Creative Frequent Flyer Awards

A friend of mine sent me an email today—should he spend USD1,000 for a ticket from Tokyo to New York, or redeem 50,000 American AAdvantage miles? Using the rule of thumb that a frequent flyer mile is worth about USD0.015-0.02, this is something of a close call—certainly not a bad redemption of miles, but not a superb one, either. My advice, nevertheless, was to use the miles, because it seemed to me that there was room for a creative frequent flyer award.

The true value in frequent flyer miles and the award flights for which they can be redeemed, in my opinion, comes not only from the ability to fly from point A to point B for free, but the additional flexibility that a frequent flyer award can offer relative to an average discount ticket. The flexibility can come in the ability to do date changes (both American and United allow free changes to dates and times on award tickets, a feature you are unlikely to find on a discount coach fare) or freedom to add openjaws and stopovers (almost all programs permit the former while the rules for the latter can be complicated).

The ins and outs of each program are different of course. To do my research I use the airline’s website and the definitive site for frequent flyers—FlyerTalk. (I should note that while I have posted to FlyerTalk, I do not consider myself to be on the same level of expertise as the true FlyerTalk regulars.)

FlyerTalk’s American AAdvantage forum contains this handy posting summarizing the routing rules applicable to AAdvantage awards. By reviewing it, I learned that when redeeming an international ticket on American Airlines between Japan and the U.S. using AAdvantage miles, a stopover is permitted at the North American gateway in each direction. I could not find a handy list of which U.S. cities act as American Airlines gateways for Japan flights, but a quick search for departing flights on the website for Tokyo’s Narita International Airport showed me that American flies to at least Los Angeles, Dallas, Chicago and New York from Tokyo.

My friend needed to fly only from Tokyo to New York. However, given that he is permitted a stopover in New York in each direction (and the rules do not seem to prohibit two stopovers in the same city), he could actually book a ticket from Tokyo to some third destination, stopover in New York twice and essentially end up with a free roundtrip ticket from New York. A look at the award rules available through AA’s Redeem Miles page shows that 50,000 miles gets you a ticket from Japan/Northern China to anywhere in “North America,” which is defined as “the U.S. (including Hawaii and Alaska), Canada, Mexico, Bermuda, The Bahamas, and the Caribbean.” The only question remaining is where my friend thinks he would like to fly sometime in the next year (the usual validity of an award ticket). Perhaps he has a friend or relative in some city in the U.S. or Canada that’s relatively expensive to fly to, or maybe he wants to go to the Caribbean next winter. Most aggressive, perhaps, would a ticket to Hawaii. (Some airlines may not permit a Tokyo – New York (stopover) – Maui – New York (stopover) – Tokyo ticket, but I bet American would, as they seem to be the most forgiving of creative routings.) He can check out all of American Airlines’ destinations on Wikipedia. How about Mexico City? or Barbados?

To get even more creative, he could add an openjaw. Generally, an openjaw can be added either at the origin or the destination of an award ticket. An example of an origin openjaw would be Tokyo – New York (stopover) – Jackson Hole – New York (stopover) – Beijing, while an example of a destination openjaw would be Tokyo – New York (stopover) – San Diego – overland to – San Jose del Cabo at the tip of Baja California – New York (stopover) – Tokyo.

Because date changes can be made at no cost, he can use his New York – City X round trip any time he wants, which makes it even more valuable than a purchased ticket. Of course, if he flies the New York – Asia portion of any of these routings, he will have to find a way get back to the U.S.

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