Disclaimer: Offers for the cards mentioned below may have changed since the time of publishing. At the time of publishing the offers referenced in this post equal 260,000 AA miles! Offers are often targeted and not available for everyone.
In this post, I’ll show you how I earned and plan to spend 246,000 miles AA miles. American AAdvantage miles are unique in that there are so many co-branded cards with sign up bonuses. There’s the possibility to earn a huge number of miles.
Playing the Game
I’ve been playing The Points Game almost ever since I got my first credit card in college. I started pretty small, signing up for $100 statement credits when you spend $500. I thought it was such an obvious benefit to get 20% off for money I was going to spend anyways. I’ve always used my credit cards as if they were debit cards, paying them off each month and never buying things I couldn’t pay for right then. This is the cardinal rule for playing The Points Game. Any value from sign up bonus quickly disappears if you start paying interest on a balance. But if you’re careful and strategic with your spending, there are no downsides to The Points Game, just fantastic value. I'm working on a guide about how to play The Points Game and win. Hopefully, I'll have that soon!
How It Began
Citi Platinum Select AAdvantage card: 50k Miles
Last year I was looking for my next card bonus to earn and I decided on the Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select. This card was attractive because of its 50,000 AA bonus after a minimum spend of only $2000 in 3 months. The $95 yearly fee is even waived for the first year. 50,000 miles is worth $840 according to The Points Guy (TPG) valuation of 1.4 cents. It’s more than enough miles for a MilesSAAver off-peak (January 10 - March 14, November 1 - December 14) round trip flight to Europe which is 45,000. Or a one way to Europe in business class for 47,500. The card also had other great perks like free checked bags, priority boarding, 3x points spent on AA flights and an unpublished perk of earning 10% back on points redeemed. (Up to 10,000 points a year)
Barclay Aviator Red: 50k + 60k Miles
I quickly hit the minimum spend, and the miles were deposited in my account soon after paying my statement. I was ready for my next card when my friend Chris told me about the Barclay Aviator Red card. He said this card had a seemingly too-good-to-be-true bonus of 50,000 after making a single purchase. But I looked it up, and it was real! This card is unique in that there’s no minimum spend, only a $95 annual fee that’s charged when you open the account. For 50,000 points the $95 fee is well worth it. It would cost over $1000 to buy 50k miles outright on AA.com. I signed up for the card, bought a coffee, paid my bill and had another 50,000 deposited in my account. I now had 102,000 AA miles.
At this point, an idea started forming. Just how many AAdvantage cards could I sign up for and earn bonuses? I looked deeper in the Barclays offerings and saw that their Aviator Red Business card had a 60,000 mile bonus after the first purchase. Again, a non waived $95 yearly fee, but way worth it. As a freelancer, I’m the sole proprietor of the business of myself, so I qualify for business cards. But even if you don’t own a business, almost anyone can get a business credit card. The Points Guy has a really great article about it here.
I got approved right away, bought a coffee, paid the statement and had another 60k deposited in my account.
CitiBusiness Platinum Select: 70k Miles
After the Aviator Red Business, I had 162,000 AA miles, but I wasn’t satisfied. I set my sights on the CitiBusiness Platinum Select. This card has a monster 70,000 sign up bonus, but with an equally large spend of $4,000 in 3 months. This is where I hit my first roadblock. When I submitted the online application, I wasn’t immediately approved. A week later I got a letter in the mail stating they needed further documentation to verify my business. This could be in the form of an LLC license, DBA papers, or articles of incorporation. Most things any business would typically have. Unfortunately, I work as a sole proprietor under my own name and don't have anything like that. I was starting to get worried, but then I bought some equipment with a Business lease which as it turns out, qualifies as proof. So I scanned the lease agreement and emailed it to customer service. After over a week of waiting, I had to call and check the status of my application. The agent was very helpful and right away approved me for the card. I'm not sure why it didn’t get approved automatically, but the important thing was I was approved! I had 170,000 miles, and soon I would have 240,00. 246,000 in total because of the $6000.000 I spent to hit the minimum.
How To Hit a High Minimum Spend
The challenge was now to hit the $4,000 spend. I try to keep my spending below that, but luckily I was planning a holiday with my sister, her husband, and some friends. We were going to rent a house for the trip which was about $2000 for the week. I volunteer to pay the lump sum and paid the owner via PayPal with the CitiBusiness card. This isn't the most ideal way to hit your spend goal because PayPal charges a $.99 + 2.9% fee when you use your credit card. But the owner only accepted PayPal, and 2.9% isn't that bad when you're going to earn 70,000 miles. Everyone paid me back so, between the six of us, I only had to spend $392 ($333 for my share of the rental + $59 in fees) to get $2,000 worth of spending. I paid my rent with the card one month and with some bills and expenses got that $4000 mark.
To say I was a little excited when my account showed 245,000 would be an understatement. That's a $3430 base value for only ~$190 in card fees (plus a little bit from charges paying my rent), for money I was going to spend anyways.
There are two more AA cards you could apply for to earn even more miles. The AA Mile Up card is a no-fee card that has a meager 10,000 mile bonus. This could be good if you need to get a few more miles to complete your dream booking.
The other card is the AA Executive Card. This card had a huge 75,000 sign up bonus, but an equally massive $5,000 minimum spend. The card also has a $450 yearly fee. The card has great perks like Admiral Lounge Access. Now, 75,000 miles is worth $1,050, so a $450 fee isn’t that bad.
Important to note though is you can’t earn the bonus from the Executive card if you have the Platinum card:
American Airlines AAdvantage® bonus miles are not available if you have had any Citi® / AAdvantage® card (other than an AAdvantage MileUp℠ or CitiBusiness® / AAdvantage® card) opened or closed in the past 24 months.
So if you’re trying to recreate what I’ve done, you have to choose between the Platinum and Executive card. Personally, I think the Platinum card is better value, but the Admiral Lounges are really nice!
Now the question is, how am I going to spend the miles?
Spending 246,000 Miles: Economy Vs. First Class
When playing The Points Game, I see two major strategies: redeeming miles for economy flights, thus flying more places without needing to pay for airfare, or saving up and booking luxurious First and Business class awards, maximizing your CPM (Cents Per Mile). Recently, with great websites like Scott’s Cheap Flights and The Flight Deal, it’s easy to find economy tickets almost anywhere in the world. In fact, I recently bought a round trip ticket LAX> Paris on Lufthansa for $320. A similar award redemption ticket would cost 60,000 AA miles plus possible fuel surcharges if flying British Airways. This example gives you a CPM of only .53 cents, almost a third of what their 1.4 cents base value. To calculate your CPM divide the price of the ticket by the number of miles it takes to book. ( $320.00 / 60,000 = .0053 x 100 = .53 cents) Buying this ticket with cash on AA.com would be $1440 which results in a CPM of 2.4 cents. This example offers pretty good value, but with the abundance of European flights that go on sale, $1440 isn’t a realistic number for a savvy traveler flying to Europe.
Booking First class is where you can get maximum value for your points. Looking at the AA award chart you can see Business class redemptions, compared to economy, are usually slightly less than double the miles on many routes and First are around triple. Economy on most international flights starts around 30k, but Business class is usually about 70k or less. First class starts at 85k for long haul flights to Europe. This is an incredibly lucrative way to redeem miles since cash prices are exponentially higher on Business and First class tickets. For instance, flying from one way LAX to Johannesburg on Qatar Airways In economy costs 40,000 AA miles. In Business class, which includes QSuites on the LAX>DOH leg, the trip costs 75k. The Business ticket costs $4,742 cash, economy is only $1030. That results in a 6.3 CPM for Business, and 2.5 CPM for economy. With economy you're beating the base value of AA miles, but it with Business you’re getting 4.5x the base value for only 1.87X the miles. As you can see, booking Business and First class tickets are where you really get your value!
So to return to the ultimate question, take more flights in economy or splurge and have an epic trip in First class? Ultimately it depends on your travel needs and goals. Personally, I lean towards the 1st class ticket. It feels like winning The Points Game to me. Since flying First/Business class is totally out of my budget, it’s an experience I wouldn’t typically have. I could see myself spending $1000 for a flight to South Africa, but I’d probably never spend $7000 on one!
246,000 miles gives you a lot of options for flying. In fact, I could fly around the world for in First class, for free! That’s incredible for only $190. I could fly around the world twice or take a friend if I went economy.
Studying award charts and planning trips is one of my favorite pastimes. Here’s a couple of itineraries I’m thinking about doing this year. These are around the world trips for a couple of reasons:
I’ve always wanted to fly around the world in a single trip. I grew up hearing stories about how you could get a book of tickets for an airline and use them to fly anywhere you wanted. There’s also something magical about circumnavigating the globe.
The other reason is that it’s a much more efficient way to see more places for your hard (or easy!) earned miles. While you could spread out trips over the year, seeing one country or city at a time, you have to book two awards per country. If you do an open jaw, you get 2 cities or countries for 3 awards. If you expand that all the out around the globe, ending at your original departure point, you can get one destination per award (excluding the flight back to your hometown)!
AA miles can be redeemed on many world-class airlines, but to travel in First or Business class, a good strategy is using their Gulf carrier partners, Etihad and Qatar Airways. It’s best to avoid British Airways as they charge massive fuel surcharges, especially in 1st class. Etihad and Qatar also have some of the newest and most luxurious products in the sky. Qantas and Cathay Pacific also have fantastic products if you're flying to the Pacific and Asia.
I’m thankful to be based in Los Angeles, a great hub for Asia and also a point of origin for a lot of European destinations. So my itinerary will start and end there. The good news is, with American routing rules you can include a positioning flight for free from anywhere in the US to the hub that will take you to your destination. For instance, if you live in St. Louis, It would cost the same amount of miles flying to Australia via LAX as it would if you lived in LA.
Qatar recently added flights equipped with QSuites from LAX to Doha which is something I'm really keen on trying. Something to think about when you're daydreaming flight itineraries is how you can connect to other countries through these Middle East gateways.
Unfortunately, American Airlines doesn't allow stopovers (extended "layovers" in your connecting city that usually don’t increase the cost of the ticket.) To fly to Doha in QSuites is 70k miles, but for 5k more I could continue on in Business class to Johannesburg, South Africa. You could also connect to the Maldives, Sri Lanka or another the Middle Eastern country, also for 70k. So if I was flying to JNB, I couldn't make a trip out of visiting Doha on the way. I would have to book it as two separate tickets which would add 40K miles to the price!
So this all that being said, here's some itineraries:
RTW in Business class (with one economy positioning flight):
(Note, these are all theoretical itineraries based on the cheapest theoretical mileage cost. Booking these could be a challenge based on availability. The cash prices are for arbitrary dates pulled close to when I could find actual award availability)
Los Angeles to Johannesburg - 75k miles ($4742)
LAX > DOH - Qatar Airways QSuites
DOH > JNB - Qatar Airways Business class
Johannesburg to Sydney - 80k miles ($2,600)
JNB > DOH Qatar Airways Business Class
DOH > SYD Qatar Airways QSuites
Sydney to Queenstown - ($300)
SYD > ZQN - Qantas Economy
Buy this ticket with cash since its so cheap and save the 15k miles.
Aukland to Los Angeles - 80k Miles ($6500)
AKL > LAX - Qantas Business class
A better way to book this leg would be with Alaska Airlines miles because you can book a First-class flight on Qantas for only 70. Availability might be hard to find though.
Total Mile Cost: 235,000
Total Cash Price: $13,842
Total CPM: 5.89
Total Miles Flown: 34187
If I flew this economy the whole way, I could do it for 122.5k miles and take a friend with me!
RTW With a Stop in French Polynesia
Here's another itinerary which visits more places, has more routes in economy BUT features a flight in the Etihad Suites (complete with a shower!)
Los Angeles to Colombo - 70k Miles ($5536)
LAX > DOH - Qatar Airways QSuites
DOH > CMB - Qatar Airways Business class
Colombo to Sydney - 100k Miles ($6802)
CMB > ABU - Etihad Business
ABU > SYD - Etihad Suites
This leg is theoretically possible based on Etihad's routing rules, but I had trouble finding availability. Availability for The Etihad Suite can also be challenging to find, but I saw several dates in Oct between ABU and SYD that were open.
Sydney to Queenstown - 15k Miles ($300)
SYD > ZQN - Qantas Economy
Aukland to Papeete - 15k Miles ($1035)
AKL > PPT Air Tahiti Nui Business Class
Papeete to Los Angeles - 40k Miles ($1493)
PPT > LAX Air Tahiti Nui Economy
Total Mile Cost: 240,000
Total Cash Price: $15,166
Total CPM: 6.3
Total Miles Flown: 24079
There are so many more ways one could spend 246,000 miles.
Another itinerary that would be amazing would be flying (in economy) From Los Angeles to Buenas Aires, then to Santiago, Aukland, Sydney, Etihad Suites to Abu Dhabi, Male, then Paris and finally back to LAX. Thats 250,000 miles.
This is one of my biggest plays of The Points Game yet. Its astounding to me that I can earn this many AA miles this easily. I hope this post inspires you to play The Points Game and travel the world for free
What's your dream itinerary? Are there any flights or airlines that would be "must have?" (like trying the Etihad Suite?) Leave a comment below!