American AAdvantage miles can be incredibly useful for international travel, but by far the most frustrating thing about them are the fees of hundreds of dollars you pay when you use your AAdvantage miles to fly on a British Airways flight across the Atlantic to Europe, the Middle East, India, or Africa. With US Airways now part of OneWorld Dividend Miles members are about to discover this nasty surprise.
The euphemism for them are British Airways fuel surcharges, but they have little to do with the current price of fuel and are really just fees British Airways is trying to extract from people booking an award. American passes on these fees to you the AAdvantage member when you book awards on British Airways flights that cross the Atlantic.
Most people just do a basic search on AA.com, see that the only available flights to Europe are on British Airways, then get mad, give up, and cancel their AAdvantage credit cards when they see it will cost 60,000 miles plus $700 for a coach ticket. It happens a lot because British Airways has the most flights to Europe from the United States.
The only way to avoid these fees is to stay away from British Airways flights across the Atlantic, and unfortunately American’s website isn’t as helpful as it could be in letting you see all options.
But there are many ways to see all of your options and this guide will help you cover all of your bases before resigning to pay the fuel surcharge or giving up on your miles altogether.
You’re going to want to familiarize yourself with these tools and policies that can help you get where you want to go without having to fly on a British Airways flight across the Atlantic:
AA.com is a good award search tool, displaying most partners to Europe with the glaring exception of Iberia Airlines, but it can miss options if you’re willing to fly out of a different city.
Try using the OneWorld Interactive Route Map to get some ideas.
It clearly labels OneWorld hubs, and flying through any hub that’s not in England will help you avoid the British Airways fuel surcharge.
Below is a map showing all the flights on American from its hub in Chicago. You’ll want to try checking these routes individually to see if you missed any alternatives in your first search.
For example entering ‘ORD-DUB’ will get you the flight from Chicago to Dublin. Then you can check flights beyond Dublin separately and those to Chicago separately to see what’s available. Using British Airways for these short flights in Europe won’t be a fuel surcharge problem so it’s fine to add those to your trip. It’s British Airways on the long TransAtlantic sector that jacks up the price.
Iberia’s fees are much lower than British Airways. It flies to Boston, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Miami from Madrid and Barcelona, but none of its flights show up when you search on AA.com.
So you’ll want to check those flights on the phone or by logging into BA.com (British Airways’ site) to see if there is space available.
If there is, you’ll avoid the huge British Airways surcharges in the process. Then, you can piece together flights from the gateway city to your home airport on American or US Airways. You’ll have to call AAdvantage directly to book these flights.
AAdvantage agents are patient about looking up Iberia availability for you, but if you want to do it yourself online just set up an account with British Airways.
It’s free, and you can go to this link to search for awards. When you enter your credentials it will take you straight to the award search page, which is usually hard to find if you go straight to the BA.com homepage and login.
Below, we searched for flights from Madrid to New York on BA.com and found seats available on Iberia, which can help you avoid using British Airways to cross the Atlantic.
You can ignore the mile prices and fees quoted on the British Airways site as they only apply to awards booked using British Airways Avios points, not American AAdvantage miles. If a flight shows ‘Available’ on the British Airways website you can book it with your AAdvantage miles over the phone.
Just note that the British Airways site only shows options with one connection. So if an option has two connections, like Madrid to London to New York to Minneapolis you won’t get results. It’s best to confine your search on BA.com to searches from one TransAtlantic gateway city to another, which in this example would be Madrid to New York.
Finding these seats isn’t just useful for traveling to and from Spain. They are useful for getting to most places in Europe because Iberia has a hub in Spain with good availability of award seats to many popular destinations in Europe like Rome, Paris, Zurich, and even London. Once you have this TransAtlantic portion of the trip locked up you’ve finished up the hard part.
These airlines won’t help you get to Europe or Africa, as AAdvantage won’t let you track through their Middle East hubs along the way without charging you for two separate awards.
But if you’re trying to get to the Middle East or India they can be really useful as AAdvantage considers India and the Middle East the same award zone.
These airlines are aggressively expanding and offer some great award availability options on some otherwise very expensive flights.
You can check Royal Jordanian and Qatar Airways availability on BA.com just like the Iberia example above.
Royal Jordanian’s hub is in Amman, Jordan and it flies to Chicago, Detroit, and New York.
Qatar flies to Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Miami, New York, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. from its hub in Doha.
Etihad flies to Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Washington D.C., and in late 2014 Dallas from its Abu Dhabi hub.
You can check Etihad availability on its own website using this link. If a flight shows it has ‘GuestSeat’ availability you can book it with your AAdvantage miles. ‘OpenSeat’ availability is not bookable with AAdvantage miles.
If you’re interested in Business or First Class travel, these airlines are incredibly useful with luxurious products you’ll enjoy, and you can see all of their business class seats and how to book them in this guide.
Finally, if you can’t find an award seat on any non-British Airways flight across the Atlantic you’re not entirely out of luck.
AAdvantage is generous when it comes to changing your award flights around.
They will let you change the dates / times of your flights, and even the airlines that you use for free up to 21 days before departure.
So you can just book a British Airways flight on the day you want to travel and suck up the fuel surcharge fees as a worst case backup.
Then, if a flight on American, Iberia, Air Berlin, or any other OneWorld partner opens up you can switch to it free of charge.
You can’t change the city your are flying to and from, but you can change your airline, date and the city you connect in for free as long as it’s all 21 days or more before the flight.
So keep checking AA.com and BA.com to see if the flight you want opens up and if you’re in luck call up AAdvantage and they’ll make the change for you free.
A more hassle free way to leverage this benefit is to set up an alert on a site called ExpertFlyer.com that tells you if an award seat opens up on an American Airlines operated flight.
ExpertFlyer is a site that has access to the actual award seat inventory of many airlines, including American. For example if you are traveling from Chicago to London you can have ExpertFlyer email you if a MileSAAver award seat opens up on the American flight. Then if a seat does open up you can call AAdvantage and switch to that flight and avoid the British Airways fees altogether.
You’ll need to pay for a $9.95 a month ‘Pro’ ExpertFlyer subscription to have access to this feature, but if it’s the difference between saving $500 or more on British Airways fees it can be worth it, especially if you do a lot of award booking.
Just note that if you’re using US Airways Dividend Miles to book flights you won’t be able to take advantage of the free change benefit as US Airways charges for any change to award tickets.
Until American improves its website and shows availability for all of its OneWorld partners online, you’ll have to go through several other websites or use the phone to see if there are ways to avoid the dreaded British Airways fees on flights across the Atlantic.
Or you can consider an award booking service – there are several online and they will book your award for a fee of about $100, leveraging these tools and more to find the cheapest possible award. MileCards.com also offers free help with award searches, though we do not do the actual booking or phone searches that paid services do.
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