American Airlines AAdvantage

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The AAdvantage program from American Airlines often tops frequent flyer program lists, and for good reason. It offers members many ways to earn miles and hundreds of locations to fly between using award tickets. Elite status delivers excellent perks to loyal customers.

American Airlines' AAdvantage perches atop several comparative lists of frequent flyer programs, including ours. Members of the FlyerTalk community, (the largest online community of frequent flyer enthusiasts) rated AAdvantage No. 1 in the Americas category for 2014. The FreddieAwards, a prestigious rater of loyalty programs that bestows honors based on more than 3 million votes, named AAdvantage the Program of the Year, Best Elite Level, and Best Earning Promotion in the Americas region in 2013. AAdvantage again bested the competition in the same categories in 2014.

Of the three legacy carriers, American is the only one that doesn't require a minimum dollar spend on tickets to earn elite status, although its recent merger with US Airways may result in program changes. Currently, AAdvantage offers three elite-status tiers -- Gold, Platinum, and Executive Platinum -- with increasingly appealing perks at each level. As with most frequent flyer programs, elites get priority boarding, check-in, and security lanes and also receive extra redeemable miles while flying, processing-fee waivers, and complimentary bag check. The Points Guy, an authority in the frequent flyer universe, further notes in his AAdvantage review that American gives top-status flyers unlimited complimentary upgrades, even on transcontinental flights, compared with United Airlines and Delta Air Lines, which require flyers to use miles or upgrade certificates. One elite-status traveler who posted a review comment at FlyerTalk tells of preferring the treatment meted out by American at his mid-tier elite level compared with the United's top elite level.

Travelers who don't qualify for elite status still benefit with the miles-based AAdvantage program. Miles can be earned at a rate of 0.5 to 1.5 for each mile flown, depending on the ticket class. Redemption rates, especially for off-peak international flights, are relatively low, even after a recent revision to the redemption chart, which splits award tickets into as many as five redemption levels and increases the mileage required for many flights. The cheapest miles trade-in is still 12,500 for a one-way flight within the lower 48 states, but AAnytime award tickets with no blackout dates go for 20,000 or 30,000 miles depending on demand; previously there was a single 25,000-miles award option for AAnytime tickets within the continental U.S. and Canada.

American flies to more than 330 destinations and partners with 25 other airlines, allowing members to redeem miles for travel worldwide. The Well Traveled Mile is a helpful guide to maximizing AAdvantage redemptions.

AAdvantage members can boost their mileage count and keep miles from expiring after 18 months in ways other than flying: by making charitable contributions, for example, or using partners' services. The co-branded Citi AAdvantage Platinum credit card lets users earn back 10 percent of redeemed miles and access discounted redemption options (8,750 miles, one way) for flights to select, rotating destinations. Although the annual fee is always waived the first year, many cardholders say a call to customer service can yield subsequent waivers.

With its many earning opportunities, numerous airline partners, elite status perks, and discounted award tickets for non-elite travelers, AAdvantage is one sterling frequent flyer program.

Louis DeNicola

Louis DeNicola is a freelance personal finance writer who specializes in credit, debt, and practical money-saving tips. He loves stacking savings opportunities to get amazing deals, traveling for free using credit card rewards, and teaching others how to do the same. Connect with Louis by visiting louisdenicola.com.

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