American Airlines AAdvantage is one of the most popular frequent flyer programs within the United States, although it tends to receive less attention up here in Canada, where the methods to earn AAdvantage miles are more limited in number.
Most notably, the program is a transfer partner of RBC Avion, whereby you can ordinarily convert Avion points into AAdvantage miles at a 1:0.7 ratio. But until April 30, 2019, there’s a 20% conversion bonus on Avion–AAdvantage transfers, effectively giving you a transfer ratio of 1:0.84.
(Note that the transfer ratio was previously a very respectable 1:1 until May 2017, when it was devalued to the current ratio of 1:0.7.)
Besides transferring points from RBC Avion, the only other ways for Canadians to earn AAdvantage miles would be the usual Marriott Bonvoy transfers, dipping into US credit cards, taking advantage of shopping portals, or, you know, actually flying with American Airlines and their Oneworld partners. Bleh.
I therefore thought it’d be useful to go over some of the best uses of AAdvantage miles for Canadian travellers, in case you’re trying to decide whether to take advantage of the 20% Avion transfer bonus before April 30. I know many Canadians out there have banked a large amount of RBC Avion points over the years, so AAdvantage could be a great way to redeem them if the sweet spots make sense for you.
Generally speaking, since AAdvantage miles are relatively tough for us Canadians to collect, I’d consider their optimal uses to fall into two broad categories: aspirational luxury trips that are best booked through AAdvantage, and compelling sweet spots within the AAdvantage award chart.
In other words, since you’re collecting a hard-to-earn currency, you’ll want to redeem the miles for what the program is best suited for, rather than any run-of-the-mill booking that could’ve been easily accomplished through a program like Aeroplan as well.
We’ll be making reference to the American AAdvantage partner award chart, so open that up and keep it handy. Without further ado, let’s kick things off with one of the grand-daddies of aspirational award travel…
1. The Etihad Apartments
The Etihad Airways First Class Apartments on their Airbus A380s are no doubt one of the most luxurious ways to fly. The humongous upper deck cabin of the A380 is bisected by a single aisle, with a total of nine Apartments on either side of the aircraft.
Passengers have a standalone armchair in addition to a bench running the entire length of their Apartment, which then gets converted into a bed when it’s time to sleep. Oh and did I mention the world-class dining, the (sort of) double-bed in the sky, and the onboard shower?
American Airlines and Etihad Airways maintain a partnership that allows you to redeem AAdvantage miles for the Apartments. Keep in mind that this partnership has been rumoured to end relatively soon, so you’ll want to act fast if you want to make this redemption.
New York JFK to Abu Dhabi will cost you 115,000 AAdvantage miles, one-way. You could also add a positioning flight between JFK and your Canadian origin city – say, if you lived in Vancouver, you could fly to JFK on Cathay Pacific First Class before continuing on to Abu Dhabi.
It’s worth noting that American Airlines generally has very strict routing rules. It’s nothing like Aeroplan, where you can customize your itinerary to your liking following a very simplified set of rules. With AAdvantage, when flying between two specific regions, you’re generally not even allowed to transit a third region (and you can forget about stopovers)!
Etihad is one of the exceptions, and it was only recently introduced. On an Etihad redemption, you can transit the Middle East on your way from North America to Africa. This means that you could fly the Etihad Apartments from JFK to Abu Dhabi, then continue to places like South Africa, Kenya, or the Seychelles, for 120,000 AAdvantage miles.
If you’d rather not splurge so many miles but would still like to experience the Etihad Apartments, then you might consider flying between Abu Dhabi and London or Paris, which will only run you 62,500 AAdvantage miles each way, and still clocks in at a very comfortable seven hours in flight time. London to Sydney via Abu Dhabi is another possibility that’s allowed by the newly refreshed routing rules, with 115,000 miles getting the job done.
You can search for Etihad Apartments award space quite easily using ExpertFlyer, with the European routes generally having better availability trends than the JFK or Sydney ones. Awards can’t be booked online, and sometimes the US-based AAdvantage call centre can’t even see the Etihad awards, so it’s generally advised to hit up the Australian call centre if you want to book an Etihad Apartments award.
2. Qatar Airways Qsuites
A close second to the lofty luxuries of the Etihad Apartments is the Qatar Airways Qsuites, which are often regarded as one of the best business class seats you’ll find on any airline.
While Qatar Airways is a member of Oneworld and so you could also book these flights using British Airways Avios, keep in mind that the distance-based Avios chart tends to charge extortionate amounts of miles for long-haul business class, which makes American AAdvantage a much more attractive option.
Qsuites from the US or Canada to Doha will run you 70,000 AAdvantage miles. Qatar Airways is another exception to the third-region routing rules, allowing you to continue on to anywhere in Africa on the same award. Flying Qatar Airways en route to Africa from a North American origin will run you 75,000 miles.
The new Qsuites business class product is available on most of Qatar Airways’s North American routes, such as New York JFK, Chicago, Boston, Houston, Los Angeles, Washington Dulles, and Montreal.
70,000 miles for a one-way from North America to the Middle East is actually a pretty good deal on paper (as a point of comparison, Aeroplan will fly you between the same zones for 82,500 miles), and it’s even sweeter when you get to fly in one of the world’s best business class cabins that allows you to convert the middle seats into two-person double beds or four-person family pods.
With so many routes offering Qsuites these days, the availability situation tends to be easier than it was before. Many North American routes will show you one or two award seats if you look far in advance, and sometimes even four seats on a single flight (so that you can jump into that four-person family pod!)
Best of all, awards can be booked directly on the American AAdvantage website. Note that Qatar Airways availability doesn’t show up on ExpertFlyer, so an alternative way to search for space would be through the British Airways Avios website.
In addition to Qsuites, there’s also a standalone Qatar Airways First Class product on the airlines’s A380 flights as well, which are also a highly aspirational way to fly. Nevertheless, it doesn’t seem to get as many rave reviews as something like Etihad, and the consensus seems to be that Qatar’s business class is so good that it almost overshadows its First Class product.
Nevertheless, if you’re someone like me who harbours hopes of flying in all of the world’s best First Class cabins one day, then you’ll want to note that American AAdvantage is one of the best ways to book Qatar Airways First Class. The mileage prices will be the same as the Etihad Apartments, as I’ve listed above.
3. South America 1
Let’s change gears for a moment and examine what I’d consider to be one of the best award chart sweet spots with American AAdvantage: flying from North America to “South America 1”, which includes Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, and the Amazonian city of Manaus in Brazil’s northwest.
Why is this sweet spot so compelling? There are three reasons.
One, the definition of “South America 1” is a lot more generous than what you’ll find with, say, Aeroplan’s “Northern South America” geographic zone. While Aeroplan’s definition only reaches Colombia and Ecuador (in addition to Guyana and Venezuela), American AAdvantage extends this relatively cheaper zone all the way to Bolivia, Peru, and northwestern Brazil.
That opens up so many more destinations – like Bolivia’s salt flats, Machu Picchu in Peru, or the heart of Brazil’s Amazon rainforest – that you can visit for a much cheaper price, instead of the more expensive pricing that the more southerly “South America 2” / “Southern South America” zones would incur.
That brings me to my second point: the mileage prices themselves are also more favourable within AAdvantage, as compared to Aeroplan. From the US or Canada, a flight down to South America 1 costs 20,000 AAdvantage miles in economy class or 30,000 AAdvantage miles in business class, compared to Aeroplan’s 25,000 or 37,500 miles, respectively.
Of course, those savings would be rather meaningless without the final reason that redeeming AAdvantage miles down to South America makes perfect sense, which is the fact that both American Airlines and their Oneworld partner LATAM provide excellent coverage over the entire continent.
American serves almost every single major city in Latin America with a direct flight from its hub in Miami, with LATAM providing onward connectivity to just about every little town and settlement. Whether you’re headed to the ruins of Machu Picchu, the hills of Patagonia, or the moais of Easter Island, AAdvantage can probably get you there.
The combined route networks of American Airlines and LATAM in this part of the world are much stronger than what you’ll find with Star Alliance, which conspires with the favourable award chart to make AAdvantage a very strong program if you’re planning to check out the many treasures of the South American continent.
4. Air Tahiti Nui to French Polynesia
Air Tahiti Nui is another partner airline that’s relatively unique to American AAdvantage. If you’ve ever looked into travelling to French Polynesia, you’ll know that flights can be quite expensive and award redemptions can be quite tough to book. Redeeming AAdvantage miles for Air Tahiti Nui flights is therefore one of the few ways to make the trip happen using points.
AAdvantage classifies French Polynesia within the South Pacific region, which means that Air Tahiti Nui’s flights between Los Angeles and Papeete have relatively steep mileage costs, at 40,000 miles for a one-way in economy class and 80,000 miles for a one-way in business class.
If you do splurge for the business class, you’ll definitely want to get on one of Air Tahiti Nui’s newer 787 products, which feature newer lie-flat seats instead of the angled seats on their A340s.
While the Los Angeles–Papeete flight is probably the most direct routing for North Americans, another option could be to book a separate trip over to Tokyo (perhaps as a stopover on a larger Aeroplan Mini-RTW) and then redeem AAdvantage miles between Tokyo and Papeete. That’s because the mileage requirements between Asia and the South Pacific are much more favourable, clocking in at only 30,000 miles for a one-way in economy class or 40,000 miles for a one-way in business class.
Alternatively, if you find yourself in New Zealand and would like to pop up to Tahiti for a quick beach getaway, then AAdvantage gives you an even better deal, requiring only 15,000 miles for a one-way in economy class or 30,000 miles for a one-way in business class on the Auckland–Papeete flight.
Both of these redemptions represent great ways to use AAdvantage miles not for the main portion of your trip, but rather to stretch the value of your miles even further on a trip you’re already taking.
You can search for Air Tahiti Nui awards on both the American website and on ExpertFlyer.
In addition to Air Tahiti Nui, the other option you’ll want to explore if you’re dead-set on redeeming miles to French Polynesia is United’s flight from San Francisco. If you can find availability on that one, then it’ll likely make more sense to book it directly with Aeroplan than going through the trouble with AAdvantage.
5. Transpacific Oneworld premium cabins
Lastly, American AAdvantage can be used to access some of the best business class and First Class cabins in the world among the Oneworld partners. These would include Cathay Pacific, Japan Airlines, and Qantas, all of which serve destinations across the Pacific from North America.
A business class flight from the US to Asia begins at 60,000 AAdvantage miles one-way, with a First Class flight beginning at 80,000 miles. For Australia and the South Pacific, it’s 80,000 or 110,000 miles respectively.
It’s worth noting that all three of these airlines also partner with Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan, and in many cases Alaska actually offers more favourable redemption rates (say, 70,000 Alaska miles vs. 80,000 AAdvantage miles for a one-way in Cathay Pacific First Class). Whether or not this represents a sweet spot for Canadians therefore depends on how easily they can access Alaska miles vis-à-vis AAdvantage miles.
RBC Avion is especially popular among casual points collectors here in Canada, so I imagine many Canadians would actually have an easier time earning the higher amounts of AAdvantage miles required for these redemptions, than starting from scratch with Alaska Mileage Plan and the MBNA Alaska credit card. Speaking of which, there’s also a wider range of credit cards that earn RBC Avion points, and RBC’s favourable treatment of product-switching can also help you earn Avion points more quickly than Alaska miles.
So while Alaska Mileage Plan remains the most favourable program for transpacific luxury redemptions like Japan Airlines First Class, you shouldn’t discount the possibility of redeeming AAdvantage miles either.
Like with Alaska, Japan Airlines and Qantas flights can be searched and booked online, whereas Cathay Pacific will require you to search on an alternative website, like the Avios website, before calling in to book.
(By the way, I’ve included Qantas business class and First Class in this category, but in reality you’d be lucky to find any availability at all with the Australian carrier. If you ever find any transpacific First Class seats with Qantas, book it immediately!)
With a 20% transfer bonus from RBC Avion in place until the end of the month, you should at least take the time to understand American AAdvantage’s sweet spots, even if they don’t end up meshing well with your travel plans.
As a currency that’s relatively tougher for Canadians to earn outside of that transfer relationship with RBC, the reasons to use AAdvantage over programs like Aeroplan or Alaska are limited to the truly aspirational awards like Etihad Apartments or Qatar Qsuites, the unique partner airlines like Air Tahiti Nui, and the award chart sweet spots such as the favourable treatment of “South America 1”.