The American Airlines Explorer Award is an incredible use of miles. An Explorer Award is a distance-based award that allows multiple stopovers, so it’s a versatile award perfect for globetrotters on round-the-world itineraries or cramming many trips onto one award at a steep discount.

I want to illustrate how a relatively simple award routing to Europe can also be a great use of an Explorer Award by saving miles and adding free stopovers that wouldn’t be permitted under normal circumstances.

I’m planning a trip to Sofia, Bulgaria this summer and uncovered a great value. My business class award to Eastern Europe would only cost 90k American miles + government taxes and include two stopovers. A traditional “saver” business class American award is 100k miles per person and does not permit an international stopover. So I am saving 10k miles and stopping in two extra cities by using an Explorer Award.

GC Map

I am writing an Anatomy of an Award on this particular booking to illustrate:

  • The cost/benefit analysis of an Explorer Award vs. a standard award–even when you have no interest in going around the world
  • Trouble shooting the rules of the Explorer Award
  • Searching for oneworld award space on AA.com and BA.com

How do you construct this trip? How can you use the Explorer Award chart to your advantage? Is this really a good use of AA miles?

Strategizing

I have a large amount of American Airlines miles and am worried about a likely devaluation given American’s merger with US Airways. This award must use AA miles.

I will be driving up to New York to visit a friend in summer 2014, so all three major airports (JFK, LGA, EWR) could be the jumping off point for the award.

Searching

I went to AA.com and plugged in my July, 2014 dates from New York to Sofia, Bulgaria.  The results returned two business class seats on a one-stop Air Berlin itinerary for the outbound.

JFK-SOF AB

This itinerary is ideal. The layover time is reasonable, the transatlantic flight features airberlin’s new fully flat-bed product, and I will only have to pay the government taxes and fees on the flight. American assesses fuel surcharges on British Airways and Iberia, but no other oneworld partners.

http://www.airberlin.com/site/landingpages/airberlin_business_class_board.php

With an outbound itinerary located, I poked around for good return flights. American doesn’t permit stopovers in Europe, but they do allow open jaws.

Naturally I perused other European cities from which I could fly home to take advantage of American’s open jaw allowance. Several appeared interesting (Prague, Warsaw, Budapest, Bucharest), and all had airberlin availability back to New York. I would simply need to take the train or purchase a cheap flight between the Sofia and the city I selected in order to make it connect my open jaw.

But I had a nagging guilt that I wasn’t extracting maximum value from my miles with a simple open jaw roundtrip. I poked around a bit more before a light bulb went off.

After scanning Wikipedia to see the list of destinations from Sofia’s airport, Bucharest, Romania really caught my eye. Why? Check out the screen shot below.

Wiki Sofia Airport

Qatar Airways flies the 187 miles between Bucharest and Sofia as part of a flight to Doha, and you can book the short hop alone with cash or miles.

Qatar recently joined the oneworld alliance, and their flights are now bookable with both AA miles and British Airways Avios. AA.com doesn’t display Qatar award space, but BA.com does. I plugged in my dates and space was wide open in July.

SOF-OTP Qatar

This Qatar-operated fifth-freedom flight from Sofia to Bucharest opened up a whole new possibility: an Explorer Award!

Explorer Awards are distance-based award tickets booked with American miles. The more miles your award routing flies, the more award miles an Explorer Award costs. It’s important to study the Explorer Award Chart to see the different zones and their mileage costs. The chart is completely separate from American’s standard region-based chart. Below are the three distance zones my award would likely fall into.

Explorer Chart

I plugged in my routing into the Great Circle Mapper to approximate the mileage and was excited to discover that my routing fell just short of the 10,000-miles-flown threshold.

GC Roundtrip

An award traveling between 9-10k miles would only cost 90k American Airlines miles to book. That represents a 10k savings over a traditional roundtrip business class itinerary to Europe!

Don’t Explorer Awards have their own specific rules? Is this itinerary in compliance?

Explorer Awards are bound by completely different routing rules than traditional American Airlines awards. It’s important to scour the post, American Airlines Explorer Award: The Rules, thoroughly.

Four critical Explorer rules to follow are:

  1. You must fly at least two non-AA oneworld partners
  2. You do not need to fly American as part of the award
  3. Your itinerary cannot exceed 16 segments
  4. You can only stop in each city once

I am flying airberlin to Sofia and home from Bucharest. That’s one partner. I am flying Qatar from Sofia to Bucharest. That’s two oneworld partners, satisfying the first rule of the Explorer Award. I’m not flying American on this award, only airberlin and Qatar. My itinerary is a mere five segments, well short of the permitted maximum.

Two huge benefits of booking an Explorer Award are:

  1. You are allowed unlimited stopovers
  2. If the distance of an award falls in a sweet spot, it might cost less than a traditional award

I can stopover in both Bucharest and Berlin (on either the outbound or inbound) on this trip, really increasing the overall value of the award ticket. The total mileage falls within Distance Zone 4, meaning I save 10k American Airlines miles (90k vs. 100k) by booking the trip as an Explorer Award.

Booking the Award

See American Airlines Explorer Award: How to Book for information on how to book an Explorer Award.

The Future of Explorer Awards

With American and US Airways merging, no one knows what the New American’s chart will look like and whether Explorer Awards will be preserved. Let’s hope they are because there is no other way to do a round-the-world trip, a many-stops-in-one-region trip, or many trips on one award so cheaply.

Are there any advantages to keeping this as a traditional award ticket?

Absolutely! I will discuss that in a future short post.

Recap

American miles are insanely useful for huge trips with multiple stopovers using the Explorer Award.

Explorer Awards are ideal for these grand trips, but there are also sweet spots on shorter trips. Make sure to experiment: plug your routing into the Great Circle Mapper and see if you can construct an award that falls within one of these distance-based sweet spots.

With an Explorer Award, you will be able to build multiple stopovers into your itinerary, boosting the value of your miles while increasing the duration of your trip. That’s a winning combination!




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