American Airlines is now the largest airline in the world, and with such a wide network, you’ll likely come across an American Airlines flight in your search results. So, what advantages/disadvantages does American Airlines have compared to other airlines?

Tips for Traveling on American Airlines

In this step-by-step guide to flying American Airlines, I’ll go over how to book and what to expect onboard America’s most recognized airline.

What to Know Before You Book with American Airlines

American is a member of the Oneworld alliance, which includes airlines such as British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Iberia, LATAM, Qantas, and Qatar. American also has codeshare partners with other airlines such as Interjet, Fiji Airways, and Seaborne Airlines. These agreements allow American to expand its large network even further and sell tickets to almost every corner of the globe.

If you don’t read the flight details closely, you may think you’re buying an American Airlines flight, when the operating airline may be one of American’s partners. This may be a blessing since most international carriers receive better reviews than American carriers. On the other hand, certain policies pertaining to baggage and elite benefits may differ depending on the operating airline. Make sure to read any fine print on your flight details when booking so you know which airline you’ll actually be flying.

As with other major carriers in the U.S., shorter flights are often operated by smaller regional carriers that are either subsidiaries of American or contracted by American to fly short hop or “puddle jumper” flights. While all the branding will make it seem like the crew and airport staff are American Airlines employees, sometimes these staff members are merely contractors who may be working flights for other airlines as well.

Due to all these partnerships, American has many options to re-route passengers when cancellations occur or in times of irregular flight operations. If prices are similar, it’s better to book a flight with American instead of an ultra-low-cost-carrier like Allegiant or Frontier, which may have very limited flight schedules and could cause you to get stranded if things go awry.

Basic Economy vs Main Cabin on American Airlines

To compete with the growing low-cost carriers, American now sells a Basic Economy (B booking class) fare on many routes. At the time of posting, you’ll find this type of fare on domestic U.S. flights and flights to/from Canada, Central America, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Europe. Not all routes to/from these regions have Basic Economy fares and if you’re traveling to/from Alaska, Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands, Cuba, Haiti, El Salvador, or Panama, you don’t have to worry about Basic Economy restrictions for now since all Economy fares will be the standard Main Cabin Economy option on these routes.

The main restrictions for Basic Economy tickets on American are that you will not be able to choose a specific seat for free, you’ll board in the last boarding group, and you are not eligible for upgrades. The restrictions are slightly different for itineraries that include flights to/from Europe. For European flights, you can pay a fee to choose a seat during booking. For all other flights, you may choose a seat for a fee starting 48 hours before departure. Of course, if you don’t want to pay a fee, you’ll be assigned a random seat assignment for free upon check-in. American made a welcome change to its carry-on policy and now all Basic Economy fares include the same standard sized carry-on bag plus a personal item as Main Cabin Economy fares.

Possibly the biggest drawback of a Basic Economy ticket for domestic flights and short-haul international flights to/from Canada, Mexico/Central America, and the Caribbean is that ticket changes are not allowed outside the 24-hour risk-free cancellation period, not even for a fee. This means if you can’t take your flight or wish to change dates, you’ll simply have to eat the cost and buy a new ticket. If your itinerary includes flights to/from Europe, you’ll still be able to make ticket changes for a fee plus the fare difference on American, which is a nice perk that its top competitors Delta and United do not offer for this type of fare.

Checked bags for domestic and short-haul international flights will cost the same $30 each way whether you hold a Basic Economy ticket or a Main Cabin Economy fare. For European flights, the first checked bag will cost $60 each way for Basic Economy, while a Main Cabin Economy fare includes one free checked bag. Since the difference in price between the two fares varies by route, travel dates, and specific sales, it’s always a good idea to compare before you purchase your ticket and choose according to your specific travel needs.

It should also be noted that Basic Economy fares will only earn 50% of Elite Qualifying Miles (EQMs) and Elite Qualifying Segments (EQSs) on American. This can be a hindrance if you are trying to earn elite status. Elite members of the AAdvantage frequent flier program will still retain boarding and checked bag privileges when traveling on a Basic Economy ticket and certain AAdvantage credit cardholders still get one free checked bag on flights within the U.S. and Canada. However, these cardholders will still have to pay a checked bag fee for all other international routes when traveling on a Basic Economy ticket.

How to Book a Flight with American Airlines

American has been known to remove its fares from some popular third-party booking sites in the past, but currently, you should be able to find flights on American when searching most booking sites. These agreements are always subject to change so it’s a good idea to compare multiple travel sites to ensure you’re finding the best options available. And make sure to sign up for fare alerts to find out when fares drop.

Booking a flight on American is pretty straightforward. After choosing your dates, you’ll be given the option to choose Basic Economy, Main Cabin, or Premium cabins. If you choose a Basic Economy fare, a pop-up will ask if you’re sure you want to accept the restrictions. If you choose a Main Cabin Economy fare, you’ll be able to choose a standard seat for free during booking. Fees may still apply for premium seating.

On the payment screen, you may see an option to hold the fare on select routes. This allows you to hold the price for 24 hours without payment if you want to think about your plans for a day before purchasing. Some routes may also have an extended hold option, where you can hold the fare for an extended time period for a non-refundable fee. Not all routes will have these options and you’ll still be able to cancel for free within 24 hours of booking if you booked at least 2 days prior to departure.

Check-In and Boarding an American Airlines Flight

Online check-in is available starting 24 hours and up to 45 minutes prior to departure (90 minutes for international flights). You can also check-in from an airport kiosk or a counter at the airport. To avoid long check-in lines, it’s best to check-in either online or at a kiosk before entering any queues to check any bags.

You must be checked in and have your bags checked at least 45 minutes prior to departure for domestic flights (60 minutes prior for international). Certain airports may require you to be checked in earlier so make sure to view the list here.

Most flights start boarding 30 – 50 minutes prior to departure and the boarding gate closes 10 minutes before departure. Make sure you are at the boarding gate on time, because once the paperwork is filed and the door is closed, no more passengers will be allowed onboard.

ConciergeKey members are boarded first followed by Frist Class and active U.S. military personnel. After Frist Class, American allows its elite status members to board followed by travelers who purchased priority boarding, Main Cabin Extra passengers, and eligible AAdvantage credit card members. Finally, after general boarding groups, Basic Economy passengers will be boarded last.

If the flight is full, it’s likely that the last passengers to board will have to gate check any large carry-on bags to their final destination. Also, keep in mind that some smaller regional jets cannot fit larger carry-on bags inside the cabin so it should be expected to gate check larger bags on these types of aircraft. If you gate-check on a regional aircraft, you’ll likely be able to claim your gate-checked bag at the jet bridge upon exiting the aircraft.

The American Airlines Inflight Experience

Once onboard an American Airlines flight, you’ll receive a standard flying experience complete with free snacks, non-alcoholic drinks, and entertainment options on most flights. Premium snacks and beverages may be purchased onboard domestic and short-haul international flights. Due to a wide range of aircraft, not all flights will have entertainment options and the really short flights may not have time to offer in-flight beverage service.

If you’re flying on a long-haul international route, you can expect a complimentary meal to be served, though I wouldn’t expect it to be gourmet by any means. American also offers complimentary meals to Economy passengers on flights between Dallas (DFW) and Hawaii, and on select transcontinental flights between New York (JFK) and both Los Angeles (LAX) and San Francisco (SFO). Beer and wine are also included on Dallas/Hawaii flights and long-haul international flights. Spirits require a charge on most flights except certain transpacific flights.

To keep you entertained, American offers free live TV on select flights and a large library of prerecorded movies, TV series, and music on its seatback screens. American also offers Wi-Fi internet access for a fee, which will vary depending on your flight. Economy seats have a standard seat pitch around 31”. Of course, due to the wide range of aircraft that American utilizes, the seat pitch can vary slightly depending on the flight. Make sure to research your aircraft on SeatGuru to find information on seat pitch and what entertainment options will be available on your specific flight.

Main Cabin Extra seats may be booked on select flights if you’d like a little extra leg room and other perks like free drinks and priority boarding. There are also other premium cabin options with lie-flat seats on certain flights, which leisure travelers are likely only able to enjoy by accumulating frequent flier miles or credit card points. Whichever way you fly American, you’ll experience standard legacy airline service onboard.

Here’s a list of current fares on American Airlines to locations throughout the U.S. and abroad.

Featured image by Sorbis via Shutterstock.

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