or by phone.

Or save yourself the trouble, and contact my Award Booking Service.

For more great posts like this, sign up for the MileValue RSS feed, like the MileValue facebook page, or follow me on Twitter @milevalue. Get your friends involved too, so you can have more companions for your Free First Class Next Month.

What AA.com Adding Finnair and airberlin Means for You

American Airlines has added the ability to search Finnair and airberlin award space on aa.com! If you follow thepointsguy, View From the Wing, or One Mile at a Time, they all beat me to the story, so I’ll try to add some valuable information if you want to book one of these airlines.

It’s always great news when an airline adds the functionality to its award-booking engine. American Airlines has made big strides this year, so you can now book American, Alaska, Hawaiian, British, Qantas, Finnair, and airberlin online with your AA miles. It’s not as comprehensive as united.com is for the Star Alliance, but aa.com is moving in the right direction.

Let me show you how to search aa.com for Finnair and airberlin space, and I’ll tell you about their patterns of availability. If you want to search segment-by-segment as you often have to on difficult awards, it’s important to know Finnair and airblerin’s flights to the US.

Finnair

New York (JFK) <-> Helsinki (HEL)

airberlin

New York (JFK) <-> Berlin (TXL)

New York (JFK) <-> Dusseldorf (DUS)

Chicago (ORD) <-> Berlin (TXL)

Los Angeles (LAX) <-> Berlin (TXL)

Los Angeles (LAX) <-> Dusseldorf (DUS)

San Francisco (SFO) <-> Dusseldorf (DUS)

Miami (MIA) <-> Berlin (TXL)

Miami (MIA) <-> Dusseldorf (DUS)

Fort Myers (RSW) <-> Dusseldorf (DUS)

Las Vegas (LAS) <-> Dusseldorf (DUS)

Searching

To search for airberlin and Finnair space, type your desired route into the search box on the top left of aa.com. Be sure to check the box that says Redeem AAdvantage Miles.

That will bring up a week-long search calendar and some more options. To have the calendar update, so that it only shows the direct flight of interest to us, select Non-Stop Only from the dropdown box. Also select Show Full Calendar to see a month-long view.

Following those steps shows the following availability for Chicago to Berlin next summer in economy class!

The flight operates five days a week and has space on every possible flight even during the summer. It looks like an easy way to get across the pond for people who prefer stretching their miles in economy class, but what about surcharges? AA does not charge surcharges on airberlin flights!

$2.50 in taxes and fees for the trip east!

What about business class availability on airberlin? That’s much harder to find, especially during next summer.

That’s only one day out of twenty-nine with space on the Chicago to Berlin route. Other routes are broadly in line. JFK to Berlin and Fort Myers to Dusseldorf each had two days with business class space over the same time frame.

Don’t worry that airberlin isn’t releasing much business class space. You don’t want to fly their product anyway, which is a standard recliner seat. The leg room is ample, over a foot more than domestic first class, but it’s hardly a product up to international standards or worth a 20k premium over coach per direction. Seatguru summary of the product:

Finnair shows a very different pattern of availability on its JFK-HEL flight. Go through the same steps outlined above to isolate the Finnair flight in your aa.com search. Here’s the May/June calendar of economy availability from New York to Helsinki.

This is clearly not a route with a lot of economy award seats, at least not during the summer. Business class space is another story completely though. Look at all the Carolina blue, which represents a day with business class availability!

What about surcharges? Putting together a roundtrip business class itinerary from JFK to Helsinki, the price is 100k AA miles and $37. Not only are there no surcharges, but Finland charges unusually low taxes for Europe. Germany’s taxes are quite a bit higher. (The UK’s are the worst.)

The plane operating between New York and Helsinki is an A330 with a pretty nice looking–and fully flat bed–business class product in an unusual configuration.

Connections

Finnair and airberlin have conveniently aligned their flights with AA hubs and cities with major AA presences, so getting to the Finnair and airberlin flights should be no problem especially since AA has fantastic domestic availability.

Once in Europe, Finnair and airberlin have extensive route networks, and intra-Europe space is almost never a problem.

Free Oneways or Stopovers

All awards using AA miles must comply with the Five Cardinal Rules of American Airlines Awards. If you live at one of the cities served by one of these flights, you are looking at the possibility of two free oneways, one to your city before the European trip and one from your city after the European trip. See my post about Free Oneways on AA Awards for how to book free oneways to Hawaii, Canada, Mexico, the continental US and elsewhere.

Of course, your free oneway choices must have published fares between those cities and your destination in Europe–that’s another of the Five Cardinal Rules. I check for published fares on Expert Flyer. See Free First Class Next Month: Using ExpertFlyer.com.

Recap

Finnair and airberlin are now searchable and bookable at aa.com. That’s great news because aa.com has an easy-to-use calendar search that will let you hone in on individual segments to make your award booking much easier.

For next summer, airberlin has near perfect economy availability with almost no business class availability in a bad product. Finnair is the mirror opposite–bad economy availability, great business availability, great business product.

Search around, and enjoy your new options for booking online. Keep in mind all the generally applicable AA rules, and happy travels!

Can you join me for dinner in Los Angeles on Saturday, October 27? For more great posts like this, sign up for the MileValue RSS feed, like the MileValue facebook page, or follow me on Twitter @milevalue. Get your friends involved too, so you can have more companions for your Free First Class Next Month.

The Five Cardinal Rules of American Airlines Awards

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.

Puerto Rico-Boston//Boston-JFK-Tokyo-Taipei–invalid

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.

JFK-CUN//CUN-SFO-HKG-TPE–invalid

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.

LAX-BOS//BOS-NRT-TPE–invalid

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.

NRT-BOS//BOS-JFK-SJU–valid

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

Recap

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.



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Free First Class Next Month: Using expertflyer.com

Hey there, you’re reading an outdated post! The updated series from March 2013 can be found here.

This is the twenty-seventh post in a monthlong series. Each post will take about two minutes to read and may include an action item that takes the reader another two minutes to complete. I am writing this for an audience of people who know nothing about frequent flier miles, and my goal is that by the end, you know enough to fly for free anywhere you want to go.

Expertflyer.com is a paid service–$100 per year, $10 per month, free for a five day trial–that I use for four distinct purposes.

Checking for Published Fares

The first is to check whether an airline has a published fare between an origin and destination city pair. I do this when researching the validity of an American Airlines award because AA requires the region-connecting carrier to have a published fare from origin to destination.

To see whether an airline has a published fare for an origin/destination city pair, once signed into expertflyer, click Fare Information.

Fill out the form with your origin and destination city pair, pick a random date next month, and type in the airline you are checking.

Remember that the origin and destination include any free oneways, so if you want to add a free oneway LAX-JFK onto a JFK-AUH award, your origin is LAX and destination is AUH.

After clicking search, hone in on the Airline column on the results page. You need to find at least one fare listed as being published by the two letter code of the airline you searched. (List of two letter codes.)

I only specified one airline to search for published fares–Etihad (EY)–so it will only bring up EY and YY results. YY is a generic result. If YY is the only airline listed, the airline you searched does not have a published fare.

This search shows that Etihad does have a published fare from LAX to Abu Dhabi. This is despite the fact that Etihad does not fly to LAX. Airlines publish many fares to cities that they do not serve.

Finding the MPM

My second use for expertflyer is finding the Maximum Permitted Mileage (MPM) on a route. Each airlines has different award routing rules, but most use some multiple of the MPM as one constraint on routing. (For instance, on an AA award, your award’s routing must be no more than 1.25 * MPM.)

MPM is found on expertflyer the same way as published fare, except on the screen that lists published fares you have to make one more click.

Find the most expensive fare published by the airline whose MPM you want, and click the middle icon on the right side.

That will bring up a jumble of rules. Inside that jumble, look for MPM.

AA’s MPM for LAX-AUH is 10,834

Award Searches

Expertflyer provides at least some award search capability on all these airlines. (They just removed United from what they can search, which is quite annoying. Hopefully United is added again soon.)

I find expertflyer incredibly useful for Delta award searches because it shows Delta partners China Southern, China Eastern, China Airlines, Virgin Australia, KLM, Alitalia, Air France, and Air Europa.

It’s also useful for American awards on non-oneworld partners El Al and Air Tahiti Nui.

To perform an award search, click Awards & Upgrades on the left side after signing in.

Type in the departure and arrival city. You can also type in the connecting airport city if you want to limit the possible routings the search will produce. I am generally searching segment-by-segment for direct flights and leave that blank.

Select an airline and the classes for which you want to see award space. Pay close attention to the names. The correct fare class will usually be named something simple like Award or Classic Award. A special note on Air France is that Delta does not have access to Classic Europe Award, only Classic Award.

You can select just one date if you are searching oneway or input two dates for a roundtrip. Next to each date you can specify a search of up to +/- 3 days, which is a full week search.

I usually select Direct/Non-Stop only, although sometimes they still show me connecting flights. The next screen will show results for your search, broken down by cabin. For some airlines, expertflyer will display 0 if there is no space. For others, it won’t show the flight at all if there is no space.

This search shows great ATL-CDG economy space on Air France in early March, but not any business class space.

Flight Alerts

If an airline has no space released on your dream flight, you may want to track that flight to see if any space is opened up. Rather than daily searches, you can set one Flight Alert to email you when your desired award space opens.

On the left side after signing in, click Create Flight Alert.

Fill in the form with the information you learned from your unsuccessful flight search. If I wanted to see whether business class space opened on the flight from last section’s screen shot of Air France availability, I would fill out the form like this:

There is a link to the fare codes, if you don’t know how to fill in the box labeled Class Code.

The annoying thing with the Flight Alerts tool is that you have to create a new one for each flight number, day, and class.

That means if you wanted to be alerted if any space on either of two daily United flights from San Francisco to Frankfurt in either business or first class opened up for a four day period, you would have to fill out the form 16 times (2 * 2 * 4). I know because I’ve done it.

A premium member can have 30 active alerts at any time. If one of the alerts’ targets opens up, you’ll get an email and hopefully you can claim the seats before anyone else.

Should You Pay for Expertflyer

Expertflyer charges $10 per month for its premium package, $5 per month for its basic package, or $100 per year for its premium package. I have the annual premium package. The basic package only allows 250 award searches per month, which is far fewer than I do for my Award Booking Service.

This page compares Basic and Premium. If you click on Premium, you will have the opportunity to start membership with a five-day free trial.That means you can try out the service for free and see if it’s worth the money to you. Or you can use the service strategically for one award-planning session then cancel. Just remember to cancel within five days to avoid your credit card being charged.

Much of the information on expertflyer is available from other free sources. But many of those free sources are harder and more time-consuming to use. Like many things, expertflyer is a trade-off: spending money to save time.

For me the trade-off is well worth it. For you, it may or may not be. Reread this article, sign up for a free trial, and decide for yourself whether $10 per month is a good deal for all these features.

Free First Class Next Month: Using AirFrance.us for Award Searches

This is the twenty-sixth post in a monthlong series that started here. Each post will take about two minutes to read and may include an action item that takes the reader another two minutes to complete. I am writing this for an audience of people who know nothing about frequent flier miles, and my goal is that by the end, you know enough to fly for free anywhere you want to go.

Yesterday, I talked about using delta.com for award searches. Delta is the US representative of SkyTeam–alliance affiliation list–but Delta’s website only shows availability for a few SkyTeam members. If you’re looking to unload your SkyMiles, you’ll often need a better tool than delta.com.

There are two reasons why an award booker needs to know about AirFrance.us. The first is that AirFrance.us shows more SkyTeam partners’ availability than delta.com.

AirFrance.us has an award search engine which displays at least Delta, Air France, KLM, Alitalia, Aeroflot, China Southern, and China Airlines. I say at least because I can’t find a complete list of the airlines it shows, but I have seen these in search results.

(Let us know if there is a complete list or other airlines you’ve seen on AirFrance.us in the comments. I haven’t seen China Eastern or Korean.)

Delta.com only shows Delta, Alaska, Air France, and KLM, so AirFrance.us shows far more SkyTeam airlines than delta.com.

The second reason is that booking with Flying Blue points–Air France’s currency–may be your best option on many awards. The reason is that Air France allows oneway redemptions for half the roundtrip price, something Delta doesn’t allow.

Plus Flying Blue is a transfer partner of American Express Membership Rewards that often runs transfer bonuses, like the current (as of 9/11/12) 35% bonus.

1,000 MR to 1,350 Flying Blue miles. Plus no excise tax of $6 per 10,000 on transfers like AMEX collects on transfers to Delta.

That means a oneway flight on Delta from LAX to JFK would cost 25,000 SkyMiles (or MR) and $2.50. The same flight would cost 10k MR transferred to Flying Blue for the 12,500 mile redemption with 1,000 miles left over.

Flying Blue does charge big surcharges on Air France and KLM flights, something Delta doesn’t do when the award originates in the US, so Flying Blue isn’t always the best redemption option. But when it is, and even when it’s not, its award-search engine may be your best option.

To search on AirFrance.us, you need a Flying Blue account. Sign up for one for free, or sign into yours on the top right of the home page.

Once signed in, click Award Ticket Reservation.

The search screen is not as well designed as most. For instance, you have to select an age from the dropdown menu for each passenger instead of just typing in how many passengers are flying.

To see a calendar view of availability, check the box that says “My dates are flexible.” The first search example I’ll show is oneway LAX-JFK. Remember that this would cost 25k SkyMiles because Delta always charges the roundtrip price.

That famous Delta (un-)availability

If you wanted to book a oneway Delta flight with Air France miles to take advantage of its oneway pricing, you would click “next, select flight.”

There is only one choice this day, so you would continue to the payment screen.

It is only 25k Flying Blue miles and $5 for two passengers to take a oneway from LAX to New York City. That’s only 19k Membership Rewards at current (9/11/12) transfer rates.

AirFrance.us isn’t just a place to search when using Flying Blue miles though. It’s a good, free place to search for partners Delta doesn’t show like Alitalia and China Southern.

It’s also a good place to search for Air France and KLM flights just because anything beats using the broken delta.com.

For instance I just searched for a oneway economy class ticket on delta.com and AirFrance.us from Montreal to Budapest on February 18. They both returned the same result:

Delta result

AirFrance.us results

But Air France’s site shows other itineraries–only one came up on Delta.com–and all cabins on one screen. Plus AirFrance.us showed me the calendar of February, so I could see what days the trip was available.

AirFrance.us says YUL-BUD has great availability in February

When I tried to check the my-dates-are-flexible box and view-award-calendar link on delta.com, the equivalent calendar did not appear, so I would have had to search each day individually on delta.com to see my options.

The one drawback of using AirFrance.us for this search if I planned on using Delta miles is that AirFrance.us is showing surcharges I would not have to pay with Delta SkyMiles. At least Delta gets one thing right, correctly listing the taxes on this leg as $75.

Tips and Caveats

There are a few things to know before charging off to AirFrance.us to practice.

First, ignore Premium Economy and three-cabin, international First Class if you’re using Delta SkyMiles because SkyMiles can’t be redeemed for those cabins.

Second, if an award is listed as a classic award, Delta will have access to the space also. If it’s listed as a flex award, you can’t get it with SkyMiles.

Third, AirFrance.us doesn’t have the most complete list of SkyTeam availability. That title would belong to expertflyer.com, a paid service. You can get free expertflyer membership for five days, so you can use it to research one award no problem. I’ll have a post on using expertflyer tomorrow.