American’s Distance Based OneWorld Explorer Awards

Early last year I wrote about the amazing value of American’s distance based OneWorld Explorer awards. This is the lesser-known American Airlines AAdvantage award chart where you’re not charged based on the regions you’re flying between, but rather on the total distance you’re flying.

Much has changed since then, especially in regards to the number of new OneWorld partners and routes, so I figured I’d make an updated post about OneWorld distance based awards.

The basic rules of a distance based award are as follows:

  1. You can only fly OneWorld airlines. American has several partner airlines that don’t belong to OneWorld, like Air Tahiti Nui, Etihad Airways, Alaska Airlines, etc. These can’t be included on a OneWorld distance based award.
  2. Travel has to be complete within a year of the date the ticket was issued. This means that if you issue your ticket on November 5, 2013, all segments on the itinerary need to be flown by November 5, 2014.
  3. You must fly at least two OneWorld airlines (other than American). In order to book a distance based award your itinerary has to include at least two different OneWorld airlines. For the purposes of airline classifications, Cathay Pacific and their affiliate Dragonair count as one airline.
  4. You can fly a maximum of 16 segments. You’re allowed one open jaw on a distance based award, and if you choose to have an open jaw then you can only have a total of 15 segments. A “direct” flight (meaning the same flight number with a stop, like Sydney > Los Angeles > New York on Qantas) would only count as one segment. Co-terminals wouldn’t count as an open jaw for the purpose either (in other words, flying into Tokyo Narita and out of Tokyo Haneda wouldn’t count as an open jaw for the Explorer award).
  5. You’re allowed one stopover and two connections per city. You can connect in a city twice and stop there once. That means you can potentially fly through the same city three times.
  6. You can originate and terminate the itinerary in different cities or countries. This is something I was confused about in the past, though as it turns out the itinerary doesn’t have to end in the same country travel started in. I’ll share some practical implications of that below.
  7. OneWorld distance based awards have to be booked by phone. While you can search award space online (and saver award space needs to be available in order to include the segment on a distance based award), the actual booking needs to be made by phone with AAdvantage.
  8. Once you issue the ticket you can’t make routing or airline changes. This is the biggest downside to distance based awards, really. Once the ticket is issued you can only change the dates and times of flights, but not the routing or airline. If you want to change the routing you’ll have to redeposit your award and start from scratch.
  9. Fuel surcharges are the same they would be on a partner award ticket. American only imposes fuel surcharges for award tickets on British Airways and Iberia. For British Airways they can be pretty hefty, upwards of $350 for a longhaul flight, while on Iberia they’re capped at under $50 for a longhaul flight, so not too bad.

Eligible OneWorld airlines:

Air Berlin, American, British Airways (including South African affiliate Comair), Cathay Pacific (including affiliate Dragonair), Finnair, Iberia, Japan Airlines, LAN, Malaysia Airlines, Qantas, Qatar Airways, Royal Jordanian, and S7.

OneWorld

OneWorld Explorer award chart:

American’s distance based award chart is priced by “Distance Zones”. Awards are available for economy class, business class, and first class, with nine different brackets ranging from 1,500 miles to 50,000 miles. You’re charged based on the cumulative distance of all your segments.American's distance based award chart

I tend to think zones 3-7 are the “sweet spots” on the chart, especially for business class. For that matter, I think you’re best off redeeming for business class on a distance based award in general.

  • First class cabins aren’t offered on a vast majority of OneWorld routes, so you’d be paying the first class price for the entire itinerary even though most segments would be in business class.
  • The premium for first class is rather steep. For example, on a Zone 6 award you would pay 130,000 miles in business class or 180,000 miles in first class. That’s a ~40% premium for first class, which is mildly outrageous.
  • To compare, a partner award between the US and Asia, would be 67,500 miles  for first class vs. 55,000 miles for business, which I find to be a more reasonable premium.

Examples of interesting OneWorld distance based awards:

Zone 3 — flying 4,001-9,000 miles (80,000 miles in business class)

Ordinarily American would charge 100,000 miles for roundtrip business class between the US and Europe, and you wouldn’t be allowed a stopover aside from your North American gateway city.

However, while keeping your itinerary under 9,000 miles, you could fly New York > Madrid > Barcelona > Paris > London > Dublin > London > New York, and stop in each city. Not only could you stop in each of those cities, but you’d save 20,000 miles.

AAdvantage-Explorer1

Zone 4 — flying 9,001-10,000 miles (90,000 miles in business class)

Rule #6 above notes you can originate and terminate travel in different countries. Ultimately I think the best use of a distance based award is for (mostly) roundtrip travel, but figured I’d give a theoretical example of what you could do to stretch out a one way routing.

  • Zone 4 on American’s distance based award chart covers travel of 9,001-10,000 miles and will run you 90,000 miles in business class.
  • For that amount you could fly Osaka > Tokyo > Seoul > Hong Kong > Bangkok > Kuala Lumpur > Singapore > Brisbane > Sydney > Auckland on Japan Airlines, Cathay Pacific, and Qantas.

That’s pretty tough to beat given you can stop at each city along the way!

AAdvantage-Explorer6

Zone 5 — flying 10,001-14,000 miles (115,000 miles in business class)

Ordinarily American would charge 135,000 miles for business class between the US and Middle East.

  • However, since the itinerary is under 14,000 miles, you could fly New York > Madrid > Doha > Abu Dhabi > Dusseldorf > New York on Iberia, Qatar Airways, and Air Berlin, all for 115,000 miles.
  • So not only can you visit four cities on one trip, but you save 20,000 miles over the normal cost for a business class redemption to the Middle East.

AAdvantage-Explorer2

Zone 6 — flying 14,001-20,000 miles (130,000 miles in business class)

As I said above, ordinarily you’d pay 135,000 miles for business class to India or the Middle East.

  • American charges 130,000 miles for business class for up to 20,000 miles of flying
  • At the Zone 6 price you could fly New York > London > Paris > Doha > Dubai > Doha > Delhi > Hong Kong > New York, on American, British Airways, Qatar Airways, Cathay Pacific, and Japan Airlines, with stops in each city.

AAdvantage-Explorer3

Zone 6 — flying 14,001-20,000 miles (130,000 miles in business class)

Taking a slightly different approach to the above, assume you want to go to the Maldives.

  • Again, you’d pay 135,000 miles for a business class award to the Middle East on the classic award chart
  • If you flew New York  > London on American, London > Doha on Qatar Airways, Doha > Male on Qatar Airways, Male > Hong Kong and Hong Kong > New York on Cathay Pacific, it would cost you just 130,000 miles in business class.

So not only do you save 5,000 miles but you have additional stops in London, Doha, and Hong Kong.

AAdvantage-Explorer5

Zone 6 — flying 14,001-20,000 miles (130,000 miles in business class)

While this itinerary is rather simple compared to the others, this is a good example of using the distance-based chart to get around limited availability and American’s routing restrictions.

  • If you can find direct award space direct between the US and Australia, business class will run you 125,000 miles.
  • For 5,000 additional miles you could do a distance based award for up to 20,000 miles of travel, like Los Angeles > Tokyo > Hong Kong > Melbourne > Sydney > Los Angeles on Japan Airlines, Cathay Pacific, and Qantas.

AAdvantage-Explorer4

Partner awards vs. distance based awards

While there’s obviously a ton of value to American’s distance based awards, it’s worthwhile to compare them to American’s partner awards again, as each has different benefits.

As I mentioned at the beginning, American’s distance based awards are charged solely based on the number of miles flown with very limited routing rules, while American’s partner awards are charged based on the regions you’re flying between.

  • With partner awards you can make date, flight, and routing changes for free.
  • You can even pay a fee and change the origin or destination without having to redeposit the award.
  • With distance based awards, on the other hand, you can only change the date or time of your flight, and can’t even pay a fee to change the routing or origin/destination once your reservation is ticketed.

Furthermore, with partner awards you can often include a “free” one-way on an itinerary.

  • On a partner award you’re always allowed a stopover at your North American transoceanic gateway city.
  • There are some restrictions in terms of the routing, but generally this means if you’re booking London > Los Angeles you can include a Los Angeles > Hawaii flight on the itinerary at no extra cost for travel on a later date.

With distance based awards, on the other hand, you can have an unlimited number of stopovers (well, as many as the 16 segments you can fly will allow).

Distance based awards really are the hidden gem on American’s award chart, and for that matter one of the best award redemption values in the industry, in my opinion.

Comments

  1. Lucky,
    How easy or difficult will it be to book premium class on Qantas using AA miles? I am thinking of JFK -(AA)- LAX -(Qantas)- SYD -(Cathay)- HKG -(Cathay)- LHR -(BA)- JFK route.

  2. Are their good distance based redemptions to Caribbean?
    How do I check availability for flights using distance based awards?

  3. Thanks for illustrating a routing from LAX. I’ve found these to be far more useful from the east coast than the west coast, but not always.

    One tip, try to never book connections, book them as separate flights. For example, if you wanted to go from Lisbon to Venice, you can go via Madrid on IB. If you book at as 2 segments, LIS-MAD and MAD-VCE, you can turn it into a layover later on. If you don’t set it up right and book it as a connection, you will have to pay a fee to turn it into a layover at MAD.

    On your illustration from LAX, is there decent availabilty on QF in business? The route you illustrate could theoretically be done in F all the way, and I’d think it’s worth it if I could get CX and QF F.

  4. Please help me clarifying rule number 5: can I do: PHX-SJD -4 day stop -PHX- 3month stop-LAX-HKG-HKT-4 day stop-HKG-LAX-PHX?

    USAir flies PHX-SJD so we’ll just assume they’re in OW for this hypothetical.

  5. This is not new but def valuable post to direct people’s attention to once in every while. Now if only Chase would ever partner with AA and US air…I’ll be golden. In my opinion, AA and US Air charts have really amazing sweet spots, but their miles are harder to earn than United…

  6. Took that award to get from Rome-Bangkok-New Zealand-US. Awesome.

    Wish AA had better/more ways to get to Europe.

  7. @ Dave Op — Qantas business class award space can be really tough to snag, though if you’re planning far in advance isn’t impossible. If you’re just looking for it in one direction between the US and Australia I think it’s perfectly realistic.

  8. @ korrinda — Well since the awards are distance based it all depends on where you’re originating. You can enter the route you’d fly on gcmap.com to see how many miles it would be, and based on that you can look at the award chart and see whether it’s a deal or not.

    You can search award space on American’s website, or alternatively for the partners they don’t display you can search it on British Airways’ and Qantas’ website.

  9. @ beachfan — Qantas is okay about releasing business class award space in advance, though first class award space between the US and Australia is REALLY tough to come by, so I probably wouldn’t count on that unless you’re flexible by months at a time.

  10. @ Jon — You’re not allowed to stopover in your originating city, though you can connect through it. So stopping in Phoenix when you’re originating there wouldn’t be allowed.

  11. @ Z — Since you’re allowed an open jaw, yes, you can absolutely start in one city and end in another city on the other side of the globe if you’d like, like the zone 4 example above.

  12. Thanks for a great summary! Though I think it is misleading to say “this means if you’re booking London > Los Angeles you can later add on a Los Angeles > Hawaii flight at no extra cost”. Changing the origin or destination airport incurs a fee, at least for non elite members which is most people.

  13. @ Andy — Whoops, you’re right, I didn’t phrase that clearly. Was trying to say you can include that segment for travel on a later date, and didn’t mean to say you can add it at a later date. Updated the statement to make it more accurate.

  14. Great post. Almost makes me hope the merger goes through so I can use my US Airways miles for this. Almost.

  15. I planned a distance based award in 1st DCA-ORD-SFO-HKG(CX)-SIN(CX)-CPT(via HKG/JNB CX then JBN-CPT(BA)-LHR(BA)-DFW(AA77W)-DCA Total of 32,116 miles, BUT AA Agent checked & ticketed as partner award for only 230K Miles. I ended up making changes to 3 segments @ no cost & saved 50K miles. all in 7 days and had a Grand time!! so check around YMMV

  16. I’ve flown these awards a handful of times- usually book 6-8 months in advance. Every single ticket has had at least one schedule change (big surprise, I know with 12-16 segments) and the agents have always let me change my routing. And I’m talking about MAJOR routing changes for flight changes that were only by a few minutes… They do redeposit and pull the miles again (without a charge) but they are able to keep whatever segments you want from the original ticket. So now I’m not too worried about being locked into the routing as there are usually always schedule changes…

  17. Lucky, How does AA determine the mileage? If I use gcmap and use 19,900 of the allowed 20k miles, will AA come up with the same distance or is it possible for theirs to total more.
    Thanks for the useful info.

  18. @ Dennis — It shouldn’t differ by more than a few miles from what gcmap.com shows, so if you’re at 19,900 miles you should be fine.

  19. Great post Lucky. Couple clarifications please – I know it’s tough to get this all down since AA is very coy about publishing rules.

    1. You said you can connect thru originating city, is that right? I’ve seen conflicting info on other FAQs and have avoided it when redeeming in the past.
    2. I believe having different origination and destination cities counts as an open jaw, but I thought it does not count as a segment, theoretically allowing one to have 16 segments and an open jaw on the front/back.
    3. Do you have any experience testing the two connections and a stopover rule when the “stopover” is less than 24 hours? The original rules cited 6+ hours as a stopover, but I know other awards generally consider 24+ on intl to be a stopover.

  20. @ RingRunner — That’s correct, you can connect through the city you’re originating in, you just can’t have a stopover there.

    My understanding is that the open jaw counts as a segment and limits you to 15, but I certainly could be wrong.

    Not sure about the last question. My guess is that if it’s an international city anything under 24 hours wouldn’t count as a stopover despite what has been written in the past.

  21. @ Tyson — Whoops, was looking at a Vueling/Iberia flight, though I guess they’re technically not part of OneWorld. My mistake!

  22. Hi Lucky:

    I am new and I am learning this bit by bit.
    Is there “saver” miles for this miles based travel? If it is strickly miles based, how does availability work(any restrictions)?
    Thanks for helping.

  23. @ Marie — Yes, there has to be saver award space in order to be able to include the flight on a distance based award. So award availability is the same as it would be for a normal partner award.

  24. Thank you Lucky for clarifying this.
    So if this is based on saver miles, is there “anytime” distance travel that requires more miles.
    Thank you.

  25. If you have a layover of less than 24 hours (such as LAX-NRT-HKG hypothetically), then would that particular trip count as 1 segment or 2 segments toward that distance based award?

  26. @ Brandon — That would count as two segments. Each flight counts as one segment. The only exception is when a flight is marketed as a “direct” flight, where it’s the same flight number the whole way through and continues on right away.

  27. Thank you for writing an updated post! Are you using JFK in your example because it offers best values/OW airline choices or can some good European or Asian trips be booked out of Houston?

  28. If I want to book F class one way that will max out at 20k miles. Will I have to pay the full 180k AA miles or half?

  29. Is it possible to use zone 3 to fly to Easter island, other cities doesn’t matter, can be any in north or south America

  30. Hi,

    Just wondering if the following routing is OK for explorer award ?

    BOS->ORD->DOH->GOI…BOM->PVG->LAX->BOS

    I think this is around 20K miles..

    Please advise…F.A.

  31. @ Andy — The routing is fine, though there’s not a OneWorld airline that flies nonstop from Mumbai to Shanghai, so you’d have to make an additional connection there. Otherwise looks good.

  32. Hey Ben – I just wanter to clarify…can I begin a Oneworld Explorer award in Australia, and end in the U.S.?

  33. Hi Lucky,

    I am planning a RTW trip for early 2015 and this posting is very helpful – thank you very much for taking the time.

    One question: Where do I find the OneWorld Explorer Awards terms and conditions? I am assuming it is not the same as the normal OneWorld Explorer terms and conditions here:

    http://www.oneworld.com/flights/round-the-world-fares/oneworld-explorer

    Is that true? Or am I also required to meet the restrictions such as:
    -“you must travel from continent to continent in a continuous westward or eastward direction, crossing the Atlantic and Pacific oceans once only”
    -“A minimum of three oneworld continents must be included in your oneworld Explorer fare, or four from the Southern Hemisphere and Africa where three-continent itineraries are unavailable.”
    -etc

    Thanks,
    Zach

  34. @ Zach — Nope, those are different rules for revenue RTW tickets. I don’t believe American actually officially publishes the terms of them online, unfortunately.

  35. If I have a trip that is just into the next award level, can I “extend” my trip Stateside by adding a sector out from Miami to Sea and back? I fly out of Orlando to start the trip and land back in Miami…

  36. @ Brian — Once you ticket the reservation you can’t change the routing anymore, so assuming you’re ticketed that’s not an option anymore. Sorry!

  37. Hi Lucky,

    I think I am about going for it and start to chase AAdvantage miles like crazy for my future RTW trip with my wife (use of full 16 stops, only 1 stop in central europe and take the rail everywhere, total of 6 months or so, probably in Zone 8 or 9).

    I didn’t think this “trip of a lifetime” would ever be affordable because of the cost of airfare, but with this OneWorld Explorer Awards, it seems totally feasible (and kind of unbelievable). $20-30k in airfare reduced to mere pennies in fuel surcharges and credit card annual fees.

    Before I dive headlong in mile chasing, I want your advice. Am I missing something? Are there hidden fees that I should be looking out for? Also, is there any other program I should look into for a trip like this or is OneWorld Explorer Awards undoubtably the way to go?

    Thanks a ton for your great advice.

    Regards,
    Zach

  38. I am in the same boat as Zach, but I am concerned that the US Airways/AA merger will mess up the oneworld explorer awards, do you see this happening Lucky?

  39. Hi Lucky,

    I am not familiar with One World partners and would very much appreciate your help. Do you have any suggestions for routing without going through LHR if flying out of SFO to go to MAD, BCN and FLR (about 3 nights each) to keep to zone 5 under 14,000 miles. Do you think there would be availability departing as early as March 15 or as late as March 21 or 22nd? I’m looking at SFO-JFK-MAD-BCN-FLR-FRA-JFK-SFO which is about 13,861 but wondering if there’s a better route? Also would appreciate if you can share the best flights, for example from SFO-JFK, best flight seems to be flight AA16 or AA18 on the 32B aircraft but have not had a chance to see how the flight time plays out for the next leg without an overnight in NY. Looking to cram a much needed vacation(10-15 days) in and be back by April 3. Any assistance would be much appreciated. Thanks!

  40. @ Zach — Nope, you’re not missing anything, it’s an amazing award. I think the question after the merger is whether they’ll continue to offer it, and if they do, whether they’ll devalue the award at some point. No way to know that, unfortunately, but it’s a great deal as of now with very few “strings” attached.

  41. @ Brian — It’s anyone’s guess, really. While these are an amazing value, my guess is that they represent a TINY percentage of AAdvantage award redemptions (I’d be surprised if they represented even 0.1% of redemptions). This could mean a couple of things:
    1) They won’t devalue them, since they’re not used much.
    2) They’ll just eliminate them, since there’s a cost to maintaining the option in terms of training agents, etc.

    Certainly hope it’s not the latter…

  42. @ sf94107 — Sounds like you’re on the right general track. There’s not a OneWorld airline flying nonstop from Frankfurt to New York, but other than that looks good to me. Transatlantic you’ll want to focus on Iberia or Air Berlin, both of which have fairly good availability and won’t cost a thousand dollars in fuel surcharges to book.

    Good luck!

  43. I have a question about the stopover rules. Is it permissible to stopover in the origin city? For example, if we call the origin city A, could I fly A-B-C-A-D-E-A?

  44. Thanks Ben. What if I wanted to connect (but not stopover) through the origin city? Is that allowed?

  45. It is possible to upgrade the class later on from economy to business if the entire ticket is booked as business?

  46. Lucky, I see that in the answer to a comment above you said connecting through the departure city is allowed. I just tried to build such a connection into an explorer itinerary I’m working on, but the agent said neither stopovers nor connections in the departure city are allowed. Is she definitely wrong about connections? Or is this a case of YMMV/some people have managed connections by finding a less strict agent?

  47. Hi Ben –

    I know we’re required to use two carriers, other than AA. Now that JJ has joined oneworld, would it be considered a separate carrier from LA, or would they both be considered one carrier for the purpose of this award.

    Thanks,
    Tom

  48. So this is dead now right? If so, that’s a real bummer because I just took out 2 credit cards to bump me up into a different Distance Zone. I guess you win some you lose some.

  49. Lucky, have you ever had luck petitioning airline changes? I would like to ask American Airlines, “Will you please bring back OneWorld Explorer Awards for a few months so your loyal AAdvantage members can book the trips they have been saving miles for for so long? This was taken away with no advanced notice. If it truly was cancelled because so few people use it, it shouldn’t be that big of a deal to open it back up for a few months so that us who did not receive notice can book these trips?”

  50. Have you considered editing a bit of text into the beginning of posts like this saying that the thing is dead? Save people some trouble when they wander in here from elsewhere.

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