Should You Push Your American Airlines AAdvantage Card Through A Shredder?

That’s essentially the advice being offered by Jerry Lanson in this HuffPo piece.

Jerry tells the story of spending the last 25 years spending on a Citibank credit card to earn a bunch of miles and lifetime Gold status on American Airlines.

Before we even get into his beef, I need to point out that this was a flawed strategy. How do I know?  Because I did it too until someone pointed out the error of my ways. Up until a few years ago, American Airlines was really the only airline left that gave you credit towards lifetime status with miles earned from any source.

Back then, I could spend $25K on that Citibank card and earn 25,000 miles (everyday spending, no bonus categories). Or, I could spend only $20K on the Starwood Preferred Guest American Express card and transfer to American Airlines. SPG would award be a 5,000 point bonus and I would end up with 25,000 miles. Anyways, that ship has sailed, so back to Jerry’s concern.

First, he complains about not being able to redeem his miles for two tickets to Paris in July, despite trying 330 days out, the furthest out you’re allowed to book with miles. There was no availability then or even the next day when he tried.

No tickets were available unless I wanted to upgrade: Translate, use a lot more miles per ticket. The only other option was a three-hop trip to Paris through Outer Transylvania or the equivalent.

“No thanks,” I said.

I pushed our departure day back and the next day was ready, jumping online at midnight — the very first minute it was possible for anyone to use miles to book a seat. Once again, there were no seats. The same was true the next day. And the next.

Savvy travelers know that calling 330 days in advance is no guarantee that you’ll be able to snag flights, especially given fuller planes to a very popular destination (Paris) during one of the busiest times to travel (July). Somehow, though, this is American Airlines’ fault.  And yet, I was able to get 4 tickets to Europe this summer using my AAdvantage miles (and last summer).

This August, my wife Kathy and I took a two-week trip from Boston to San Francisco. Booking nine or 10 months in advance, I managed to get first-class tickets on American Airlines heading west. They cost us a premium 25,000 miles each. Even that meant we had to take three flights: Boston to Philadelphia, Philadelphia to Dallas, Dallas to San Francisco.

So, what can we discern from this?  25,000 miles is the saver level for first-class domestic one-way awards, so he was paying the lowest price possible in terms of miles spent.  I don’t love 3 flights and probably wouldn’t choose the itinerary for an award, but I might if it was my only option.  We can also tell from Philly being in the flight plan that this was likely at least partially on US Airways.  Here’s where things went wrong with his flights:

Still, with free champagne, a first-class perk, I figured we could endure anything. Then the morning of our departure we got a text from American: the third flight had been cancelled. We could get economy seats from Dallas on a flight two hours later.

Our first morning in San Francisco, I called the customer service desk at American AAdvantage, which I hereby rename the “customer disservice” desk.

“I got bounced out of first class,” I told Jackie at the other end of the line. I proposed three possible solutions, which I thought open-minded on my part:

Let’s break down each of his 3 suggestions to see what sounds fair.  And, for the purposes of this discussion, let’s assume this wasn’t a weather issue, where the domestic airlines don’t normally offer any compensation:

(1) Refund our first-class miles and charge us only 12,500 miles each for the trip west

That’s probably a fair resolution.  They’re still getting at least one of their legs in first (SFO-DFW) and then downgraded for the second choice.  And, they’re being made to wait 2 hours extra.

(2) Upgrade us to first class on the San Francisco to Philadelphia portion of our two-leg return flight to Boston, booked in economy class or

This one really doesn’t make much sense, since you’re hoping for 2 F seats available at the last-minute on a route that only appears to have 12-16 F seats per flight and a handful of flights a day.  I can’t imagine there are many agents willing to overbook an F cabin by 2 in this situation.

(3) Send us home on a direct flight in any class.

Well, neither American or US operate that flight.  And, I don’t see them moving a Lifetime Gold member to United Airlines instead of dealing them a 2-hour delay.

The agent doesn’t sound like she was the most pleasant in the world, which certainly didn’t make the situation better.  Ultimately, they each got a 6,000 mile refund for the downgrade and inconvenience.  I haven’t had that many travel disruptions on AA as of late, but this sounds like a comparable solution to others I’ve seen recently.

Where Jerry really missed here is that he didn’t research other flight choices for himself and make suggestions to the agent.  His blog post says he stayed in his room for 20 minutes while they dealt with things.  That’s a great time to get out a computer and research flight choices.  Or, if no computer is available, I’d try asking about other city pairs.  I know, I know.  I’m sure he asked something like, “Are you sure there aren’t any choices ANYWHERE?”  But, I find the best way to make progress in these situations is to know your options.  Don’t assume the agent checked every possibility.  They may have, but you’re responsible for your own flights.

When I got off the phone, Kathy was sputtering.

“It drives me crazy that even the pilot has to [get on the intercom to] advertise their new AAdvantage card offer,” she said. “It’s like a scam. You pay for something you really don’t get.”

Well, yeah.  I do agree that the solicitations on the plane are annoying as hell.

Jerry, your situation was bad, no doubt.  I’ve certainly seen worse, but that doesn’t preclude you from being upset.  I just don’t see this as an offense punishable by being burned at the stake.

I would consider switching your credit card, but I’d hold onto that AAdvantage Lifetime Gold card just a big longer.  They’re still the better game in town when you consider starting over with Delta or United.

A quick thanks to Neil M for sending over this article. I got a good chuckle and it’s a solid reminder that everything you read on the Internet isn’t true, shocking as that fact may seem.

6 Comments

  1. You’re welcome. This card is my “go-to.” And I was concerned but realized that there was more to the story. Thanks to you, too.

  2. You would think someone who accumulates over 1,000,000 AA miles would at least research how to use miles and the risk associated with them. There are certainly some good blogs out there that would help him with that….
    As others have pointed out, AA still has one of the best programs in the US. If it was Delta or United miles, it might have taken all 1M of those miles to book that ticket to Europe.

    1. Adam, I couldn’t help but chuckle in regards to your comment about needing a million miles to get to Europe with Delta or UA because of the reports I’ve heard from folks using DL miles to travel. Needless to say you won’t find many people happy with the redemption rates over there. If only we could find this frustrated customer some good blogs…..

  3. Yes, I’ve the same issues with AA essentially indirectly devaluing their program considerably by eliminating 98% of their “Saver” flights and making the Business and First Class Saver awards NOT direct flights but for some idiotic reason keeping those areas empty on flights because people will not pay for it anyway.

    1. Jay, not sure where you get your math, but saying 98% of saver inventory is gone is just plain wrong. I’ve found saver inventory for a number of flights over the past 12 months. Flights are fuller and it takes some more work, but there’s still award seats to be had. Have you tried calling to look for flights?

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