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This post is part of a four-part series. In Part 1, we looked at the mechanics of the AAdvantage program. In Part 2, we’ll look at the mechanics of a stopover, including how to use them to get free oneway trips within North America. In Part 3, we’ll value specific AAdvantage awards. In Part 4, I’ll put a number on one AAdvantage mile.

I touched on stopovers in Part 1, but they are such a crucial part of maximizing the AAdvantage program that they are getting their own post right here.

In this post, we’ll cover all the rules related to stopovers, how to book a normal stopover, and how to turn your stopover into a free oneway trip to Hawaii or somewhere else.

First let’s define a stopover vs. a connection that doesn’t trigger stopover rules. Connections that don’t trigger stopover rules are connections of four or fewer hours domestically and 24 or fewer hours internationally. So feel free to stop at every European city on your route for 23:59 because those aren’t stopovers. Stopovers are connections of more than four hours domestically or more than 24 hours abroad.

AA rules only allow one stopover each way, and the stopover must comply with the four rules below. What if the stopover doesn’t comply with the four rules below? If the stopover is illegal, then it causes the award to be broken into two awards.

Example: You fly LAX-LHR enjoy a stopover for three days then fly LHR-ATH. Under AA rules, you will never be able to have a legal stopover in London- London isn’t in North America, see below- so the award will be broken into two parts. Instead of paying 50,000 miles in business class for this oneway award from North America to Europe, you have to pay 50,000 for the LAX-LHR portion and 20,000 more for the Europe to Europe portion, so 70,000 total for this award trip.

The four rules with which stopovers must comply:

1) Stopovers must occur at the North American International Gateway City. The North American International Gateway City is the last city in North America you fly out of on awards to other regions from 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.

Examples: On the itinerary LAX-JFK-BOS-LHR, the North American International Gateway City is Boston because it is the city from which you leave North America, and it is the only place on the itinerary you can have a free stopover. On the itinerary MEL-SYD-HNL-LAX-JFK, the 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.

2) Stopovers must be included in part of a legal routing. A legal routing for an award is one which exceeds the Maximum Permitted Mileage for an origin and destination pair by no more than 25%. Maximum Permitted Mileage (MPM) is a number of miles that the airline puts on all possible city pairs, and awards can exceed it by 25%. 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. In practice, I do none of the above. I simply call AA with a routing in mind and try to book it. If it books as a free stopover, I know I have a legal routing!

3) The airline that operates the flight that connects the two regions must have a published fare for you origin and destination city pair.

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 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? You can see if you can book a ticket between the city pair on the operating airline’s website or kayak. Again, in practice, I just see if I can have it price as one award over the phone. If I can, I have a legal routing and stopover.

4) A stopover’s length is only limited by the fact that all award travel must be completed within one year of its booking.

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.

Those are the rules. Taken together, they mean that there are two types of possible stopovers: vanilla stopover and free-oneway stopovers.

First, vanilla stopovers are what you would ordinarily think of as a stopover. You live in City A, your destination is City C, and City B is a city on the way which you fly through. You stop at City B along the way.

Vanilla stopovers are a great way to visit two destinations on one award, and there doesn’t have to be anything vanilla about the destinations! Here’s an example of an award I just priced out by calling AA:

October 8: AA first class LAX-DFW 6:00 AM – 11:05 AM, AA business class DFW-CUN (Cancun, Mexico) 12:40 PM – 3:10 PM

October 11: BA Club World (business class) CUN-LGW 4:35 PM – 7:50 AM +1

This priced out at 50,000 AAdvantage miles and $407. 50,000 is the normal miles price for business class from North America to Europe. If this were not a legal stopover, this itinerary would cost 80,000 miles (30,000 to Cancun, 50,000 more to London). Note that the $407 in taxes and fees is because AA charges fuel surcharges on awards on British Airways.

Just to put in perspective how indirect this stopover makes the itinerary, LAX-DFW-CUN-LGW is 7,227 miles or 32% farther than LAX-LGW direct, which is 5,480 miles. But a stopover in CUN is permitted en route to LGW from LAX with AAdvantage miles.

How would you like to visit Cancun and London on one trip? Sounds good to me. You can do it by using a vanilla stopover on an AAdvantage award.

A free-oneway stopover is not what you normally think of as a stopover. Instead a free-oneway stopover is an itinerary that gets you home, and then days or weeks or months later, you take a free oneway trip from your home airport to anywhere in North America (that complies with the routing rules already mentioned.) Let me give you an example of a free-oneway stopover:

January 23: business class MEL-LAX 11:20 AM – 6:40 AM on a Qantas A380

February 6: AA first class LAX-DFW 10:40 AM – 1:45 PM, AA first class DFW – TPA 2:40 PM – 4:50 PM

I live in Los Angeles, so this is really two trips for the price of one. The MEL-LAX leg is my return home after watching the Australian Open. It costs 62,500 miles plus taxes and fees. I maximized the value of those miles and dollars by adding a free-oneway stopover. In this case, two weeks later, I am flying from LAX to Tampa. That’s a free one way in first class. (I’ll probably use Southwest miles to return to Los Angeles.)

The total cost of these two trips is 62,500 miles and $113. Without the free-oneway to Tampa, it would have been the same miles and $5 cheaper.

Free stopovers can also work in reverse. For example, I could take a free oneway from JFK to LAX then months later fly LAX to HKG. If I’m booking an outbound international flight from LAX with AAdvantage miles, I would get the free oneway to LA and before the main award flight.

Those are the two types of stopovers you can exploit when booking an international award to/from the United States with AAdvantage miles. Both types have their place, and I’ve booked both types.

To help you explore the possibilities of this stopover trick, I’ve compiled the most comprehensive and up-to-date list of possible North American International Gateway Cities anywhere. If your home airport is not on the list, then you will only be able to exploit the vanilla stopover option. If your home airport is on the list, you can exploit vanilla stopovers and free-oneway stopovers.

In Post 3, we’ll value some specific AAdvantage awards, several of which will include stopovers.

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