Points, Miles & Life

Travel adventures on this earthly pilgrimage

Category: American

American Airlines A321 Economy Review: San Francisco to Dallas

I know. Who would bother reviewing a domestic economy flight? With the millions of people who fly every year, sometimes weekly, domestic economy is old hat. Laying out the details of the experience is passé. But I also get that there are folks out there who have not flown much, if at all (and I still know a few), so this American Airlines A321 economy review is for them.

My daughter and I took a trip to South America a couple weeks ago, visiting Buenos Aires, Argentina and two spots in Uruguay. It was a lovely trip, and we even made some new friends in the process. The trip started with a drive to San Francisco (nearly free, I might add, thanks to Hertz points), followed by an overnight stay before our morning flight. To kick things off, we’d fly American Airlines A321 economy to Dallas where we would connect to our long haul leg.

The flight was booked as part of a business class award using 57,500 American Airlines miles per person. I did check back a number of times to see if space had opened up in the first class cabin, as you can make this sort of change to American Airlines award tickets for no fee. But no such luck. American Airlines A321 economy it was.

Arriving at SFO

Since I’d rented a car, arriving at the airport was as easy as dropping it at the rental car center and hopping on the Airtrain. We pulled in at 8:40 a.m. You might not think this is sufficient time to make a 10:04 departure, but it’s plenty with TSA Precheck. I have the timing down.

While we were aboard the Airtrain, I noticed construction has been progressing nicely on the Grand Hyatt SFO. This is one hotel that I’m eagerly anticipating. One of my travel predictions for 2019 is that it will be a Category 4 Hyatt, but with the increase of the Grand Hyatt DFW to a Category 5 property, this may be a bit too hopeful (SEE: 5 award travel predictions for 2019).

Security was a breeze. Like I said, TSA Precheck meant the wait was minimal. I’ve loved this service after being approved for Global Entry, which also allows expedited immigration when returning to the United States. In general, normal security at SFO isn’t all that bad.

Even after cutting things closer than many would, we still had a wait of 20 minutes at the gate. My daughter and I were in boarding group 4 due to my American Gold elite status, earned via status challenge last year. Not that this matters much. We’d checked her bag and only had my large backpack to worry about stuffing in an overhead bin.

If there had been seats in Main Cabin Extra, I could have moved us to them at check-in. But there were only a handful of middles, plus a pair in the exit row. As my daughter is only 12, we are not be able to sit there. The minimum age for the exit row is 15 years old. But I have no qualms flying American Airlines A321 economy for a three-hour flight.

Boarding our Airbus A321

There was something a bit special about our American Airlines flight to Dallas that day. It was odd to see balloons. I knew it couldn’t be new service, as this route is nothing new. Once we were in the middle of boarding, I finally got a look at the sign. It was to welcome a Make-A-Wish passenger “Mikey” flying with us. He was headed to Paris, and I hope he enjoyed himself immensely. We sure did when we visited (SEE: 3 Days in Paris: Day 3 – Savoring the City).

This must have been the longest boarding process for a narrow body aircraft that I’ve ever experienced. Bags were consistently being placed 1-3 rows behind where their owners were seated, and passenger traffic was a perpetual jam. Add in the clueless passengers taking their sweet time to get seated or trying to access their carry-on in the overhead while boarding is still progressing, and I see why Southwest boards the way they do.

Seat and in-flight entertainment

American Airlines A321 economy class is essentially like any other narrow-body jet you can fly commercially. There is little to differentiate it from other products. The seats are 18 inches wide and offer 31 inches of pitch, which is about as standard as you can get.

American Airlines A321 economy seat

We were seated in 14E and 14F, a middle and window, respectively. The seats are comfortable enough, and I felt I had plenty of legroom, even in economy. My only hindrance is self-inflicted, as I almost always have items to place under the seat, which restricts the legroom.

American Airlines A321 economy leg room

I’ve done much more middle seat flying now that we have kids, as I nearly always manage to score either a window or aisle when traveling solo. When traveling with my kids, I give them the window (although I might not after this trip, as my daughter was very uninterested in looking out the window). I’m not sure which model American’s A321S is, unless they simply mean this is the safety card for the “A321s”, as in, the American Airlines and legacy US Airways A321s. What the plane certainly is not is one of AA’s transcon-configured A321s with lie-flat business and first class seats.

This A321 actually has in-flight entertainment screens, which was a pleasant surprise. I did not expect it. American Airlines has been actively removing it in favor of bring-your-own-device entertainment, and I’d told my daughter that this (relatively) short flight from San Francisco to Dallas wouldn’t have it.

American Airlines A321 economy ife

The American Airlines A321 economy seats feature power outlets as well. I really appreciate when carriers offer this. Given the connectivity and proliferation of devices in our modern world, it’s critical, especially for business travel. Overall, it’s a fine economy cabin. No complaints. Better than a CRJ-200 (SEE: Argh! I thought I’d seen the last of the United CRJ-200) or anything with poorly-padded slimline seats.

Departure and service

Remarkably, our “wheels up” time wasn’t all that for off from what was scheduled. Our taxi time was short, much shorter than I anticipated. SFO can have a nasty conga line of planes waiting to take off at certain times of the day. We would certainly arrive into Dallas on schedule. Not that it really mattered when you have a 7-hour layover!

Service started about 30 minutes into the flight. As we hadn’t eaten at SFO, I decided that ordering food would be best to tide us over until we arrived in Dallas and could enjoy the lounge. The wrap is $10.99. I thought paying for the wrap with my CitiBusiness AAdvantage card would receive a 25% discount, but it turns out that is only for in-flight WiFi. Turns out its the Barclay Aviator Business card that receives food and beverage discounts. I get all my card benefits mixed up sometimes. At least I received 2 miles per dollar.

American Airlines A321 economy food

Among the airplane food I’ve had fairly recently, this was one of the best choices. I tend to opt for the wraps offered on Delta flights as well. The food is fresh and definitely beats most long-haul economy meals. The obvious downside is that they are for purchase, not free.

My daughter was soon engrossed in a movie. She chose Smallfoot. Since we had one pair of headphones between the two of us, and I was too cheap to buy yet another pair of airplane headphones, I decided to work instead of watching a film.

The WiFi, at least what I experienced searching aa.com, was rather poor. It struggled to load most pages. I was able to put an award on hold for this fall after finding a nice itinerary including Finnair business class space, though, which was nice. But it struggled the entire time. I’m quite glad I only used it for AA-allowed pages and didn’t pay for access, as I would have been unhappy spending money on WiFi this bad.

Conclusion

Our flight in American Airlines A321 economy class was a fine experience. The seat and service were typical of what you can expect flying one of the full service U.S. carriers. The in-flight entertainment screens were an unexpected pleasure, and not something I am used to enjoying on American Airlines. I typically look at Delta as offering the best IFE among the large U.S. carriers. Meals are available for purchase, and they aren’t half bad.

Our day was just beginning, though. With roughly seven hours to kill in Dallas, we would have the ability to visit two airport lounges before enjoying our overnight flight to Buenos Aires in business class!

Fare Deal: Both Paris and Beijing for under $400!

These are the two primary international destinations to which I took my older two kids last year, and they are both on sale! You can fly one-stop from the San Francisco Bay Area to either destination for less than $400 on a couple different carriers.

Paris fare sale details

  • Departure from: San Francisco
  • Dates: March-April, September 2019
  • Destination(s): Paris (CDG)
  • Airline(s): American
  • Class: Basic economy
  • NotesMinimum two night stay (which would be silly anyway)
  • Sample Google Flights link

Beijing fare sale details

  • Departure from: San Jose
  • Dates: February-April 2019
  • Destination(s): Paris (CDG)
  • Airline(s): Air Canada
  • Class: Economy
  • Notes: None
  • Sample Google Flights link

These are both excellent sales to these destinations. We saw the very good Air Canada sale to Beijing out of SJC last year, and I would expect to see something similar again in the future.

Note that you will need a Chinese Visa to visit Beijing on a round-trip itinerary. The city is eligible for a transit without visa (TWOV) waiver, but you must have a confirmed onward ticket to another country.

Here is a rundown on some of the posts from our trip:

Treating My Daughter to American Domestic First Class

My daughter and I spent last weekend in San Antonio with friends that we met while in Costa Rica on our adoption trip. We and the Minors were in Costa Rica at the same time, adopting our kids through the same agency. We were even staying at the same hotel while in country. They adopted a girl about our daughters age, and the two became fast friends.

Our trip to San Antonio was planned to get the girls together for the first time since all of us have been back in the U.S. (SEE: Planning a Surprise Birthday Trip). The trip was be short and sweet, as we flew out Friday and headed back Tuesday.

During our first flight on the way to the Lone Star State, my daughter remarked how cool it would be to fly in first class. I’d previously told her about my solo trip to Australia and how I’d flown in first class and business class on the two international long-haul flights (SEE: United Polaris First SFO to ICN: A review, AND: Asiana business class review Seoul to Sydney). Obviously, it sounded amazing to her. I had to break it to her that domestic first class really isn’t all that amazing. But it is certainly a step up from economy.

A case of perfect timing

A couple weeks before we booked our trip to San Antonio, I’d accepted a status offer from American Airlines. I wasn’t sure I’d even bother with it, as I basically never fly American, but I decided to jump on it at the last minute before the offer expired. The offer gave me American Gold Elite, the lowest tier status, and eight 500-mile upgrade certificates. The status is only good through September.

As it turns out, the offer worked perfectly for me. The cheapest flights out of Sacramento to San Antonio happened to be on American Airlines, and the status offer meant that I could apply my 500-mile upgrade certificates to our flights. As I ended up booking a flight for work on American Airlines as well, I ended up only applying 4 of the certificates to upgrade one leg of our outbound flights.

Honestly, as I was only a Gold member, I didn’t expect them to clear. Especially given that American A319s only have 8 first class seats.

But amazingly they did. I was excited, knowing that my daughter was in for a treat.

Springing the surprise

Our first class was on time and uneventful. We spent half an hour in the lounge in Phoenix, and then we headed to our next gate. I handed my daughter her boarding pass to scan for boarding. Once heading down the jetway, I asked her which seat she was in.

She told me “1F.” That’s it. Not another word. She had no idea what that meant. I see that I need to teach her some basics about seat numbers. Row 1 is pretty much always first or business class (unless you’re on my least favorite type of plane).

I’ve tried to clue the kids in to the boarding process and general plane etiquette. But they still have very little idea about seating. My son may have put two and two together on this one, but the fact that we were in row 1 didn’t even register with my daughter.

Until we got on the plane, that is, and she saw that Row 1 was the first class section. The excitement was instantly off the charts.

We had a great flight of ~850 miles to San Antonio. While I’ve recently flown United domestic first class on the ERJ-175, this was my first time on American (and it might be my last, as my upgrades on my work trip haven’t been clearing so far).

She enjoyed a glass of ginger ale, a rare treat, and I enjoyed a glass of wine and a nap. Wine consumption for me is pretty much limited to when I’m flying.

It was a real airplane nap, something I haven’t had in a while. I woke up super groggy after 45 minutes as we were coming in for landing. My daughter said I looked like I was dead while I was sleeping and that my tongue was hanging out. I’m going to hope that is mostly her own fabrication.

Conclusion

I had to break it to her that on our return we wouldn’t be flying in First. Can’t get to used to life of luxury now, can we? 😉

Complete guide to American Airlines reduced mileage awards

One of the lesser-known perks of holding an American Airlines co-branded credit card is the ability to book American Airlines reduced mileage awards. These will allow you to save up to 7,500 miles per round-trip depending on the card you hold and the length of the trip.

Save miles with AA reduced mileage awards

There are groups of cards that give you different levels of savings with the reduced mileage awards. Typically, the free or cheap co-branded cards offer less savings. There are also two tiers of awards. Because American Airlines already requires only 7,500 award miles for trips under 500 miles one-way, the savings aren’t as good on these routes.

Many credit cards offer a savings of up to 7,500 miles per round trip for itineraries over 500 miles and 2,000 miles per round-trip for itineraries of less than 500 miles. Here is the list of credit cards that offer these savings:

  • Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite™ MasterCard®
  • Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® MasterCard®
  • CitiBusiness® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® MasterCard®
  • CitiBusiness® / AAdvantage® Select MasterCard®
  • AAdvantage® Aviator® Silver World Elite MasterCard®
  • AAdvantage® Aviator® Red MasterCard®
  • AAdvantage® Aviator® Business MasterCard®

This reduces the cost of a typical round-trip saver award from 25,000 miles to only 17,500 miles, and makes using your miles for domestic economy tickets far more lucrative. The cool thing is, some of the same cards that offer access to the American Airlines reduced mileage awards also offer 10% of your miles back when you redeem them, so you’re looking at a net cost of 15,750 per round-trip.

Here are the credit cards that give you access to a 5,000-mile discount for awards over 500 miles and 1,000-mile discount on round-trips itineraries of less than 500 miles:

  • Citi® / AAdvantage® Gold MasterCard®
  • AAdvantage® Aviator® Blue MasterCard®

Holding one of these cards will let you book a ticket to one of the listed destinations for only 20,000 miles per round-trip. A hop of 500 miles or less will only cost you 14,000 miles round-trip.

The cool thing is, you don’t have to book a round-trip award. If you book a one-way, the savings are simply half of the round-trip savings.

There are some other cards included in both of the lists that offer access to the American Airlines reduced mileage awards, but I’m not sure they are offered anymore. I don’t recognize them. I believe all the ones listed are the products that are currently available.

How to find a qualifying award

American Airlines offers a good number of destinations every month on their reduced mileage award chart. There are some major airports that never make the list. But they typically offer several dozen destinations every month. The chart is updated every other month, and you’ll only ever find the current month and the three upcoming months included. Don’t expect to be able to lock these in way ahead of time.

Head over to the American Airlines reduced mileage award page to view the list of destinations offered. The first paragraphs explain the discounts and process, after which you’ll find the table of current reduced mileage destinations. Note the months in the header at the top and then scroll through the list (or use the web page search) to find your destination. The green checks indicate that a destination is available for the reduced mileage price for that month.

American Airlines Reduced Mileage Awards

For example, if I’m interested in flying to Akron, Ohio, I can book a reduced mileage award for any of the months shown above. I can also fly out of any nearby airport served by American Airlines, which for us would be Santa Rosa, Sacramento, San Francisco, or Oakland. It doesn’t matter if your origin airport isn’t on the chart; all that matters is the destination. If I’m interested in flying to Albany, notice that I can only book that at the reduced mileage price for flights in September.

The current list for September 2018 is a gold mine. Most of the airports shown on the list are available for reduced mileage awards this month, which comes to a total of over 100. Chances are you’ll find the destination you’re looking for if you’re willing to travel outside of peak summer season.

Some people have previously reported that if your origin is included in the reduced mileage list for a given month, this gives you reduced mileage prices anywhere in the U.S. Not all agents would abide by this, but by using the “hang up, call again” (HUCA) trick, you could typically book them.

However, I don’t see this in the terms. Everything refers to the destination being on the list. Only the destination airport has to be on the list for a one-way or round-trip. The origin doesn’t seem to play into the equation at all. I could be wrong on this, though, or the terms could have changed such that they are now in line with my understanding. In any case, you’re more than welcome to try to see where you can get with an agent. Some airports are routinely available, and it would be amazing to fly for reduced mileage prices much of the year.

How to book a reduced mileage award

You have to call reservations at 800-882-8880 to book American Airlines reduced mileage awards. However, you’ll first need to make sure there is space available for the award you want, and I suggest doing this online. Head to aa.com and look for MileSAAver space. You cannot use the reduced milage award codes for standard awards.

You’ll also need the award code for the credit card you hold. You can find these on the American Airlines reduced mileage awards web page. The agent will ask for a code when you go to book the award.

My experience booking a reduced milage award was pretty painless. I called American Airlines reservations, spoke our date, origin and destination into the automated system, and was connected with an agent within only a few minutes. I explained that I wanted to book a reduced milage award. The lady was completely familiar with the process and asked for the code. She spent a minute confirming that our destination was on the list, and our tickets were booked a minute or two later.

The reservation service charge is waived for these awards since they are not bookable online, which totally makes sense.

Final notes on the American Airlines reduced mileage awards

American Airlines reduced mileage awards offer fantastic value for families since you can fly round-trip domestic itineraries for so much less. A family of 5 flying to a reduced mileage destination only needs 87,500 miles rather than 125,000 miles. Given that some of the American Airlines co-branded cards sometimes offer a sign-up bonus of 60,000 or even 70,000 miles, an application plus some spending can easily get free flights for the whole family.

A few final things to note:

  • The terribly (might I say AAwful) $75 close-in booking fee still applies to itineraries 21 days out or less.
  • The discounts only apply to awards within the United States. Even if you live at an airport on the list where flights should be at reduced cost to anywhere, don’t expect to head to Europe with a mileage discount.
  • You can actually apply the discount to business and first class domestically. I’m just never interested in premium cabin domestic awards, so details like this tend to slip my mind.
  • Finding American Airlines award space might be a real issue at times, but it can be done. Don’t expect to see wide-open awards to any of these destinations, but expect to be able to make something work if you are flexible with your dates.

Hope you make great use of the American Airlines reduced mileage awards!

Featured image courtesy of Grant Wickes. 

An Awaited AA Adjustment

American_Airlines_Boeing_777-200

It’s here. I haven’t really talked about it, but an American Airlines AAdvantage program ‘adjustment’ (mostly a devaluation) has been scheduled for months now, and the new award pricing finally took effect yesterday. You can find the chart here. Although I had been frantically searching award availability for the past few weeks, wanting to use my 50,000 AA miles for a business class ticket to either Europe or Japan, I let the date slide by without pulling the trigger on anything. Here is why:

  1. The new award pricing is actually better for awards to Central America and the Caribbean. The ‘off-peak’ windows may be shorter, but saver awards are a very reasonable 12,500 each way on the new AA award chart. With trip possibilities to Central America in the fairly near future for both mission work in Guatemala and our adoption, saving them for this use made a lot of sense. Award availability also tends to be wide open to these locations. Which contrasts with…
  2. Extremely limited business class award availability to Europe on American metal! The AA award flight searches turned up dozens of options that are on British Airways metal, but the award availability is downright abysmal for Americans own flights. I find this reprehensible. I don’t want to spend $100s in surcharges for a British Airways redemption.
  3. I couldn’t find a good route where I could book one ticket with AA miles and one with BA Avios. This is one of those times where I wish I had more miles in one currency and less in another. I had priced out some options from the west coast of the United States to Japan, but it involved bookings through both BA and AA award engines. I settled on an SFO-LAX-NRT booking, but I realized that my Avios wouldn’t post in time for me to book both tickets before the AAdvantage change deadline. I didn’t want to risk booking one ticket and then losing the availability for the other later. I might have been sending my wife off to Japan without me. Or vice versa.
  4. Italy started sounding better than Japan. Don’t get me wrong, both have an allure, but after a week of toying with hotel options and economy flights (I ditched the AA business class flight possibility….see point 2), Italy made way more sense, and I could use Delta miles rather than AA. This segment is, in fact, already booked.

Overall, the AAdvantage miles were significantly devalued, although the business-class and first-class redemptions took the brunt of it. The previous award prices were actually really appealing, and left me wishing I had tried to bank more miles. In the end I figured that if I use save the AA miles I have for flights to Central America, I am actually coming out ahead on the deal. Or maybe I am just trying to feel better about the change.