To be honest, I don’t actually remember how we decided on Morocco as our destination of choice for the big trip of the year…only that once we made up our mind on the destination, we weren’t willing to go somewhere different instead. In retrospect, that ended up being a big pain in the butt when trying to redeem American Airlines miles, my currency of choice for this particular trip.
Luckily, with two entirely different award charts for redemption through American Airlines, I had a few options for booking tickets. In the end, not only did I score two tickets, but I also was able to use the combination of cash + miles that I was comfortable with.
Zone Based Award: USA to Africa
Miles Needed Per Ticket: Coach 75,000 Miles / Business 150,000 / First Class 200,000
Cash Needed Per Ticket: Taxes & Fees Only, fairly inexpensive for travel on American Airlines or Iberia.
Unlike some other airlines, AA does not distinguish between Northern & Southern Africa when it comes to pricing awards, so even though it can be shorter to fly from the USA to Morocco than to Italy, you end up paying a high amount of miles. Frankly, 75,000 miles for a coach ticket to Morocco seemed like a bad deal (I could buy a ticket for $1,200 – and that’s without shopping around) and my account balance wasn’t high enough to fund a business or first class flight at those prices. Time to keep searching.
Zone Based Award: USA to Europe via Award Ticket + Cash Ticket from Europe to Morocco
Miles Needed Per Ticket: Coach 60,000 Miles (40,000 Off-Peak, October 15-May 15) / Business 100,000 / First Class 125,000
Cash Needed Per Ticket: ~$200 for a Round-Trip ticket from European Hub to Morocco + Taxes & Fees on the award portion to Europe
By being willing to pay cash for a ticket from Europe to Morocco, I could lower the amount of miles needed per ticket quite significantly. Given the short flight time between Europe and Morocco, a coach ticket for that segment would definitely suffice, and depending on which airports you routed through, how many checked bags you have, and when you booked the cash ticket, airfare seemed available for anywhere from $125-250. In this particular case, an outlay of $200 per person meant a savings of 35,000 miles in coach, 50,000 miles in business, or 75,000 miles in first class: a good deal no matter how you look at it. Another upside to this option was opening up a ton of new hubs in Europe to fly through, one way to improve your odds of finding available award seats.
Distance Based (“oneworld Explorer”) Award: Richmond to Europe via Award, Europe to Morocco via Cash Ticket
Miles Needed Per Ticket: Coach 70,000 / Business 90,000 / First 120,000
Cash Needed Per Ticket: ~$200 for a Round-Trip ticket from European Hub + Taxes & Fees on the award portion
I’ve gotten the impression that a lot of people aren’t familiar with AA’s oneworld Explorer awards, which are distance-based awards where the mileage cost is based on the total number of miles flown. These tickets can be a bit complicated, with rules on which airlines you need to fly, number of segments allowed, and how to book, but they can end up being a better deal in some situations. I had no choice but to fly through either ORD or MIA based on limited AA service from my home airport, which meant even the cheapest routing would end up costing 70/90/120K miles for my award ticket to get to Europe. That’s more expensive in coach than it would be in the USA-Europe zone-based award outlined above, but cheaper in premium cabins. To find out how many miles you’d need, find out the mileage on Great Circle Mapper and then compare it to the award chart. Getting the same exact flights for a cheaper price is always a positive in my book.
Distance Based (“oneworld Explorer”) Award: Cash Ticket to Northeast USA Hub + Award Ticket from Hub to Morocco
Miles Needed Per Ticket: Coach 60,000 / Business 80,000 / First 100,000
Cash Needed Per Ticket: ~$150 for a Round-Trip ticket from Home to BOS + Taxes & Fees on the award portion
I was all about using as few miles as possible for this trip, so I tried a few new routings to see if I could bring my distance-based award into an even cheaper threshold. Voila! By starting from either BOS or JFK, I could bring the mileage needed down by another 10,000 miles per person and save additional cash on the positioning flight. That’s a win-win situation and the cheapest way I found for this particular origin & destination combination for premium seating (with the USA-Europe award ticket being a better option for coach off-peak tickets and/or someone looking at a longer/pricier flight within the USA).
My final decision was to book business class tickets from Boston to Morocco and to buy separate revenue tickets from my home to Boston. Unfortunately, a reduction in flight frequencies eventually meant that I had to fly from JFK instead of my originally booked flights from BOS, so in the long run I had to pay more for my positioning flight. Still, the combination of cash and miles required remained the best value in my set of circumstances.
Knowing the rules and options of your loyalty program can not only open up alternate routings, better scheduling, and more available seats, but it can also help you land the best deal. Do the math and price out all your options – one type of award isn’t consistently the best price and it will vary based on your origin and destination (how I envy those of you who live in hub cities! No positioning flights in some options or free one-ways on other options! even more options!) and your preferred class of service. To be fair, this can take quite a bit of time as you price everything out and weigh the prices against intrinsic benefits in each possibility – and that’s not including the time it takes to look for available seats. However, if you’re willing to put in the time, you’ll fly for nearly free on this vacation…and just maybe have enough miles leftover for another trip in the future.