Less than a week after covering American Airlines’ launch of their new Los Angeles-Sydney service, I found myself onboard Flight 73 on a last-minute holiday down under. The route featured American’s flagship Boeing 777-300ER, with my personal-favorite business class seat. In spite of holding status on both American and Alaska, which would entitle me to at least a little bit more leg and elbow room in coach, I willingly (!) chose to sit in a regular economy seat for a 15-hour flight… and managed to survive. A feat made even more impressive (or harrowing, depending on your point-of-view) by the fact that I was accompanied by my wife.
Now, I’d like to claim credit for taking one for the AirlineReporter team and be able to gloat for making the trip, but I’m not as magnanimous as my colleague JL, who flew a Spirit Airlines Bare Fare “for science.” There were very strategic, practical, and self-serving reasons for booking seats behind the curtain instead of in front of it.
I’m splitting my experience into two parts: first, about why I chose economy (this time), followed up with my actual flight review of American’s economy service to Sydney.
The Psychology of Award Seats – and Why I (Usually) Don’t Use Miles for Economy
Miles are a complicated business, but as a personal general rule, I usually like to save them for so-called “experiential” awards – an experience that normally would require breaking the bank, such as redeeming for premium seats on long-haul international flights. These kinds of redemptions almost always offer a higher return on a per-mile basis.
To illustrate what I’m talking about, I’ll use real-live numbers. A round-trip ticket from LAX to SYD in economy on American booked today for flights next month would come in at around $1,350. A business class seat for the same flight clocks in at $7,666, while first class will set you back a whopping $15,500.
Below is American’s award chart, showing redemption levels for one-way travel.
Thus, an economy award ticket would cost 75,000 miles round-trip, or 1.8 cents per mile redeemed (cpm, a metric us #FFGeeks [Frequent Flier Geeks] love to use). Redeeming 125,000 miles for a business class award nets you 6.1 cpm in return, and 145,000 miles for first is a return of 10.7 cpm. As you can see, a first class redemption is the sweet spot, returning almost 600% more value per mile than on an economy award. (One important note: later this year, American’s award chart is changing.)
Of course, this calculation may not apply to everyone, since the vast majority of passengers don’t have a bulk of miles just sitting around in their accounts. Also, the value of an award is really relative to what you would really pay for it – would you actually pay $15K for a flight? However, it does drive home the importance of saving up the miles as much as possible, and avoid redeeming miles for trips that are short and/or cheap. It pains me to say that I have a friend who recently redeemed 25,000 miles for a Seattle-to-San Jose economy award roundtrip, when said trip would have cost only $129 per person, or a redemption value of only 0.5 cpm.
Why I Redeemed Miles for an Economy Award Anyway
So why did I seemingly break my own rules and use my miles for coach seats? While my default use of miles is for long-haul premium awards, my number one rule is always “return on value” and my particular situation caused me to stray away from using my miles for business or first.
And we really, really wanted to go to Australia.
Ticket Prices were Absurdly High
Wanting to take advantage of the holiday break and go somewhere warm was not easily achieved. We actually had originally planned to go to South America, but that fell through in a separate booking fiasco, which then led us to consider Australia, given that neither of us had ever been but both of us wanted to go.
Unfortunately, the tickets for a last-minute, peak-time trip to Sydney were $2,395 per person in coach, and I didn’t even bother looking at how much business class cost. Timing is everything, and it was not in our favor.
American Didn’t Release Premium “Saver” Seats
Up until this point, I had been talking about “saver” awards that use the lowest amount of miles. Most airlines have a tiered system of awards, with the cheapest options being the most restricted in terms of availability. By all indications, there should have been some available premium saver awards available, as both the first and business cabins were virtually unsold on my flight.
I even brought this oddity to the attention of travel blogger Gary Leff from View from the Wing, and his findings were similar to mine: American simply did not release any seats for low-level premium awards on any of their new flights to/from Sydney. Even when I checked about a day before the flight, the seat map in business class showed almost no seats taken (with 5A and 5L blocked – see screenshot to the right).
However, American’s system was still willing to let me use miles… at 215,000 miles per person… each way. That, my friends, is not the best return on value — at least for a holiday escape.
Since then, the situation has been resolved and American has finally started releasing some “cheap” awards, even to the point of ridiculousness, with several award seats open in all classes on the same flight.
Cheap Economy Awards were Widely Available
How “Revenue Management” works at any airline has always been a mystery, and the “trick” to getting saver awards has always been being flexible and willing to plan either 11 months or a few days in advance. However, American did decide to open up economy saver awards to Sydney en masse, and we had our choice of dates for departure, on almost any day in December. We easily snagged two seats on the December 23 departure, using 37,500 miles each, saving ourselves $2,395 per person and getting 6.4 cpm in return, a great value in my opinion.
Award Tickets are Generally Flexible
Because we only had a couple of days to plan out our trip, we needed all the flexibility we could get. While not as generous as full-fare, unrestricted tickets (e.g., there was a cancellation fee), award tickets do have some advantages over restricted fares, among them:
- No fee to change dates of travel: American is extremely generous in allowing changes to your date of travel, up to a year later, as long as you keep your origin, destination, and type of award the same. If the stars hadn’t lined up, we could have pushed the trip back several months with no penalty.
- Lower fees to cancel the trip and redeposit the miles: It costs $150 to cancel for the first passenger (+$25 for each additional passenger on the itinerary), which is more reasonable than with most regular tickets, which could be $400 or more per person. This fee is waived for top elites.
- No fee to upgrade: While changing the award type to a lower award would incur the same redeposit fees as above, generally upgrading to a higher class of service would entail no additional fee, just the difference in miles. This way, I could book the economy seats now, and wait to see if business class seats opened up closer to my departure date.
- Ability to book one-way: Award tickets on many airlines can be redeemed on a one-way basis, for half the cost of a round-trip award. Try doing that on a revenue ticket; while a round-trip for my flight was $2,395, flying just one-way from LAX to SYD would have cost approximately $1,500 alone.
We were looking at flying onto Hong Kong before heading back home, so all signs pointed to booking this award as a one-way ticket in economy.
The Economy Cabin was Wide Open… or So I Thought
By wide open, I mean there were at most 50 passengers flying in a coach cabin equipped with 250 seats. Because of American’s policy of restricting the most “desirable” seats from selection by non-elites, most of the passengers had been concentrated in the rear quarter of the plane. Then most of the elites had selected Main Cabin Extra seats, that have extra legroom, and are configured with nine seats per row instead of ten in regular economy.
As Platinum elites, my wife and I were entitled to select one of these Main Cabin Extra seats, and that’s what we originally did. We selected 19D and 19H so that we each would have aisle access and hopefully had an open middle seat.
As we got closer to departure, however, I noticed that the middle of the plane had remained mostly unoccupied, with entire rows available (since no non-elite would willingly choose a middle seat in that section, as the windows and aisles were blocked for elites).
After checking various sources, I was confident that there wouldn’t be a glut of passengers with unassigned seats who would fill the cabin at the last minute. Given this knowledge, I decided to gamble and reassigned our seats to 22J and 23J (aisle seats in regular economy), in hopes that we could each claim a row of seats for the long flight. But if we had gambled and lost, we’d be crammed in like sardines in a can for 15+ hours… not the way we’d want to start our vacation.
Did our gamble pay off? Was being in American economy so long worth our visit to Australia? I’ll be posting my actual flight review on American Airlines’ “regular” economy on their 777-300ER very soon.