American Airlines Platinum Challenge
Ever since I got into the whole loyalty game I managed to get a couple of top tier hotel loyalty status cards, but till this year I never managed to get elite status with an airline simply because I didn’t fly enough. For 2015 this became my goal (read obsession haha)!
At first glance I was looking at achieving Star Alliance Gold status through the Miles & Bonus program of Aegean Airlines from Greece. Unfortunately for me and many others, the terms and conditions of this loyalty program changed earlier in November 2014 and that meant you were required to fly way more miles. Before the changes you “only” needed to fly 20.000 miles with them in order to get to Gold status and this could be done fairly cheap.
This required me to look out for different options and soon enough I was looking in the direction of American Airlines after hearing good things about them from fellow frequent flyers. The most interesting fact was that they offered their members a Gold and Platinum challenge… You read that correctly, offered as in past tense cause unfortunately AA stopped all challenges as from September 23rd 2015, most likely due to upcoming changes in their loyalty program.
What is a Platinum Challenge?
The goal of this challenge is to earn a specific number of Elite Qualifying Points (EQP) within a period of 90 days, in other words it’s not the number of miles you fly! These EQP would be earned by flying American Airlines or one of their OneWorld alliance partners. The number of points earned depended on the fare class of the ticket you booked, it would earn you 0.5, 1 or 1.5 point per flown mile. You can see the details in the chart below.
In order to complete the Platinum Challenge it meant earning 10.000 EQP and the quickest way to earn these would be to fly first, business or full-fare economy class as these tickets would earn you 1.5 EQP per mile. But as is the case for most of us, we don’t get to fly fancy seats all the time so I had to look for fares in Discount Economy (classes H, K, L, M, V & W) which would result in earning 1 EQP.
The so called “deep” discount economy fares would only earn 0.5 EQP and are not very interesting to fly for this challenge because it means flying at least 20.000 miles to get to the required number of Elite Qualifying Points.
I mentioned earlier that you could fly on American Airlines or some specific OneWorld partners, as long as you earn enough points. The following partners are eligible to fly on for the challenge:
- British Airways
- Japan Airlines
- US Airways (at time of writing it was still mentioned separately)
By clicking on any of the airline names in the list above, you will be redirected to a page which explains the earnings for all fare classes for the specific airline as the number of EQP earned varies for every partner airline.
Searching for flights
I was lucky enough to be flexible with the dates on which I wanted to travel, because I didn’t have to rely on school vacations or any co-workers taking time off. I started looking on ITA Matrix for flights and soon enough I was able to find return flights for 612 Euros from Dublin via New York (JFK) to Los Angeles, the final destination of my trip.
As you can see above, I chose fare class V in my search queries as this one of the few fare classes in deep discount economy that would earn me 1 EQP per flown mile. Shortly after I moved to Expertflyer to check if there were any seats available and was happy to find plenty of choice. I noted down all the dates and flight numbers before I continued my search.
As I didn’t wanna bet all my money on one card, I decided to look for more available dates and found another option at the end of June. This time a different route but it had the same price.
The funny thing was that I was able to find several routes on ITA, every time for the same price, but no matter what I tried I was unable to recreate these itineraries on the website of American Airlines. Every time I attempted to put in the routes, it always increased the price with several hundreds of Euros…
In order to book the flights I wanted, I ended up printing the itinerary from ITA and decided to visit the Airstop office in Antwerp to see if they could help me out. Of course I also could have called AA, but I wanted to talk face to face with a person and check what my options were.
Whilst I saw availability on Expertflyer in fare class V, the person at Airstop was unable to see any in the Galileo system they use to make their bookings. We even tried to put the segments in separately but to no avail as this didn’t work either! The system would only show us tickets available in full fare economy class (Y) which were double in price…
There had to be a way to find these available seats in V class, so I decided to head home and spend some more time trying to figure out routes on ITA and immediately verify availability in Expertflyer. And eventually, after a couple of hours of searching and comparing fares, I headed back to Airstop.
This time I decided to take my Macbook and luckily for me the office was quiet and Thomas from Airstop was up for a challenge. He used to work as a ticketing agent for Miles & More so he was familiar with the world of the frequent flyers and understood what I was trying to achieve.
I passed him all the date I had found at home so he could put them into his ticketing system and shortly after he said: “Seats in V class are available on your dates!” “Eureka!!” The price was only a bit higher than my initial findings, but I couldn’t care less, let’s book these tickets!
For me it was the first time that I depended the services of a travel agent like Airstop, but have to say it was a good experience! They charged a 24 Euros fee to complete the ticketing, but I thought that was peanuts for the time and effort spend by the guy to help me out. I know most frequent flyers rather book their flights themselves, so do I, but I ran into a couple of issues as you read before.
As soon as I got back home I wanted to check the seat allocation as I had Airstop add my AA frequent flyer number to the booking. I logged in on the AAdvantage site and immediately was able to see my trip, which consisted of 2 transatlantic (TATL) and 2 domestic flights.
I became excited as a little kid on Christmas morning when I saw that the exit row seats were not taken yet for the TATL flights, so marked them straight away as my selected seats. The only downside to this was that I had to pay extra for these seats as I wasn’t an elite member yet. Elite members have the benefit of getting free seat selection in the Main Cabin. I didn’t have as much luck for the domestic flights, because all exit row seats were showing as unavailable.
After I picked seats on all flights, I hit the submit button but after entering my credit card information I got an error: “This flight can not be changed because it contains travel outside the U.S.”
I didn’t understand the logic behind the error, of course it contains travel outside the U.S. as I’m flying from Europe to the United States… I decided to give it another try, but it threw the same error right back at me. I decided to give AA a call, but the only number I could find which could be called during the weekend, was one that charged me 1 Euro a minute and after being on hold for about 5 minutes I decided to hang up.
Suddenly my brain came to life and I realised that I could use Skype to call American Airlines customer service in the U.S. who were available 24/7. For those of you that never called AA, the menu is kind of funny as you need to spell out your loyalty number and if the computer doesn’t get it the first time it will tell you something like: “Sorry my bad, let’s try that again”. I managed to get through the menu and shortly after I had a very friendly agent on the line…
“OK Lion, did you click submit?” “Yes, I already tried that 3 times now” and I started to get frustrated that I needed to repeat myself over and over. “Aah I have never heard anyone that had that error”… Well there’s a first time for everything. “Let’s see if I can change your seats manually…” and after giving her my preferred seat numbers she asked me for my credit card information. “What’s your zip code?” “Oh in Belgium? I’m sorry but we can’t process a foreign credit card.”
“Euh, say what?!” was my reaction. “You mean I can book a flight online and pay with my foreign credit card, but I can’t pay for my seats?” “That’s correct Lion.”
“OK, so now what?” She proposed that I would go to a local ticketing desk and the people there would be able to sort things out for me. I thanked her for her help and information and then checked the AA site to find out that there was a desk at Brussels Airport. The following morning I hopped on the train at 7 AM and was on my way…
I headed to the information desk after arriving at the airport and was told the desk was located one floor up in the departure lounge. According to the website the desk should be across the check in desks at row 9, euh… no it’s not! Like a lost soul I wandered around the hall twice and couldn’t see a single AA sign or desk! I ended up going to the US Airways desk and the agent there told that the American Airlines desk had been closed a year ago! Aaaaaaaaargh WTF?!
The US airways agent friendly offered me to check if she could find something in their system as the merger between both airlines was about to happen, but unfortunately I had no luck.
I was completely frustrated when I got back home and decided to have a look in the app on my smartphone to see if the booking had updated. All details were nicely shown in the overview and I then noticed the “Change Seats” button in the top right corner… “Hmm, I wonder if that works?” I thought to myself and gave it a try. To my surprise I was able to pick all preferred seats and the app showed me the amount due per seat for the reservation. I saved everything but the app didn’t bring up any kind of payment screen and my selected seats kept showing. I still wasn’t sure so I logged in again on the AA site and even there all chosen seats showed.
During the days and weeks after I frantically checked the app to see if any exit row seats opened up for the domestic flights and surprisingly on Monday night it showed 2 available seats for the flight from JFK to LAX! For the return flight from LAX to JFK I decided to create a seat alert in Expertflyer so I would be notified via e-mail, but that never happened.
My seats still had not been paid for, so I decided to make a call to the AA service center in Belgium and explained my situation. Again I had a very friendly lady on the phone, such a big difference compared to some other airlines! She immediately came up with a solution and wrote down all my existing seat numbers, then she proceeded to delete the allocated seats and finished by re-entering them manually so she could see the total amount due. At first she told me I would need to pay a $ 30 per passenger, but because it took her longer than expected, she waived this fee!
In the end I had to pay 360 Euros for all seat allocations in the main cabin for 2 people. Maybe a lot of money, but I as I’m tall (6’5 / 1m96) I wanted to make sure I had some kind of comfort and legroom during these flights.
Requesting the Platinum Challenge
Time goes by and it was already mid May, all flights were now properly sorted, hotels had been booked, transport had been arranged… but I didn’t get myself registered yet for the American Airlines Platinum challenge. Because of the good experience I had calling the Belgian service center, I gave them a call and inquired about the challenge. But after being transferred multiple times to several agents who seemed unaware about any kind of challenge, I gave up…
Later that same day I called the AAdvantage number in the U.S. and was helped out straight away by the first agent I got on the other end of the line. I was thanked for my loyalty to the airline and she got the ball rolling for my challenge. She checked my account for the segments of my planned trip and the return trip of DUB-JFK-LAX would earn me 11.310 EQP in class V (1 EQP per mile), which would be more than sufficient to complete the Platinum Challenge.
At first she wasn’t sure on which day to start my challenge as my flights would be on June 16th, she decided to have my challenge start the day before. That was a minor mistake with big consequences, but more about that later. I now had until September 15th to earn enough Elite Qualifying Points but this one trip would already get me Platinum!
When finalising the payment process I got a nice surprise, I didn’t have to pay the expected $ 240 for my Platinum Challenge but only had to pay $ 180 which they usually charge for the Gold Challenge. Little did I know at the time that this would come back to bite me!
What did all of this cost me?
After completing my challenge a lot of people asked me what the total cost was to earn my first airline elite status. Well to give you an idea, here is a complete breakdown of all necessary costs:
- Positioning flights with Ryanair (BRU-DUB-BRU): 168 Euros
- Night at Holiday Inn Express Dublin Airport: 78 Euros
- Return flights DUB-JFK-LAX including Airstop fee of 24 Euros: 665 Euros
- Seat allocation on American Airlines (360 Euros for 2 pax): 180 Euros
- Requesting challenge ($ 180): 162 Euros
In total I spend 1253 Euros and got American Airlines Platinum status in return which would be valid until February 2017 and I have earned 11310 miles.
Why do I take into account the cost of the Ryanair flights, hotel and seats? Because these were necessary to complete my challenge as all my AA flights flew early morning out of Dublin airport. So it was impossible to get there without traveling to Dublin the day before. There was no way I could fly out of Brussels Airport early morning and be on time to catch my flights. So in theory it could have been possible to complete the challenge for around 1000 Euros, but that all depends on the chosen flights!
About 1 hour after arriving back in Dublin, my status was already updated to Platinum in the AA app on my smartphone. I was all happy, mission accomplished! At least I thought so, that was until the day I received my Platinum member card which showed a validity date of February 2016!
There must have been a mistake somewhere, because when I registered for the challenge I was told and received confirmation on e-mail that it would be valid till 2017! What happened?!
I didn’t waste any time and called the Platinum service desk to explain my issue and the agent started to check… Remember reading before that the agent decided to let my challenge start on June 15th instead of June 16th? That made a HUGE difference!
Any challenge started before or on June 15th will only receive elite status till February of the following year and pay a $ 180 registration fee. They should have let my challenge start on June 16th, charge me $ 240 for registering and my status would have been valid till 2017…
The agent who I was speaking to noticed the error that was made and kindly asked me to wait for a couple of minutes while she talked to her supervisor. I was nervous and anxious about what she was about to tell me, but she brought good news: “Mr. Jansen, I have spoken to my supervisor and if you are willing to pay the additional $ 60 right now, we will grant you status till 2017.” I immediately ran to get my credit card!
So I now have untill February 2017 to enjoy all benefits of my Platinum elite status. The best benefit for me is the 100% mileage bonus, which is a great way to earn additional miles!
Not only do I get perks with American Airlines, but I also get additional perks because of the OneWorld Sapphire status that I can use with partner airlines.
Would I do it again (if AA would ever do challenges again)? Absolutely! What’s my next goal you ask? Maybe Executive Platinum status or become a Million Miler?
And what about you readers out there, have you ever completed an elite status challenge with American Airlines? I would love to hear what your experiences were!