Once upon a time, my Citi AAdvantage card was my favorite travel accessory. I was living in DC and flying home constantly to Miami, sometimes for free, because I had accrued so many miles just going about my life.
Living between two American Airlines hubs, the AAdvantage program was the best. But over time, it stopped being so awesome. The flights available at lowest possible award tier became a nightmare. It used to be, you could find one or two good direct fares if you booked early enough. But eventually, to not empty your mileage balance, the only way to get from DC to Miami became to connect in Cleveland for 8 hours.
Right around this time, I started traveling internationally a lot more. In an attempt to save money, I was always looking out for award tickets with American Airlines partners that I could use to get over the Atlantic. But when it comes to international travel, these free flights are truly the worst. Here is why.
AAdvantage free flights are not really free
With most reward mileage cards, you get a mile per dollar spent. So to get a free round trip flight with AA, you have to have spent at least $45,000 on your credit card or clocked a whole lot of hours flying with AA. That’s a lot of work for a single trip, and still, once upon a time that might have been worth it to spend spring break in Greece.
The problem is that when you fly with AA’s international partners like British Airways or Iberia, you have to pay their carrier fees and taxes. For an international flight, that can add up to a couple hundred dollars. What’s the problem with that? For one, air travel has gotten pretty cheap. So on top of spending a good chunk of “hard earned” miles, you actually also have to pay a large fraction of what a regular flight would cost. So why spend $300 and 45,000 miles when you can spend $500?
The other, bigger problem is that the flights available for the lowest award mileage are usually awful itineraries. Where you might be able to get a direct flight from Paris to New York for $400, a free flight with AAdvantage miles will cost you 40,000 miles, $250 in fees, and 32 hours of your time because you’ll be connecting in Madrid and then Dallas on the way to your final destination.
Worse yet, you might save yourself those fees and have to fly on American over the Atlantic. God help you. Half of their fleet is dingy, uncomfortable and 50 years old. American Airlines is one of the worst airlines in the world.
How to score free travel in the age of low cost airlines
There’s no better feeling than knowing it didn’t cost you a penny to go on vacation. It’s still possible to get a decent free flight, but you’re gonna have to lose your loyalty. It simply no longer pays to be a reward member to a specific airline. There are too many restrictions on what “free” flights you can take, black out dates and exorbitant fees that make these free flights decidedly not free.
And meanwhile everyone else at the airport is laughing at you as they board their $99 flight to Iceland. Competition among airlines makes it nearly impossible to fly with one airline or even one worldwide airline alliance 100% of the time.
So you need a program that gives you flexibility on what you can spend money on. Many credit cards offer award “miles” that you can use to redeem for any travel purchases without having to meet any kind of minimum. For instance, if I’ve accrued 1,000 miles on my Capital One card, I can get $10 off a flight, an Uber I took, a hotel or Airbnb, or a cruise. That way, if you find a $60 flight somewhere, you don’t have to worry about whether you have enough miles or paying carrier fees. But more than anything else, you don’t have to worry about getting stuck on a horrendous 27-hour flight ordeal on the world’s nastiest planes.