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Middle Age Miles

Lessons and Strategies from My 2018 Journey to AA Executive Platinum Status

AA Executive Platinum membership card

This article is Part 1 in a 5-part series we’ll be running on Middle Age Miles over the next couple of weeks about earning and enjoying elite status on American Airlines, and Executive Platinum status in particular. Our 5 articles are:

* Part 1: Lessons and Strategies from My 2018 Journey to AA Executive Platinum Status

* Part 2: Diary of a Mileage Run, 2018 Edition: Seattle-to-Phoenix and Back (including reviews of PHX Admirals Clubs!)

* Part 3: The Value We Get from AA Executive Platinum Status

* Part 4: Combining 2 Tricks for Massive Savings and AA Elite Qualification Miles/Dollars – Originate in Europe & Buy Biz Class Partner Tickets

* Part 5: Our Plans and Strategies for AA Elite Status in 2019

In 2018, Philly and I held AA Executive Platinum elite status for the first time ever, having earned it by my flying during 2017. We found the benefits to be extremely valuable to us, and we hoped we’d be able to re-qualify by again amassing the necessary 100,000 Elite Qualifying Miles (EQMs) and $12,000 Elite Qualifying Dollars (EQDs) during 2018.

And indeed, we did re-qualify during 2018, just barely making it across the 100,000 EQM threshold. Especially for me, it took quite a combination of flying, credit card bonuses and strategies to get me back to the Executive Platinum promised land.

I thought it would be interesting to Middle Age Miles readers for me to share my lessons and strategies from the 2018 journey to AA Executive Platinum status. Setting aside for the moment the eternal question of “Is it worth it?” – and for us, it is – the information and strategies we discuss in this article should be very useful to anyone who’s looking to achieve a higher status level with AA.

Achieving AA Executive Platinum Status in 2018

To frame this discussion and give you all of the details of how I re-qualified for Executive Platinum (EXP) status, here is a chart of all of my AA flights during 2018:

We knew from the outset that it would be challenging for us to re-qualify and that we’d have to pay special attention to our EQMs, EQDs, and every factor that goes into earning them. Thus, starting with our very first flight of 2018, we began using strategies that would maximize our EQM and EQD earning.

We’ll cover a lot of lessons and strategies here, and to do so, we’ll work our way through the earning chart chronologically, starting with our very first flight in January 2018, domestic first class flights between DFW and Chicago O’Hare (ORD):

1. Using Cheap Domestic First Class Flights to Earn Double EQMs

Paid domestic first class flights on AA earn 2x EQMs. We needed to travel from DFW to ORD in January as part of the preparations for the upcoming wedding of Middle Age Miles son Zack, and we found that paid first class fares weren’t that much more than economy. This made it an easy choice for us to power-up our EQM earning from the very start of 2018 by “purchasing” “paid” first class tickets DFW-ORD (“paid”-for, that is, by using American Express Membership Rewards (MR) points).

We repeated this strategy a few times during 2018, paying a small premium for domestic first class to earn double EQMs – on our one-way from DFW to Washington National/Reagan (DCA) on 9/20, and again on our round trip from DFW to Nashville (BNA) beginning 10/4. On the BNA trip, remarkably, the return leg was actually *cheaper* in first class than in economy! How about that?

We also used the “2x EQM” strategy when we purchased one-way first class tickets from Denver (DEN) to Seattle (SEA) via Phoenix (PHX) on our 11/4 flight. On this one, the premium was actually a little more to purchase first class. But at that point we had a pretty good idea exactly how many EQMs we’d need to get us across the 100k threshold, and this was our best option that didn’t involve spending additional time to take extra flights (which I might could have done but would be very tough on Philly given her full-time job!).

2. Using Amex MR Points to Earn Full EQMs and EQDs While Also Receiving a Pay-with-Points Rebate and Discounted “Insider Fares”

In general, using credit card benefits can be a huge help in achieving higher elite status. You’ll notice that, starting with our 1/12 flight to ORD, we used Amex MR points on several flights in 2018.

Using Amex MR points allowed us to “purchase” our flights with points rather than out-of-pocket money, yet still earn full EQMs and EQDs just as if we’d paid cash. (The same is true for Chase Ultimate Rewards (UR) points and Citi ThankYou Points (TYPs) when you use those types of points to purchase airfare.) Thus, in general, paying for airfare with our credit card points is a great strategy toward earning earn elite status.

Amex MR points have two other features which add value for purchasing airfare – a 35% pay-with-points rebate if you hold the Amex Business Platinum card, and discounted “Insider Fares.”

By using pay-with-points with the 35% rebate, we’re able to achieve a solid value of at least 1.54 cents per MR point while also earning full EQMs and EQDs.

In addition, when you pay with points, Amex Travel often offers “Insider Fares” that provide a further discount. For example, a flight that costs $400, or 40,000 MR points (pre-rebate), might have an “Insider Fare” so that if you pay with points, it’ll only require 38,000 MR points. In our experience, Insider Fares on economy tickets have provided an average discount around 5-6%, and discounts on premium class tickets are even higher. This is a very nice “hidden” benefit of using Amex MR points to pay for airfare.

You might notice that we particularly focused on using our Amex MR points to pay for airfare early in 2018. For the first 3-4 months of the year, we were still eligible for a 50% pay-with-points rebate, which allowed us to achieve a value of more than 2 cents per point on our MR points. We used this benefit on several flights in 2018, starting with our 1/12 DFW-ORD flight and also on my 3/6 and 3/12 flights between DFW and LAX (more on that trip later!), our 5/2 trip to Las Vegas (LAS), and our 8/3 trip to Prague (PRG) – and we earned full EQMs and EQDs on all of them.

3. Positioning to Another City to Earn Extra EQMs and Save Money

This one is a bit of a crazy story. I’ll simplify for purposes of this post, because I can illustrate the point without delving into the complexities.

Check my flights from 3/6 through 3/12. Philly and I were planning to fly from DFW to Quito (UIO) to visit Middle Age Miles daughter Maria, who was on a study abroad program there. The non-stop round-trip flights between DFW and UIO were about $925. However, I found that I could originate in LAX with one-stop flights (connecting onto the exact same non-stop flights to/from DFW), for several hundred dollars less. Even when I added on the positioning flights between DFW and LAX, the total cost would be less than I would pay for the non-stop DFW-UIO round trip.

Thus, by positioning to LAX, I could (a) save money; and (b) earn more EQMs. Fortunately, I had time to do this, and I knew it would generate some blog content once I launched Middle Age Miles! But unfortunately, Philly couldn’t position to LAX with me because of work.

In any event, my cost and earnings looked like this:

  • Basic DFW-UIO non-stop round trip: Cost $925 (including the discount from the Amex MR pay-with-points Insider Fare); EQMs 5,148
  • Positioning DFW-LAX and flying r/t LAX-UIO: Cost $855; EQMs 10,088
  • TOTAL COST SAVINGS BY POSITIONING TO LAX = $70
  • ADDITIONAL EQMs BY POSITIONING TO LAX = 4,940 (!)
Once we made it to Quito, we climbed the hill from Old Town up to the Virgen de Panecillo statue that overlooks the city

4. We Could Still Use AA Miles When We Found a Great Deal

One of the challenges in going for AA elite status is that any award mileage tickets you take won’t earn any EQMs or EQDs toward qualifying for status. Even knowing that, sometimes the deal is just too good to pass up. When we found Saver-level Business Class seats on the non-stop flights between DFW and Rome (FCO) on the exact dates we wanted in mid-April, we jumped on those tickets and didn’t let the lack of EQM- and EQD-earning stop us from capitalizing on this great opportunity.

Saver-level AA Business Class space to Rome – maybe we should have brought a unicorn instead of Declan the Sheep!

5. Earning EQMs and EQDs Through Credit Card Spend Was Key

In 2017, Philly and I had each gotten Barclays AA Aviator Red cards, and both of us had upgraded to Silver. This allowed us the opportunity to earn up to 10,000 EQMs and up to $6,000 EQDs through credit card spend. We maxed out those earnings in 2018, and we wouldn’t have been able to qualify for EXP without having and using these benefits.

In 2018, the earning schedule for the Barclays AA Aviator Silver cards during the calendar year was:

  • $20k spend = 5,000 EQMs
  • $25k spend = $3,000 EQDs
  • $40k spend = an additional 5,000 EQMs
  • $50k spend = an additional $3,000 EQDs
[Note that for 2019, you can only earn a maximum of $3,000 EQDs, and those are only awarded if you spend $50k or more on the card during 2019.]
Barclays AA Aviator Silver Mastercard

Each of us hit each of these thresholds and earned the maximum 10k EQMs and $6k EQDs during 2018. We actually didn’t “need” the last $3k EQDs to qualify for EXP, but (a) there was a Plastiq promotion during the Fall of 2018 that presented us with a golden opportunity to inorganically spend the extra $10k to get the extra $3k EQDs; and (b) AA upgrade priority is determined by 12-month rolling EQD totals, so the extra $3k EQDs would move us up the upgrade list for a year and maybe score us some first class seats we wouldn’t have gotten otherwise.

In addition, Philly has the Citi AA Executive card, which allows her to earn yet another 10k EQMs with $40k spend. She needed those 10k EQMs in order to qualify for EXP, so we hit this threshold and earned the additional EQMs for her on this card as well.

Citi AAdvantage Executive Mastercard

6. Waste Not, Want Not

This lesson relates to my trip back and forth from DFW to Seattle (SEA) on 7/20. This is another complicated story that I’ll simplify. In short, Philly had a work trip to Seattle cancel (and I usually go up with her to visit Middle Age Miles daughter Maria at the University of Washington, plus to get to travel with my bride), leaving me holding a one-way SEA-DFW ticket on 7/20 that wasn’t going to be used and which wouldn’t be worth canceling or changing because the fees were more than the fare.

Knowing that I’d probably ultimately need the EQMs and EQDs, I decided to not let the one-way SEA-DFW ticket go to waste. I picked up an early-morning DFW-SEA ticket (using a $100 Amex Travel voucher plus paying a little more) and flew back and forth to Seattle on the 20th. By doing this, I picked up 3,318 EQMs that I’d end up absolutely needing in order to qualify, plus $357 EQDs.

7. Using the AA Special Fares Chart to Earn More EQDs

AA uses the “Special Fares” chart to determine how many EQDs and redeemable miles an AAdvantage member will earn when he or she books a fare where AA does not know how much the member paid for the ticket. These are generally bulk or wholesale fares. One easy example would be an air ticket purchased as part of a package with AA Vacations where the member has booked a hotel along with the flight. AA can’t separate out how much was paid for the flight ticket versus the hotel – so it relies on the Special Fares chart to award EQDs and redeemable miles.

Here’s what the Special Fares chart looks like for 2019 (it went through some changes at year-end, so the 2018 chart was slightly different; most notably for our purposes, deep-discounted Q and O economy fares received 10% EQDs per mile flown and 50% award miles per mile flown, whereas now they only earn 5% and 25%, respectively):

AA Special Fares earning chart effective Jan 1, 2019

Regular EQD earning is calculated by the amount actually paid for your ticket, less taxes and government-imposed fees. But sometimes, the Special Fares chart will give us more EQDs than we’d receive through the normal calculation. If we can find a way to earn more EQDs for the same flight, we can (a) get to the elite status thresholds easier and more quickly; and (b) at the same time, move ourselves higher on the upgrade priority list.

A full “Special Fares” analysis is beyond the scope of this article, but we can cover a lot of ground in a quick summary:

  • Paid fare = Regular Earning
  • Buy with Amex MR = Regular Earning
  • Buy with Chase UR through new Expedia portal = Regular Earning
    • Note that Chase UR through the old portal usually = Special Fares (see several flights in my chart, such as 7/22 DFW-SEA)
  • Buy with Citi TYPs through ThankYou travel portal = Special Fares
    • However, we believe there are several exceptions (best-guess based on our experience; not 100% confirmed)
      • Exception: Basic Economy ticket = Regular Earning
      • Exception: Use SWU to upgrade = Regular Earning
      • Exception: Same-day flight change = Regular Earning
  • Flight as part of an AA Vacations Package = Special Fares
  • Flight as part of other “package” through a third-party OTA such as Upside, Expedia, etc. = Special Fares

We try to take advantage of the Special Fares chart when it will earn us more EQDs, which at this time generally means paying with Citi TYPs. For example:

  • My 7/22 DFW-SEA flights earned 81 extra EQDs with Special Fares
  • My 8/20 DFW-SEA flights earned 11 extra EQDs
  • My 9/23 DCA-SEA flight earned 31 extra EQDs
  • My 10/9 DFW-SEA flight earned 72 extra EQDs
  • My 12/11 DFW-SEA flight earned 55 extra EQDs

You could potentially see much larger differences on long-distance international flights; however, AA has eliminated a lot of these opportunities by decreasing the EQD earning for deep-discounted Q and O economy fares to 5%, as opposed to the 10% rate at which they’d earned EQDs in 2018.

8. Purchasing Premium Economy Seats, Even When You’re Trying to Upgrade with SWUs

Our next lesson and strategy relates to our DFW-London (LHR) tickets on 11/28. When we were looking to spend some time in Europe in late November/early December, we noticed that we could get Premium Economy (PE) tickets to LHR for only about $150 more than regular Economy tickets.

We were planning to try to use Systemwide Upgrades (SWUs) to move up to Business class for these flights (and the SWUs did ultimately clear). However, purchasing PE rather than Economy would do two important things for us:

  • One, PE earned us 1.5x EQMs, which resulted in us each earning 4,752 more EQMs than we would have earned by purchasing Economy (14,254 instead of 9,502), and those additional EQMs were necessary to push each of us above 100k EQMs for the year; and
  • Two, being in Premium Economy would be much more comfortable than regular Economy if our SWUs failed to clear.

For us, either of those two benefits alone would have been worth $150 given the importance of the extra EQMs toward qualifying for EXP. And in the meantime, we also earned a few extra EQDs to inch a little higher for upgrade priority purposes.

Purchasing Premium Economy seats to London (and then upgrading to Business with SWUs) helped us get the EQMs we needed to re-qualify for Executive Platinum!

9. If All Else Fails, Go on a Mileage Run

Finally, if you’re close enough to qualifying for EXP but need a few extra EQMs and/or EQDs, go on a mileage run. With a few weeks to go before the end of 2018, I knew that I’d still be a few miles short of the 100k EQMs that I needed to re-qualify. So, I plunked down about $250 (actually, used enough TYPs to get a ticket that would have cost about $250) and took a one-day mileage-run, round trip from SEA to PHX on December 12.

PHX seemed like a good choice for a mileage run as it was far enough away from Seattle to get me over 100k EQMs, it was unlikely to have bad weather that might cause flight delays, the fare was reasonable, and the timing of the flights was good.

In our next article in this series, we’ll review this mileage run trip, minute-by-minute, in Diary of a Mileage Run, 2018 Edition, Seattle-to-Phoenix and Back. For now, suffice to say that by the end of my mileage run day, I had earned 2,212 EQMs, plus 222 EQDs that would get me a little higher on the upgrade list. And from that point, re-qualifying for EXP was a done deal.

I made it!!!

We certainly spent some extra money to qualify for Executive Platinum. And I also certainly spent a fair bit of extra time strategizing and planning so we could make it (although that’s my job!). Is it all worth it for the extra EXP benefits? For us, the clear answer for 2018 was yes. But it’s a very valid question – one that we’ll explore more in a later article and that we re-examine every year.

Similarly, one could question our loyalty to AA, especially given some of AA’s current choices and operational challenges. Because we live in DFW, it would be very hard for us to switch. But for others in non-hub cities, it could be a much tougher choice to stay loyal to AA.

We hope this article gives you some ideas on strategies you might use to increase your own EQM and EQD earning to qualify for a higher level of elite status at AA – and hopefully, qualify for Executive Platinum status!

What are your thoughts about our lessons and strategies for EXP qualifying, EQM earning, and EQD earning on AA? Do you have other thoughts and strategies that have worked? Please share with us and other Middle Age Miles readers in the Comments!


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2 thoughts on “Lessons and Strategies from My 2018 Journey to AA Executive Platinum Status

  1. HS

    Congratulations on having made it for another year! It’s a great feeling. Also, lots of useful information here — the special fares section is worth the price of admission all by itself.

    I’ll be interested in your strategy going forward. For several years I was an Executive Platinum and really enjoyed it. In 2017, we (my wife and I) both made it — her all for so-called leisure travel. But last year we were “only” Exec Plat (me) and Plat (her), and as of today we’re down to Plat and Gold, respectively. In a nutshell, EQDs really took the pleasure of the hunt out of things. We used to just do a lot more “cheap” travel (to Florida, to Las Vegas, even to Europe in the winter for long weekends, buttressed by SWU upgrades) where the trick and fun was to find cheap flights and pile up EQMs. From our standpoint, it was a virtuous cycle, since being in F and J made the flying less painful (and sometimes even fun), all the flying got us EQMs and status, etc. I guess from AA’s perspective, this kind of cycle was something less than virtuous. Anyhow, EQDs and the complexity (and uncertainty) of the accounting were a real kick in the teeth, and as you well document in the “American Clamps Down on Executive Platinums,” they have tightened the clamps even further. Other screws are turning (soon no more access to Centurion Club on landing at LAS, for example), so we just aren’t flying as much. Knock on effects included my decision last Fall to jettison the Amex Business Plat, since that (35% MR rebate) pays off (as your spreadsheet attests) on volume ticket buying.

    I guess AA just wants us to pay for F and fly less, or sit in the back in the occasional middle seat. Right now the “sweet spot” for European trips seems to me to be Premium Economy (perhaps with paid upgrade on the overnight flights). But as I look back over spend for last year, the main beneficiary of AA’s tightening would seem to be Hyatt (at least until they decide to get rid of us point-bookers). We do more local and regional hotel stays, in some pretty nice rooms, and extended the length of our late Spring European trip to compensate for not doing as many long weekends.

    These are not the worst problems to have. Will be interested in how you resolve and rationalize your AA traveling this year.

    1. Craig Post author

      Hi HS – Thanks for the congrats and comment, and my apologies for the delayed response!

      Your stories are making me and everyone else long for the good ol’ days when we could qualify for AA status without having to worry about the EQDs/dollars. Philly and I had a lot less time for travel back then, so we’d generally end up at Platinum, or a couple of years, merely Gold. I understand your reduced flying these days. It makes perfect sense, and it’s very hard to make it to EXP if you’re paying for your own flights without any help from work travel.

      I’ll be sharing my going-forward strategy with AA in an article later this week. The combination of raising the EQD requirement to $15k and reducing the max EQDs from credit cards down to $3k makes things really tough for us, trying to get back to EXP. One thing that helps our personal situation a lot is that Philly has a lot of work travel to Seattle, and I have time and a bank of credit card points to come along with her – plus, we have a daughter in college at UW to visit.

      I do agree with you that PE for Euro trips is a sweet spot given the way AA is currently pricing it. It’s not always a bargain, but there are a lot of times PE is only $100-200 extra each way, which is well worth it. I wish that the AA PE cabins were larger so there would be more seats available there.

      More to come on strategy in my article later this week. Thanks again for your well-articulated and artful comments! ~Craig

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