Pros: A lot of US flights and options to earn miles with non-airline partners
Cons: Weak airline partners, limited international travel, very hard to find a rewards ticket.
I love to write about airlines. Flying a plane is a thrill for me and I always look forward to it. This year I flew over 80 different planes and collected Medallions from AA, Delta and will soon get one from Alaska. But one thing bothers me more and more - why do we think of the airlines as such nice companies who try to do their best to make us happy? Just because they are the only means to get to the place where we want to be! Otherwise they are the worst of all companies in the US: they sucked our tax dollars to support them at the time when, because of their own irresponsibility, they were going down. We gave them billions of dollars! Why did not we do the same to Greyhound? Don't they also run on gas? Isn't the gas price rise the major cause for the airlines problems? Well, apparently only for the three out of big four. American Airline is the only one who stood under all pressures and survived this crisis without begging for mercy (and my and your money). Thus they already earned one point for just that. But will they earn more?
Well, back to the topic: miles.
Choosing the right program for you
I am really amazed by the wide range of comments about AA Frequent Flyer program - from hatred to admiration. Let's ask ourselves why is it so? The truth is that AAdvantage is a great program and an awful one at the same time. One cannot say how good or bad the program is without specifying for whom.
On average the major programs from AA, Delta and United are very similar, but your location and behavior may impact your benefits a lot and some program may be better for you than others.
National VS international
Thus it is critical to choose the right program that fits your location and travel needs. AA has largest network in the US and significant number of international flights, but not as many as Delta. The major drawback for the program is its partners... Only few may be listed as really major airlines: BA and, may be, Iberia (if you like flying to Spain). Others are second and third-tier airlines. Here AAdvantage looses a lot to Delta's partners: Continental, NWA, AirFrance-KLM and Alitalia. These are all transatlantic flights that give you about 8,000 miles each.
So it makes sense to choose AAdvantage if you live close to one of its US hubs and do not fly a lot internationally. These hubs are: Dallas, Chicago, Miami, St. Louis also New Yourk and LA. Otherwise - think twice.
Quite honestly I am not a big fan of wasting my miles on business-class upgrades and, let's face it, most of you, readers, and me myself, will never make enough miles to just throw them away like that. So I am not that much concerned about the availability of upgrades (it is easy to say for me as I am average height), but I am concerned about the free tickets very much.
http://www.webflyer.com/ lists AA as top 4th airline on their Overall Award Success Rate (how often you can get upgraded), this seems to be very good as Delta is on the very bottom of the list with 48% (against 61% for AA). How important is this? Well it is 13% difference, and if you fly 10 times you will get upgraded 6 times on AA and 5 on Delta (if you are a medallion member)... I do not think you will even notice this difference!
A more important part is the availability of free tickets, I should say free as they will actually cost you some amount of money determined by the airline. The rule of thumb is the earlier you reserve, the less you pay. Try to reserve more than a month in advance. As far as the actual availability is concerned the story is the same as with Delta ( see my article on SkyMiles for more): you will almost certainly not find a ticket on the date you want to the place you desire. But do not surrender, my friends, persistence is the father of success: call the airline and they will very likely find a place with one of its partners.
AA and Delta back to back
Lets add some hard data to my words: I went to AA and Delta websites today to find a 25,000 miles award ticket from Boston to Los Angeles September 5-7 (this is a route where both companies operate regularly and I picked the date randomly but before October 15 when peak season is over). So what I found? Nothing for AA and YEH BABY! I got two on Delta (I also had 30 more for 50,000) I do think that it is unfair to charge 10$ for online reservation of a free reward ticket three months in advance, but who cares, I got 10$ for that.
Obviously it does not prove much as I could have picked a bad route for AA, but statistics does show that AA had consistently been one of the worst to get award tickets for.
People at AA understand well that AAdvantages Airline Partners are weaker than those of Delta and United. One of the ways they try to compensate for that is to have a wide range of other partners: hotels, car rentals, online shops etc. In fact I am flooded with their "promotional" spam. These services are useful when you have time to look at the website and find out if your next purchase qualifies for any credit, but most of us do not have aa.com set as their homepage and have other things to do in life.
It is still important to note that using partners is a good way to keep your miles from expiring. These sneaky corporate "friends" cut the dates again and now your miles will expire after 18 months of inactivity. An easy way to fight it is to register with http://www.opinionplace.com - an online service that credits your AA account whenever you take their polls.
How to decide when to fly AA?
Thus if you live near AA hub and fly a lot with AA, make it your primary account and try to fly on them as often as possible to achieve elite status. If you live in a city like New York and fly internationally, you have to choose Delta or United and make AA your backup plan. But how to decide when to fly with AA or another airline that you do not have an account with?
Use this simple logic: 25,000 miles would cost you ~$300 on Ebay (they do not go towards your elite status though!). So the price per mile is close to $1.5 per 100 miles (I took into account loss of elite miles). So if your primary account (the one you want to achieve elite status at) is with AA and you find a cheaper flight with United, convert the price difference into these miles. For example: I found a ticket with AA from Boston to LA for $370 and with United for $300. Is it worth taking? Seems like a good deal? This flight (with one stop) will give you ~6,000 miles or $90. So you are actually better off going on more expensive AA flight - it will pay off later.
It is sad to admit that such a great airline has such a lousy frequent flyer program, but it is also understandable they have to run a whole fleet of aircraft and too many people want those free places. In spite of the excuses, the fact is there unless you live in one of its hub cities, you may only use their program as a back up tool for those flights you cannot make on other airlines.
You may also consider US Airways Dividend Miles Program as an alternative to SkyMiles and in addition to AA. This one is the largest network and has many advantages.