Unfortunately, while American Airlines miles themselves are incredibly valuable for getting free flights, American Airlines makes it very hard to redeem them online through their search engine, unless you only care about using them for domestic flights (not a very good use, in my opinion).
If you are just using them for domestic flights however, it’s pretty easy. Go to aa.com, and select “Redeem Miles”:
Click on “Show Full Calendar”, and you’ll then get something that looks like this. Just as United has Saver and Standard awards, American Airlines has MileSAAver and AAnytime awards. You want MileSAAver, as AAnytime is generally not a good use of your miles. If this is selected, you can then see which dates have saver availability, and how much it costs to book them. Fairly straightforward.
The problem with American Airlines’ award search engine
The reason the American Airlines online award search engine is limited is because it only shows award availability for five other airlines in the Oneworld alliance: British Airways, Royal Jordanian, Qantas, Finnair, and Airberlin, despite there being 15 airlines in the Oneworld Alliance. (It also shows results for Alaska Airlines and Hawaiian Airlines, whom it partners with).
For example, if I try to do a search for San Francisco to Hong Kong, it shows there are no awards available at the saver level, and the cheapeast award would use 65,000 miles all on American Airlines, and route me through Chicago and Dallas to get to Hong Kong from San Francisco. It doesn’t take a geography expert to know that this is a bit of an absurd routing. This is because it’s not searching most of the Oneworld airlines, including Cathay Pacific, the flag carrier of Hong Kong, and one of seven five-star airlines in the world.
Instead, if you try searching for this award on the British Airways online award search engine, you’ll find that there is indeed a nonstop flight from San Francisco to Hong Kong on Cathay Pacific. Once you have that information, you can then call up American Airlines to book that award (for 32,500 miles, not 65,000 miles). You will need to create a frequent flyer account with British Airways to search for award availability.
In short, if you’re looking to book an international award flight on American Airlines, unless you’re planning on flying American the whole way, you should search on British Airways.
Another thing to remember
While it is not part of the Oneworld alliance, American also partners with Etihad Airways, the flag carrier of the United Arab Emirates, which is headquartered in Abu Dhabi. This is a very nice airline which can be useful if you want to use your American Airlines miles to fly to the Middle East or Indian subcontinent (American’s award rules state that you may not transit a third region on an award flight, so if you fly to Abu Dhabi on Etihad from the US using an American award, you can’t continue on to another region).
For example, if I wanted to use my American Airlines miles to fly from New York to Tehran, searching on aa.com yields no results:
Given that none of the airlines that aa.com searches have flights to Tehran, this is completely unsurprising. However, if I do the same search on the Etihad award search engine, it yields several results in “Guest Economy” (there must be results in Guest Economy to be bookable with American Airlines miles). From there, you can call up American Airlines and book that flight.
Unfortunately, if you want to fly from a city that Etihad doesn’t serve (right now the only US cities are New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Dallas), you’ll need to first search on aa.com for award flights from your city to that city.
The bottom line: Don’t give up on your American Airlines miles because you can’t find awards on aa.com. If you use them right, they can be very valuable.
Still confused? Feel free to e-mail me or post in the comments below.