If you’ve ever asked:

“How do I earn frequent flier miles on American Airlines?”
or
“How do I earn elite status on American Airlines?”
or
“WHY DOES AMERICAN AIRLINES MAKE EVERYTHING SO FUCKING CONFUSING?”

Then you’ve come to the right place.

At first glance, the American Airlines mileage program — called AAdvantage — seems overwhelmingly complex. That’s intentional. AA doesn’t want you to learn how their program works because they don’t want to give you free stuff. They want to screw you over.

Thankfully you can learn most of what you need in this short guide, which is broken into 3 parts. And then you can start screwing over AA instead of the other way around.

Nerd Note: Go here to sign up for an AAdvantage account if you haven’t already

1. Earning Redeemable Miles

“Redeemable Miles” are the miles that can be used to book flights and to upgrade existing flights.

When flying on American Airlines, redeemable miles are earned based on the amount you spend, not the amount you fly. AAdvantage members without status earn 5 miles per every U.S. dollar spent. So if you book a $100 ticket you’ll earn 500 miles, regardless of whether you’re flying to Texas or Tanzania.

(This system is OK if you’re a business traveler who flies on expensive tickets. But it’s not so great if you’re a budget traveler like most MyTravelNerdians.)

You can also earn miles for flying on AA’s partner airlines  such as British Airways and Japan Airlines. For these you will earn miles based on the distance flown, but usually only 25-50% of the distance. You must apply your AAdvantage number to partner flights to earn miles.

Lastly, you can earn redeemable miles through one of the Citi AAdvantage credit cards. As of this writing you can get up to 60,000 miles from an AAdvantage card if you sign up and spend enough.

2. Using redeemable miles

Redeemable miles can be used to purchase flights and upgrade existing flights. Go here to enter your flight search and you’ll be confronted with something like this:

American Airlines award calendar

“MilesSAAver” awards are what they call their cheapest award tickets (for some goddamn reason). “AAnytime” awards are the more expensive tickets. Since AAnytime tickets are usually at least twice as expensive as MileSAAver awards, you almost always want to ensure you’re getting the latter. It’s usually a better value to pay cash than to use miles for AAnytime (expensive) award tickets.

MileSAAVer awards can be hard to come by, especially on weekends, holidays, and for nonstop routes. You should either book these tickets well in advance of your travel, or at the last minute.

Nerd Note: AA often opens award space within a week of travel. If you need to book a last-minute ticket and regular prices are expensive, check for an award ticket.

Unlike most other airlines, AA does not allow stopovers on award tickets. That is, you can’t book a flight from LA to NYC with a week-long “stopover” in Chicago.

3. Earning Elite Status

You know those assholes they invite to board the airplane before everyone else? You could be one of those assholes.

AA has four tiers of elite status: Gold, Platinum, Platinum Pro, and Executive Platinum. Each come with perks like early boarding, free checked bags, free upgrades, and extra redeemable miles. And they’re all earned by flying a bunch and spending a bunch.

More specifically, each tier is reached by earning a minimum number of either elite-qualifying miles or segments flown plus a minimum amount spent in a calendar year.

It seems confusing, but hang on. First, “elite-qualifying miles” are different from “redeemable miles” in that they only apply to earning elite status, and they are earned by the numbers of miles flown (instead of the amount spent, like redeemable miles). And you don’t earn elite-qualifying miles from credit cards.

Second, there is still a minimum spend requirement for each tier. So you can’t take a super cheap flight around the world on AA and expect to earn status. You gotta spend dat money to earn dat status.

For example, to earn Gold status you must earn 25,000 elite-qualifying miles (by actually flying 25,000 miles) or 30 segments AND spend at least $3,000 in a single year.

Nerd Note: If the AA mileage program is starting to sound unappealing and you live in the West, check out the Alaska Airlines program, which is objectively better.

That’s it! To summarize:

  • You earn redeemable miles based on the amount you spend on AA flights or the distance you fly for partner airlines
  • You can use redeemable miles to book tickets. You should try to only book “MileSAAver” fares, even though that name sucks
  • You earn status by flying and spending a lot on AA and its partners

To go deeper down the travel nerd rabbit hole, we recommend these exemplary web logs:

What is American Airlines Elite Status Worth in 2017?

24 Best Ways To Redeem American Airlines AAdvantage Miles for Max Value [2017]

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