American sure makes buying tickets confusing

Regular readers know that my plan for air travel in 2015 is simple:

  • I requested a status match to Alaska Airlines MVP status, and received MVP Gold 75K status, valid through 2015.
  • Until the end of 2014 I continued to credit my paid Delta travel to Skymiles, and reached Silver elite status for 2015.
  • For award flights on Delta, and paid flights where I know I'll have to check bags, I'll continue to enter my Skymiles number in order to check a bag for free.
  • For paid flights on Delta without checked bags, and all paid flights on American, I'll credit my miles flown to Alaska, in the hopes of earning MVP status again for 2016.
  • I don't fly United.

Since I love flying Delta, and live in the upper Midwest, until this year I only rarely had any reason to stray.

Now that Alaska has gutted mileage earning on paid Delta flights, however, I'm looking at more American flights. After all, a 1,000 mile Delta ticket in an "L" fare class will earn just 500 Mileage Plan miles (1,125 after the MVP Gold 75K 125% mileage bonus), while the same flight on American will earn 2,250 miles. The farther the distance traveled, the more valuable an economy ticket on American is, compared to the same distance flown in a cheap Delta fare bucket.

But American's website is a terrible place to buy American Airlines tickets!

There is way less going on than meets the eye

Here's the first flight option for an upcoming trip I'm planning:

If you're used to any other airline, you might assume these are 4 different fare classes, at 4 different price points. You'd be absolutely wrong. The first three options all book into the "O" fare bucket. Rather than different fare classes, they're different fare basis codes, which indicate to American what services are bundled into your ticket. Here's Choice Essential:

In other words, on the one-way flight I searched for, you can prepay your checked bag fee and pay an extra $4 for Group 1 boarding priority. I get free checked bags through my Alaska status, and priority boarding isn't a big deal for me, but many people seem to love boarding early, so maybe it'll makes sense for them.

And here's Choice Plus:

On the flight I looked at, for $80 you can get all the benefits of Choice Essential, plus a 50% AAdvantage mile bonus and free same-day travel changes. Paying $51 for 1083 AAdvantage miles is not a good deal. But if you anticipated making same day travel changes anyway, the bonus AAdvantage miles would be a nice touch.

The problem is that to earn them, you'd need to travel under your AAdvantage member number, instead of your Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan number, defeating the purpose of flying American to begin with!

Why does it matter?

There are a few reasons why it's good to understand what's going on here. First of all, so you don't unwittingly book one of these Choice Essential or Plus fares!

But secondly, you might actually want to book one of these fares, and you definitely don't want to do it through American's website. Since Choice Essential and Plus fares have unique fare basis codes, travel agents should be able to manually book these fares over the phone.

For example, when searching the Chase Ultimate Rewards travel portal or US Bank Flexperks travel portal, you won't see these fares since they are all in the same "O" fare bucket. 

But by calling in to Chase (866-951-6592) or Flexperks (888-229-8864), you should be able to ask the agent to book your ticket into a specific fare basis code, not just fare bucket. It's safe to assume not all phone agents will know how to do this, since it's a bit of an odd request, but if you try a few times you'll hopefully get one who can help you.

The obvious reason to do this is if you're planning to credit a flight on American to the AAdvantage program, and the flight you want is towards the bottom of a Flexperks Travel redemption band. By booking your ticket on a more expensive Choice Plus fare basis code, you'll earn the bonus 50% AAdvantage miles, without spending any more Flexpoints.


Choice Essential and Plus fares are overpriced, and strike me as a fairly shameless cash grab by American. But that doesn't mean there aren't situations when we can use them to squeeze a few more cheap miles out of the airline. The benefits seem to be primarily for passengers who credit their miles to AAdvantage (and don't have elite status), so I doubt I'll personally be taking advantage of these fare options.