Introduction and Background
Ever since gift cards stopped working to redeem Amex airline fee credits in early 2019, it’s become much tougher to redeem the credits. This is especially true for people who mostly fly on American Airlines, as so many of the “incidental” charges that would qualify for the credits (such as seat selection and checked bag fees) are complimentary for those with elite status.
We wondered whether AA’s coronavirus-related “no change fee” policy would create opportunities to use Amex airline fee credits and then have those funds become generally available for later travel on AA. Greg at Frequent Miler must have been thinking the same, as he posted this very good and thoughtful article yesterday:
- Frequent Miler: Spending airline fee credits during COVID lockdowns (May 25, 2020) (scroll down to the section with the heading, “Buy airline credits, indirectly, instead of gift cards”)
The basic idea here would be: Purchase a cheap fare along with a lot of extras that would generate add-on “incidental” fees. Wait for Amex to apply airline fee credits to your incidental fees. Then cancel your original ticket. The thought was that canceling the ticket would result in the entire payment – including both the fare and the incidental fees – being available as airline fee credit for later use under an airline’s “no change fee” policies.
The rest of this article relates solely to AA. It may be possible for the strategy that Greg outlined to work with other airlines. But based on our research and some digging, we don’t think it will work with AA.
We’re happy to be corrected if others have contrary data points!
In terms of add-ons that would generate incidental fees that would qualify for the Amex airline fee credits, we considered three main options – seat selection fees, checked bag fees, and pet fees. We’ll take them in reverse order.
First, as best we can tell, right now AA is not allowing prepayment for pet fees. That quickly eliminates one option.
Second, AA only allows online advance payment of checked bag fees when you check in online, within 24 hours of departure. That makes bag fees extremely difficult and perhaps impossible as a practical matter to use in the manner we’re contemplating.
That leaves seat selection fees. AA now allows customers to purchase seat assignments as early as the time of booking, even on Basic Economy fares. Given that, we thought seat selection fees might be a promising avenue for this idea. One potential complication, though, is that AA charges fares and seat assignment fees separately. The seat assignment fees are actually given a separate “ticket number” from the ticket for the flights on which the seats are assigned. That would mean that in the event of a cancellation, there would be not 1 but 2 “tickets” (or “credits” if you will) that would have to be dealt with and used later.
Our Questions and AA’s Twitter Response
Given these rules, our thought was this: What if we booked some random flights that included paid-for seat selections and paid with our Amex card, got the Amex airline fee credit for the seat selections, and then canceled the flights for AA credit. Hopefully the seat selection fees would become AA credit. If the fees were simply refunded to our payment card, that would make the exercise useless as Amex would claw back the credits (or worse, Amex wouldn’t replenish the credits, meaning that we would have wasted them; or even worse than that, Amex might flag our account for review or even shut us down). But if the fees simply became generally-usable AA credit available to pay for future fares, Amex would never know this and we would have successfully captured our credits in a useful way (as long as we could use the funds by the end of 2021).
The idea would be to purchase tickets that require the least amount of cash in order to fully or nearly exhaust the airline fee credit on any particular Amex card. For example, we found a $150 Basic Economy fare round-trip PHX-LAX, 1-stop each way, that would allow the purchase of $250+ in seats. That would use the full airline fee credit for an Amex Hilton Aspire card, for instance.
The biggest downside would be that we’d have to shell out some money for the actual tickets, which then would become tied up in AA credit, not to mention only being good through 12/31/2021. We would have been willing to live with that downside in order to capture useful value from the credits.
Unfortunately, after a lot of time reading and re-reading the AA website as well as reading through FlyerTalk threads, we were left with many unanswered questions about how AA’s “no change fee” policies would work in practice – and these questions would be important to our planning. Thus, this morning we prepared a Twitter DM to @AmericanAir asking for help.
Here is our DM to AA, which includes our critical questions:
Hi @AmericanAir – I appreciate your Covid-19 flexible policies. I’m considering booking some travel before the 5/31 cutoff, but I have some questions about how things work. I’ve read the policies online but haven’t been able to find the answers. I’ve condensed this into 3 questions below. Can you please help me understand?
1. Can funds from multiple tickets be combined? For example, suppose I book round-trip tickets DFW-LAX for $400 and DFW-DEN for $300. Can I cancel both of these tickets and use the ticket value for a new round-trip DFW-HNL for $700?
2. How do change fees work if I pay for seat assignments – and in particular, can I use a previous payment for a seat assignment on a subsequent fare where I do not buy a seat assignment? For example, suppose I book at round-trip ticket DFW-DEN for $300 and pay an additional $100 for seat assignments. Can I use all of these funds together to purchase a round-trip ticket DFW-LAX for $400 (with no seat assignments)?
3. If I book a Basic Economy ticket now, can I later change to a Main Cabin or First Class ticket? For example, can I book a $300 round-trip Basic Economy fare DFW-DEN now and later change that trip to a DFW-LAX First Class for $800, where I could use the $300 DFW-DEN B fare plus a $500 additional cash payment?
Many thanks for your time and help with these questions. ~Charles Tadlock
To their credit, the AA Twitter team provided a timely and informative response about 3 hours later:
Great questions, Charles!  You are able to combine funds from multiple tickets.  If you purchase seat assignments and then cancel your trip, you can have your seat charges refunded and purchase new seats on your next booking.  If you purchase a Basic Economy fare, it will need to be exchanged to another Basic Economy fare. Please let us know if you have any more questions.
These are very helpful answers that aren’t necessarily clear from reading the AA website. We have a few observations about AA’s responses:
1 – The ability to combine funds from multiple tickets into a single ticket for later travel is very good news in general.
2 – Issuing a refund of seat selection fees instead of converting them to AA credit is a customer-friendly policy. However, it pretty much kills the hope of converting Amex airline fee credits into generally-usable AA funds. As we mentioned earlier, Amex is almost certain to claw back the credit on fees that are refunded. Amex is very good at connecting refunds to past charges and credits.[That said, we wonder aloud whether this strategy might still work for the airline fee credit on the Chase Ritz-Carlton card. Chase’s process for issuing the credits is quite different from Amex’s, and it’s not clear that they have an automated system like Amex to marry refunded charges to previously-issued credits.]
3 – AA’s response about only being able to exchange Basic Economy fare for another Basic Economy tickets is unfortunate. This surely limits flexibility upon re-booking. However, we’re not sure that the statement from the AA Twitter team is universally true. If you read this AA SalesLink Bulletin (Coronavirus Global Flexibility Waiver – Update 4), you’ll see that if you change to a flight where no Basic Economy fare is available, then you can use the credit for a different fare class.
Given the answer to #2, this exception doesn’t help us with using Amex airline fee credits. But the exception is a helpful tidbit of information to have in mind if you find yourself needing to change flights that were originally booked as Basic Economy.
Assuming that the answers provided by the AA Twitter team are correct, it looks to us like the AA “no change fee” policy will not work to indirectly convert Amex airline fee credits into general AA credit.
We’re certainly all-ears for data points that are contrary to this conclusion that might provide a window that would help use the Amex credits.
In addition, we certainly learned a few things during our research that shed greater light on what’s possible (and not possible) under AA’s “no change fee” policy. For the most part, AA’s procedures are fairly customer-friendly.
We’d also note that different airlines have dramatically different procedures. It’s entirely possible that the strategy we were testing might actually work on Alaska, Delta, Southwest, United, or another airline.
We certainly hope that this information is helpful to Middle Age Miles readers, with just a few days remaining until AA’s “no change fee” policy expires on May 31!
Do you have any relevant data points or other insights on the issues and strategies discussed in this article? Please let us know and share with other Middle Age Miles readers in the Comments!
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