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NeoPatrick Nov 13th, 2014 04:37 AM

Success with AA/US Air FF tickets
For years I've been cashing in AA ff miles. Done free business class tickets to Europe about 8 times, Australia and New Zealand, Asia, and then started using them for One World awards -- a 13 stop around the world and a multi stop Europe including Russia tour a few years ago. But lately I had been griping that try as I might it just seems impossible to use the miles.

Among things I've learned -- the old "we add flights 323 days before the flight" has gone out the window. I finally had agents admit that some may be added then, but recently NO non stop flights (at least on popular flights) are being added at that time. After getting up at 1 AM several times to try to book such flights at the exact time they were supposedly being offered taught me that. I was working on PHL to Barcelona, or better yet to Nice, and perhaps a return to PHL from Barcelona. But I was only coming up -- 323 days ahead with things like "yes, we have a ticket for you -- on one morning you fly to Charlotte, NC from PHL. The next evening (34 hours later) you fly to Heathrow, then after a five hour layover there you fly to Nice. Oh, and of course because you go through London, there's an extra $495 tax on your "free ticket". Three days to get to Europe? I don't think so! Oh, and none of these were mile saver, so it was something like 270,000 miles each for these flights in anytime business! Seriously?

Well, I kept trying. We wanted to go over Labor Day for a total of about two weeks. Almost as a glitch this last week, I noticed a couple of seemingly available seats. US Air cannot book us to Nice as they just don't book award travel with One World (Iberia, specifically). But somehow we found two Business Class (US Air Envoy Class) seats on the nonstop to Madrid on Sunday, August 23, with a connection on Iberia less than 2 hours later to Nice. And we found two economy seats Barcelona to PHL on the nonstop on Wednesday, September 9. Maybe we can upgrade those later if upgrades become available., but for that flight in the daytime, we can easily survive, especially as the plane is 2 wide seating on the sides.

So we're going earllier than we hoped, and we had to add 3 extra days (much worse things in the world than that!). But at least we managed to get the nonstops flights, and at a grand total of only 80,000 miles each (20,000 each more to upgrade to Business on the return if they become available) and a grand total of $152 each in taxes and fees. (bummer that they charge $35 to book by phone when they admit it is NOT POSSIBLE to book those flights online due to the Iberia connection). But we can live with that.

Is everyone else finding it so difficult? Any good success stories? I think one of the funniest things is that we could NOT book these tickets with US Airways at all (as I mentioned because of the Nice connection) even though both trans Atlantic flights are US Airways flights. And even if we just booked the two transAtlantic flights with US Airways, it would have cost us MORE miles than using AA and including Nice for "free". Can't wait till they get everything with those two airlines combined.

simpsonc510 Nov 13th, 2014 04:55 AM

Success! Yeah!

I'm a 1K (100,000 flight miles a year) and I'm finding it more difficult to get what I want with United/Star Alliance. I feel extremely lucky to have secured our three 1st class tickets to Bangkok via Europe for the holidays, found back in February, and to include flight segments on the Thai A380 up front in 1st. We've flown on this plane at least twice and know that it is a very nice experience.

dorkforcemom Nov 13th, 2014 05:03 AM

NeoPatrick - I'm with you!
I'm in the middle of playing this game now, too. I've been successful for years nabbing business class tickets for my husband and Me to travel to either France or Italy in either April/May or Sept/Oct - @ 10 years running. DFW using AA FF miles to either Rome, Madrid with Iberia to Rome, Paris or Milan - all successful in the past

Forget Business class - I'm having trouble with coach 20,000 awards. I've spent hours trying to find a 10 day vacation window that, like you, doesn't have unreasonable connection times. I'm being open about where I fly into and out of...don't want to fly from DFW to Houston to London to Rome.

Funny part is that if I go through the process to purchase tickets, the flights have been, not only wide open, seem to consist of only crew on board at this point ,

Is AA stingy releasing any seats due to the merger? What's going on?

vincenzo32951 Nov 13th, 2014 05:27 AM

Some day I'd like to see a truth-in-advertising statement when airlines do ads. Something like:

"We're the best airline, though we do try to screw with you on using FF points."

We've had some success using US Air points domestically and internationally (two upgraded Business Class seats on trip to Europe in September), but you have to be really flexible and dogged.

As I tell novice travelers who are planning a trip: Nail down your flights first. Everything else will be easy in comparison.

NeoPatrick Nov 13th, 2014 06:22 AM

Yes, those European upgrades have gotten ridiculous. We were considering buying coach class (for around $100 each) and upgrading with miles to business. But that adds $600 each for the round trip in additional to a basket load of miles. At what point does spending $1700 plus a whole lot miles no longer feel like you're really getting something for "free" like it used to?

Oh, but the worst issue -- NO non stops to Spain on US Air from PHL have upgrades available -- from August into October! Again, an agent actually told us that they just aren't allowing those at the present time -- so it isn't that they're already gone -- they just don't offer them. I'm still unclear why suddenly those two seats were available in business to Madrid, when even when you look at the shaded flights (the ones that are no longer avaialble) the non stop never even appears.

NeoPatrick Nov 13th, 2014 06:23 AM

Ooops. Above I meant we were considering buying enconomy at $1100 each. I guess $100 was just wishful thinking (or frozen fingers this morning).

Dukey1 Nov 13th, 2014 08:10 AM

Even in the upper tiers of the USAirways FF program and with supposed dedicated folks it can be very difficult to get some of the segments if not impossible. And yes, the awards are costing more miles than ever before.

I will say this, however, that depending on the time of year the prices can be wildly different for Envoy seats as we have recently learned (yet again).

I fully understand the desire to get so-called "free" seats (which of course none of them actually are since somewhere along the line MONEY was exchanged) but these days I am less inclined to play the game and simply pay but it's all a matter of priorities and glad you were successful.

Sojourntraveller Nov 13th, 2014 08:30 AM

I joined my first airline FF program back in the first days of their existance. Flying for business for many years, it made sense to do so as it cost me nothing.

For years after that all my personal travel was done on points. When I finally ran out of points about 5 years after I stopped working for a living, it came as a big shock when I had to BUY a ticket.

I have noticed that all the miles programs are becoming harder and harder to work with. Since I no longer participate, it doesn't matter to me and perhaps that colours my viewpoint (but then everyone is biased anyway) but I wonder if it is time for people to re-think just where their priorities should be and look at possible alternatives.

I now use a credit card which gives me CASH rewards rather than air miles. With that cash I can do what I want, buy airline tickets or anything else. I don't have to try to fit a reward program with the issues you are having Neo, I just buy a ticket on ANY flight I want.

There is a difference between miles earned for business travel which does not involve the individual spending their own money to earn them and miles people earn when spending their own money using their credit cards. Nothing can be done about the business miles but people who pick a credit card to get miles with can look at alternatives such as CASH.

This thread might be of more interest to those who have a choice than those who are earning miles on business travel in that case. Your example is a good reason to not use a credit card that gives miles I'd say.

travelgourmet Nov 13th, 2014 09:23 AM

OneWorld award availability in premium cabins has, from what I can tell, begun to approach zero. I haven't found anything worthwhile in any search for at least the last 9 months.

NeoPatrick Nov 13th, 2014 09:36 AM

"I don't have to try to fit a reward program with the issues you are having Neo, I just buy a ticket on ANY flight I want."

Yea, I "get" that, Sojourntraveler. But do you have any idea how many cash back dollars it would take to pay for a ticket like what I just booked with points?

In theory, if my miles came ONLY from credit card and it cost me 100,000 miles for the ticket, that represents spending 100,000 on the credit card. But if the ticket is worth -- say $5000 which it easily is, you'd have to spend upwards of $500,000 on a credit card to get the cash back to buy that ticket -- almost 5 times as much! (of course either card gives you some bonuses). And the other advantage of being able to use points for miles is that you can combine miles or points derived from a lot of different sources.

There's a lot of difference between getting a $5000 ticket with miles and buying one with cash -- a whole lot!
That said, as others have mentioned, I am finding that points on a hotel card seem to be great value and certainly much easier awards to claim.

tully Nov 13th, 2014 02:43 PM

I've had decent luck with AA and United and a customer service agent. Am leaving next Tuesday and was booked from Tampa to Paris, via Dallas, business class award. Booked in June. Usually checking once a day to see if the flight via Miami ever came open, plus calling the 800# once a week just for kicks. Finally 2 days ago a customer service agent just switched me over to the TPA-MIA-CDG flight even though she said no award seats were open. It's one of the refurbished 767's too so I was thrilled.

Coming back on award ticket on United, coach, and was able to change it twice with no fees to stay an extra 2 nights. I am sure traveling peak season though may be a huge difference.

Huggy Nov 13th, 2014 06:07 PM


I am in the same situation as Sojourn, having had about 50 seats total in biz for my wife and myself to Europe. If you cannot get a seat using FF miles, why not get cash back? I have been looking for coach seats for next Sept. and now ready to just purchase rather than put more time into the search and I have plenty of time. The problem, my wife found a biz seat very agreeable.

You do make a good suggestion to use a hotel card. I guess I should be thankful I have had such wonderful experience and luck using miles in the past. I really do not miss today's travel experience.

NeoPatrick Nov 14th, 2014 03:55 AM

Huggy, yes, I don't mean to sound ungrateful either. I've had wonderful "free" trips since 1986 using miles and I appreciate them. I guess times change though.

Regarding hotel cards, Hyatt has become my favorite one. In addition to an automatic free night each year (although after the first year when you get TWO nights at ANY Hyatt, after that it's just one and only up to a grade 4 which even eliminates ALL Hyatts in NYC), there are many, many bonus miles given for spending. In no time at all we've racked up points from using the card that we have enough for 5 free nights in Nice next summer -- which is probably where we'll use them. That's about $2000 worth! And again -- there's no way I'd be getting $2000 cash back with spending the same amount on the card!

NeoPatrick Nov 14th, 2014 05:54 AM

Well, there was an unexpected bonus. I mentioned that the business seat to Europe and the coach one for return cost us each 80,000 miles. But I just noticed we each got an 8,000 mile bonus reinstated into our account. Some benefit of our Citibank Aadvantage card that I wasn't even aware of. So the flights are only costing us 72,000 miles each (plus the $157 taxes and fees).

Huggy Nov 14th, 2014 06:07 AM


Did not mean to imply that you were not grateful at all. You are correct, times change. Some for the better and some worse. I have had wonderful opportunities which may not have been available today but I am sure that I will miss out on others.

Sounds like you got a great deal. I now have to use real cash to buy seats. Distasteful process I might add.

NeoPatrick Nov 14th, 2014 06:26 AM

Oh, no, Huggy. I just meant that it may sound like I'm complaining about the awards not being what they used to be rather than being thankful for the many awards I've gotten.

And I also have the FF program to "thank" for spoiling me. If I had never had mileage awards, I'd never know how nice it is to travel in Business Class. Makes it even harder now to travel in "steerage" !

DonTopaz Nov 14th, 2014 06:53 AM

Agree with NP that the FF award game is constantly changing, and that they're the best way for us huddled masses yearning to breathe the air in the pointy end of the airplane.

Opportunism is a key. While almost all of my FF awards in the past 25 or so years have been for premium seats on international flights (a trip on Concorde being the cherry on the sundae), there are plenty of other good deals around such as easy $10 round-trips in the BOS-NYC-WAS corridor.

vincenzo32951 Nov 14th, 2014 07:14 AM

Neo: Since you mentioned about the info the phone agent provided:

When I got on the phone with a US Air agent to try to get an upgrade, she said, "Just keep calling -- sometimes they open up." Also, when I book a coach seat with US Air, I have a deal where they email me if there's an upgrade availability. The deal on that, AFAIK, is that they announce the possibility of an upgrade and ask if you're interested. If you say no, that ends it. If you say yes, they email you within 24 hours to let you know whether it's available.

None of it's easy, however.

IMDonehere Nov 14th, 2014 07:27 AM

We had AA FF for many years and then they changed their program. Then we had Delta for many years and for a round trip coach from JFK to Netherlands for this past spring, they wanted over 75,000 miles.

Now we have a credit card that gives us 2 miles for every dollar we spend and we can apply it to either hotels or any airline flight we wish.

Gardyloo Nov 14th, 2014 07:33 AM

If what I'm about to say sounds snarky, forgive me, I really don't intend for that to be the case.

Have you noticed over the past year or two that there are more and more news reports (on TV, on the web, in the papers) about how airlines are increasingly profitable and that flights are running closer to capacity? Just this morning on CNBC (in conjunction with Virgin America’s IPO) the commentators were bellyaching about how you never have an empty middle seat next to you anymore.

The reason for this is that the airlines have bounced back from their bankruptcies and mergers (usually both) with a vengeance, and they’ve done it not by raising prices too much (although they certainly have) but mainly by <i>reducing capacity.</i> Fewer flights with bigger planes, using a merger (e.g. Northwest/Delta) to remove duplicate flights on the same routes, getting rid of low-capacity/high-cost aircraft (Northwest’s DC-9s and American’s MD-80s) and replacing them with lower-cost higher capacity planes.

And news flash, the economy has also been recovering, at both ends of the flight sectors (meaning, people in Berlin want to visit Broadway as much as Americans want to traipse up and down the Kudamm.)

So you’ve got reduced supply, increased demand, and you’re complaining that you can’t get FF mileage seats as easily as in the past? Earth to travelers…

Most people don’t know that frequent flyer programs are often the single most profitable aspect of airlines’ operations. A few years ago, when Air Canada was in bankruptcy, the bankruptcy court/trustee made them sell off Aeroplan, their FF program, to private investors. At that time, the value of Aeroplan exceeded the value of the rest of the airline’s assets – combined.

It works like this. Take American (or, shortly, USdbaAA). AA sells off billions – probably dozens or even hundreds of billions (nobody knows) to Citibank, its designated credit card partner. Citibank pays some millions of dollars to AA for these miles. (Nobody outside the companies knows the precise terms – very closely guarded information.) Citibank then re-sells them to you. You pay for them in annual credit card fees, in a slice of late-payment or interest charges (you may pay off the balance every month but if so you’re the exception) and through tiny markups invisibly added to the price of things bought with your card. You know this is happening.

There are various estimates and speculations about the costs and profits associated with this, but it’s probably at least a 200% - 300% markup that Citibank makes on the deal. Many people are oblivious to the sheer volume of money that changes hands daily with credit card transactions, but you can rest assured that it’s profitable enough to the banks that “giving away” 25,000 miles for sign-up bonuses doesn’t make them break a sweat.

Back at American, they’ve put Citibank’s check in the till, but haven’t shelled out anything – yet – in the way of product or service delivery. That waits until miles are redeemed for flights (or for really lousy deals on rental cars or hotel rooms.) In the meantime, AA has the “float” on the bank’s money.

Now those miles they just sold are contingent liabilities on their books, so it’s not as if they’re not at risk. But here’s where the airlines have you. First, the miles expire in 18 months or 36 months, whatever, unless you add to them or spend them somehow. So, like many gift certificates, there’s huge “leakage” built in – miles expire before they’re redeemed. You have 8000 Delta Skypesos in your account, but need at least 20,000 (or is it 30,000? 40,000?) miles to fly anywhere. You can’t combine them with anybody else’s miles, so they sit there as “orphan” miles until they turn into pumpkins at midnight. Delta got the money from the bank, but those 8000 miles are removed from their liabilities. Happy accountants.

Second – and this goes to your situation – the airlines control the <i>supply of seats</i> open for redemption. If their yield/revenue management computers (all programmed by Phi Beta Kappa Hogwarts graduates) indicate that there’s a solid chance a seat will sell for <i>cash money</i> (and a higher price the closer you get to flight time) why on Earth would they let it go for <i>no</i> cash? They won’t prohibit you from using miles for it, they’ll just increase the number of miles needed to the point where the accountants tell them the value of the miles removed from the balance sheet exceeds the revenue they’d get by selling the seat for money.

But most of the time, they’ll just <u>wait</u> until the computer models (and believe me, we’re talking really, really sophisticated algorithms) tell them the odds are zilch that somebody’s going to walk up at the last minute and pay a gazillion bucks for the last open seat in coach, and THEN they’ll open a seat for miles redemption.

So ironically, it’s very often the case that waiting until the last minute – literally, the last week or even the last few days before a flight – is a better time to redeem miles than at 330 days out or whatever “rule of thumb” or urban legend says the best time might be.

Last year I decided on a spur-of-the-moment trip from Seattle to Scotland to see some friends (one of whom was ill and has subsequently passed away.) I had a bunch of US Airways miles I wanted to burn. With literally a week’s notice I got business class flights from Seattle to Edinburgh (Lufthansa outbound, United return.) Had I tried to book those flights months in advance, I would have thrown in the towel long before. But what had happened was that Lufthansa’s and United’s computer models had told them that they weren’t going to sell out the business/first class cabins on those flights for thousands of dollars per seat in the time remaining, so they might as well use that capacity to wipe 100,000 frequent flyer miles off their books, with the only measurable cost to them being a few more gallons of fuel and a few more ounces of cheap champers dispensed (which I didn’t drink) due to my ample butt filling a seat that would otherwise have flown empty.

That’s how it goes. Put yourself into an airline accountant’s head (I know, a terrifying thought) and ask yourself, “How can I extract the most profit from this seat on this flight? Should I wait for someone to pay big bucks for it? Or should I let NeoPatrick sweat it out and work his tuches off to use miles for it?”

The answer is, both, sequentially.

I think the meme needs to change. Stop calling them “awards.” They’re not rewarding you for anything, they’re <i>selling</i> you something that simply uses a different currency. Miles = dollars = Bitcoins = Euros. If you don’t think that you <i>paid real money</i> for those miles, think again. You just didn’t see it at the time.

Be a smart shopper. You know why those “taxes and fees” were so outrageous on your first booking? It’s because
British Airways adds a “fuel surcharge” to their “award” flight mileage requirements, along with various taxes including the UK’s outrageous departure tax. A 60,000 mile coach redemption using AA miles during the summer from the US to Europe using BA flights will cost 60K miles plus (probably) around $600 in “taxes and fees,” of which $450 or more will be the fuel surcharge. You could purchase the same ticket for, say, $1200 all in (taxes and fees included) meaning that each mile has a “net” value of one cent.

Using the same 60,000 miles on flights operated by American will carry a fraction of the “extra” cost, in some cases as low as six bucks, meaning your miles are worth closer to 2c each. A 100K business class ticket worth $3500 – well, you can do the math. Remember, miles = money and be a careful shopper. A plane ticket worth $1000 - $3000 merits as much “skillful shopping” as you’d expend on a 60-inch TV (or three.)

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