This article is Part 4 in what’s now a 5-part series we’re running on Middle Age Miles 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
* 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
For the past couple of weeks, Middle Age Miles has been publishing a series of articles about elite status on American Airlines in general, and Executive Platinum (EXP) status in particular.
We’d planned for our final article to be about Our Plans and Strategies for AA Elite Status in 2019. In preparing for that article, though, we realized that one particular ticket purchase deserved a post of its own. The strategies that we employed in deciding to purchase these tickets were so powerful – both in terms of savings and in terms of earning Elite Qualifying Miles (EQMs) and Elite Qualifying Dollars (EQDs) – that we didn’t want this to get lost in the shuffle of a longer article that also covered other topics.
We used two key techniques from our bag of tricks to achieve massive savings and earn big EQMs and EQDs:
- Purchase tickets originating in Europe to save money (we recently wrote an entire article about this – How to Use Flight Tickets Originating in Europe to Save Money on Your Travels); and
- Purchase paid business class fares with AA partners to earn huge EQMs and EQDs.
As you’ll see below, the combination of these two tricks was remarkable.
We also used some other tricks and benefits to help us with this strategy – in particular, (a) using AA miles to purchase a one-way to get to Europe to begin with, and (b) using our EXP benefit that allows us to freely cancel AA award flights and get a full refund of all miles and fees. But in this article, we’ll focus on how we purchased paid business class tickets originating in Europe for great savings and EQM/EQD earning (which we hope will propel us to re-qualifying for EXP status again in 2019!).
During the fall of 2018, we began planning two trips to Europe during 2019:
- A trip in April to Italy with Middle Age Miles son Dylan and his fiancee, and
- A trip in July to Switzerland with Middle Age Miles son Zack and his wife.
By the end of the year, we were ready to lock in both trips.
Having these two European trips come together at roughly the same time set my travel planning and strategic wheels spinning. How could we get the most value for our travel dollar (and miles) for our flights, considering four important factors:
- Our preferred travel dates and flights (Philly and the kids would be limited on when they could travel and for how long, so we didn’t have a lot of flexibility on dates);
- Price; and
- Earning EQMs/EQDs to help us with elite status on AA (hopefully ultimately re-qualifying for EXP in 2019)
As a starting point, we took advantage of our AA mileage balances and our valuable EXP benefit of being able to make and cancel AA award flights for free. Right off the bat, we reserved one-way AA business class award tickets from DFW to Zurich (ZRH) and back, on our preferred dates and flights. These were Anytime tickets, so the mileage costs were high – 110,000 AA miles each for the DFW-ZRH leg, and 135,000 AA miles each for the ZRH-DFW return.
But (a) these costs weren’t terrible, compared to what purchased business class tickets would cost; (b) they would be very comfortable in business class; (c) they were very convenient, on our preferred dates and flights; and (d) they left us with total flexibility since we could cancel them and get all of our miles and fees back, while providing us with a complete “safety net” in case any other ticket purchasing efforts failed.
Shortly thereafter, we also found Saver-level business class tickets one-way from DFW to Rome (FCO), one day before our preferred travel date. These were one-stop through Philadelphia (PHL) rather than on the non-stop between DFW and FCO. But we could be flexible about moving our travel by one day, and to get two Saver-level business class tickets to Europe on AA metal? Yes! We booked these tickets in a heartbeat – 57,500 miles and $5.60 each.
Saving Money by Originating in Europe
For our two trips to Europe, if we purchased paid fares originating at DFW (a high-priced hub city for AA, of course), we were looking at something like this:
- April round trip DFW-FCO:
- Economy fare – $1,575
- Business fare – $6,300
- July round trip DFW-ZRH:
- Economy fare – $1,600
- Business fare – $5,500
However, if we purchased a round-trip AA ticket originating in Europe – first leg FCO-to-DFW in April, and second leg DFW-to-ZRH in July, paid fares were much lower:
- Economy fare – $1,100
- Business fare – $2,800
[Two Notes: One, we obviously searched and purchased our tickets during a fare sale on Business Class tickets. The same Business fare today would be about $4,500. Two, we also checked Premium Economy fares, and they presented good options (especially on the second DFW-ZRH leg on which PE was only about $100-150 more than Economy). We’re going to ignore PE fares to streamline this discussion, but note that using PE tickets can be an integral strategic part of attaining elite status as well as traveling more comfortably.]
If we purchased the Economy fare, we would each use a Systemwide Upgrade (SWU) to try to upgrade into Business class on our transatlantic flights. My educated guess was that our upgrades would probably clear on the transatlantic leg of the DFW-ZRH trip, but our chances of clearing would be no better than 50-50 on the FCO-DFW flight.
The next thing we noticed is that a mixed-cabin AA ticket originating in Europe presented a very attractive option. We could book Economy from FCO-DFW and then Business Class DFW-ZRH (one-stop through Madrid (MAD)) for just $1,600. [Again, remember that we must have caught a great fare sale on the DFW-ZRH leg for Business Class on that leg to cost only $400 more than Economy.] Note that this price is the same as a round-trip all-Economy ticket for either trip, if we originated in DFW.
At this point, it’s quite clear that we can obtain substantial savings by originating in Europe, compared to booking round trip tickets originating in DFW. Step 1, saving money by originating in Europe – Complete.
Choosing Our Ticketed Class Wisely
At this point, having looked only at AA flights originating in Europe, here were our options for purchasing a paid fare through AA, complete with all EQM, EQD, and Redeemable Miles earning:
Sizing up these options, purchasing the AA Mixed Cabin ticket seems like a clear winner.
For only $500 more than an Economy ticket, we can
- (a) earn about 5,700 extra EQMs;
- (b) earn 500 extra EQDs; and
- (c) earn $69 worth of Redeemable AA Miles.
In addition, we will:
- (d) save one SWU for later use (we’ve previously valued an SWU as being worth about $450);
- (e) guarantee business class for both segments of our DFW-to-ZRH flights (an SWU would get us upgraded on the DFW-MAD (or LHR) leg, but not from MAD-ZRH on Iberia (or LHR-ZRH on British Air));
- (f) earn an extra 2,500 Amex Membership Rewards points (worth about $37.50) if we use our Amex Personal Platinum card to pay; and
- (g) earn an extra 100 AA Business Extra points (worth about $10 at 10 cents per point).
Using a Business Class Partner Ticket to Super-Size Our EQMs and EQDs (and save money compared to buying Biz Class from AA!)
Now, it’s time to pull out the next thing from our bag of travel-planning tricks – using a Business Class ticket on a partner airline to super-size our EQM- and EQD-earning – and hopefully to also save money compared to buying Business Class from AA!
For this part of our strategy, we considered three options – British Airways, Finnair, and Iberia (the three major European-based OneWorld carriers). We eliminated Finnair and Iberia quickly for various reasons, leaving us with British Air (BA).
If we purchase a paid fare on BA, we can earn EQMs, EQDs and redeemable AA miles according to the AA Partner Earning Chart for BA (we’ll also earn points in the Business Extra program). Let’s take a look at the Chart:
Discounted Business Class fares on BA will earn:
- 2.0 EQMs per mile flown;
- 25% of miles flown as EQDs; and
- Redeemable AA Miles at 100% of miles flown, plus a 25% cabin bonus, plus a 120% bonus for us as existing EXPs
And, to top it off, in this case the round-trip Business Class fare on BA is only $2,250 – $550 less than if we purchased a Business Class fare on AA!
[Note here that it’s not quite apples-to-apples, but it’s close: One, flight times are slightly different when flying BA instead of AA, but the difference is immaterial. Two, we’ll have a BA Business Class seat instead of AA, which cuts both ways – the AA seats are nicer, but the BA center rear-facing seats are better for couples traveling together.]
Let’s insert the BA Business Class fare into our earlier chart, so we can clearly see how it stacks up:
Compared to our AA Mixed Cabin ticket, we’ll be paying an extra $650 each for the round-trip Business Class ticket on BA. But think about how much extra value we’re going to get for our $650, especially in terms of earning more EQMs and especially EQDs, to help us with AA elite qualifying! We’ll:
- (a) earn 5,614 more EQMs;
- (b) earn 1,350 more EQDs (!!!);
- (c) earn 11,460 more Redeemable AA miles (worth about $143);
- (d) save ourselves 1 SWU to use for other travel (we’ve estimated an SWU as being worth about $450);
- (e) guarantee our business class seat on the FCO-DFW leg (we’d previously estimated our chances of SWUs clearing at 50-50 at best on this flight);
- (f) earn 3,250 more Amex MR points if we pay with our Personal Platinum card (worth about $49); and
- (g) earn 130 more Business Extra points (worth about $13).
(Or, if you look at it the other way, by purchasing BA Business instead of AA Business, you save $550 while earning the same EQMs, 150 more EQDs, and a few less Redeemable Miles, MR points, and Biz Extra points.)
[Also, note that we have assumed that we’re paying with an Amex Personal Platinum card throughout this analysis. This card has best-in-class points earning of 5x MR on airfare, although some people might choose the Citi Prestige or Chase Sapphire Reserve for good points-earning plus better travel protections. In addition, at the time we bought these tickets, we were using this purchase to finish meeting our minimum spend on a new Platinum card. In the ordinary course, we might try to “purchase” these tickets with Amex/Chase/Citi points, if our balances supported it.]
It’s an absolute no-brainer to purchase the BA ticket in this instance, at least if the EQMs and EQDs have any value to you. Setting aside the EQMs/EQDs for a moment, the other things you get are roughly worth the same as the extra $650 you paid:
- $143 Redeemable AA Miles + $450 SWU-or-Biz Class seat + $49 MR points + $13 Biz Extra points = $655
Plus, you’re making a huge dent in reaching a higher level of elite status with AA. For us, the extra 5,600 EQMs are about the same as two round-trip economy trips from DFW to New York or San Francisco.
And the extra 1,350 EQDs – wow, those are huge for us, and for anyone else looking to earn elite status on AA (especially EXP with the new $15,000 EQD requirement). Given that our normal flying would put us somewhat short of reaching the $15,000 EQD threshold to re-qualify for EXP, this extra EQD earning equates to about $1,500 that we won’t have to spend on airfare in order to re-qualify! (Remember that because taxes don’t count toward EQDs, you always pay more in airfare than you receive in EQDs.)
In sum, we feel like we used our bag of travel planning tricks well here to get tickets that are perfect for our needs and desires, while making a ton of progress toward re-qualifying for EXP status in 2019. The 22,704 EQMs we’ll earn are 22.7% of what we’ll need for EXP. And the 2,825 EQDs will get us 18.8% of the way to the increased $15,000 EQD threshold, which is the piece that’s going to give us the most trouble in re-qualifying.
And importantly, we hope that we’ve given you some ideas that will be helpful in your own trip planning and elite qualification strategy!
Have you used any of these strategies before to save money and/or earn more EQMs and EQDs for elite status qualification? What can you add to our analysis? Please share with us and other Middle Age Miles readers in the Comments!
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