Free One Way Awards: A More In-Depth Look

Update: The Section on AA Free One way Awards is no longer valid, AA has eliminated free one ways on all awards.

It’s international week here at Milenomics, Here’s a sampling of the posts from this week in case you missed anything:

The Free One Way Award. We’ve likely all heard of these.  Almost everyone touts them as one of the benefits of award travel, especially international travel.  I’ve discussed them during this week’s international award travel discussions here and here.

Milenomics advocates getting the most for the least.  That means saving miles and money whenever possible.  Free one ways on award travel are usually seen as a way to save money.  We’ve gone over them extensively in discussing the Hybrid system, and using Delta’s limited free domestic stopovers to save miles and money on domestic air travel. For international travel there is one instance where I always take the Free One Way, and another where I sometimes don’t.  Today we’ll go over those two situations.

Why I Love Free One Ways With AA Awards

With AA awards all flights are technically booked as one way awards.  There aren’t any stopovers allowed per se with AA.  Instead you do get one chance at a break in a regular award ticket, and that is at the North American Gateway City. I discussed this yesterday, and pointed  to it as an example of why we wanted our first city visited on the way home to be JFK, so we could stop there, and continue on somewhere else at a later date.

Such a flight would look like this:


And would allow you to get home from BKK to NYC, stop in NYC for a few days/weeks/months, and then go to MIA.  The easiest way to figure out the N.A. Gateway city is to look at the first city in North America you reach after leaving another region.  

 These types of bookings can be a great way to add on a free one way segment somewhere in the US or Canada at the start or end of trips.  Don’t forget to use them with the Hybrid system to book 2 trips as just one.  The free one way would replace the WN or BA segment in the Hybrid system.

Better than Free One Way awards with AA:

With AA miles as long as you can find a flight back to your home airport and make it your NA Gateway city you have nothing to lose in booking a free one way.  Even if you don’t use the flight, you pay no extra miles for it, and can change the date with no fees as well.  Pick a city you know you’ll want to visit, tack it along to the end of the flight and change the date even after completing the international portion of the trip.  You can also do the same with your starting flight. If you know you’ll be in Hawaii for example you could do LIH-LAX (stop) LAX-LIM dest. Then on the return do LIM-LAX (stop) LAX-SEA, setting the stage for a Hybrid System trip from SEA with DL miles.

You lose flexibility with this technique because you must start the trip in LIH.  If you decide to not go to LIH, or plans change you’ll be looking at headaches.  This is an example where adding a one way at the start and end actually DROPS the price of the trip, to 30,000 miles for the LIH-LAX-LIM segment in Business instead of 37.5 for just LIH-LAX.  AA has some quirks like this, where you can cause the booking engine to give you a better price by flying more (or making it look like you are at least).  In this case you have nothing to lose, plus you’re saving miles to get home from Hawaii (in business).

Limitations of AA Free One Way Awards

By far the biggest limitation is that your stop must happen in a gateway city–if you don’t live in one of those you probably can’t use this trick. It also means that your routing must leave the N.A. from your home gateway city or return to the N.A. gateway city first.  So if you live in NYC for example you’re eliminating any chance of flying HKG-SFO-NYC or HKG-LAX-NYC as an option for your award search.  You’re limiting your choices in order to get your “free” one way. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but if you live in a city which is serviced by inferior flight products, or the choice of flights isn’t as good you might be really trying hard, and spending time and energy to make that free one way “fit.”

Milenomics Tip: Just because something can be done doesn’t always mean it should be done.

Why I don’t always love free one ways with UA and US

These two carriers have stopovers listed as a benefit of round trip travel.  What this means is that you’re allowed a stopover en-route to your final destination.  This kind of stopover can be used for almost unlimited possibilities.  The above example HKG-SFO-NYC wouldn’t allow you to stop in NYC with AA miles, but UA and US should allow such a stop, and then to continue on with a free one way award later from NYC-MIA (or anywhere else in the Lower 48+Canada).

The unlimited nature of these stopovers becomes both the strength and their weakness in respect to free one way awards. A flight such as the one I outlined yesterday: LAX-CDG (stop) CDG-BKK (dest) BKK-ICN-LAX uses your stopover to allow you to spend days/weeks/months in Paris before visiting Thailand.  To do so with AA miles you’d need to use an AA Explorer Award.

With UA and US think of awards as being much more fluid. Look to combine two trips into one, on a global scale.

My point is simple: With US and UA you might be better off using your stopover for something besides a “free” one way inside the US.  This is where retraining your brain comes into play.  Ask yourself the following questions:

  • – What are your goals with the international award?
  • – Do you have plans to see more than one city? Would you fly JFK-NRT (stop) then NRT-BKK (dest) then BKK-JFK back?
  • – Is spending time in another international city more important than a free one way to somewhere in the US?

Only you can answer these questions–but think hard about them because you may be  surprised that the most value comes to you from not using a free domestic one way with US and UA.

A Note About Free One ways with 2x Open Jaw (UA):

UA’s rules say you’re allowed a stopover and a double open jaw, but in reality this is not always true.  You absolutely can ticket a double open jaw with a stopover. However ticketing a double open jaw with a stopover at your origin breaks the fare.  I haven’t gotten a good reason why this is; it just does.  If anyone knows more specifics please do let me know.  I have been able to get a flight manually ticketed by UA this way, but only did so with a lot of patience and luck.  Be prepared to waste your time if you have an open jaw at your destination and are trying to add a free one way at the end of the flight with UA miles.  The right US agents will probably let something like that ticket, but it too is technically against the rules.

While CLT-MAD // CDG-CLT stop CLT-LAX is technically valid, it is an example of a 2xOJ with a stopover at your origin.

If that last paragraph made no sense, here’s the basics: Using a free one way with UA or US means you’re giving up something; in this case either an open jaw at your destination (with UA), or a stopover somewhere else along the way (UA or US).  Be sure you really want to add that free one way as opposed to doing either of the other two.

A great Use of the Two Programs Together

UA and AA both allow one way awards.  I touched on this briefly in the AA tips and tricks post.  What I advise people to do, especially when they don’t have enough UA or AA miles for the whole trip is to book one way with UA miles, and home with AA miles, using your NA gateway stopover.

This allows you to book before you have enough miles in either program for the whole trip, still preserves the stopover and free one way, and gives you an open jaw (if needed) in the middle of the trip with your United Miles. An added bonus, as you could see from yesterday’s Star Alliance post, is that there was great availibity going to BKK with *A, and great flights back from BKK with oneworld.  This technique would have made our example trip fall perfectly on our dates, Feb 4 – Feb 23.

Red flight is taken with United Miles, Blue the flight home with AA miles, Green is the free oneway after stopping in JFK. Maps courtesy of


The idea of a free flight grabs our attention. It really is up to us, as #Milenomics, to decide if that free one way is the best use of our miles.  For many of us it will be.  For some of us, and specifically those of us wanting to see multiple foreign cities, a stopover somewhere else may make more sense.  Also with United if you’re looking for an open jaw at your destination you’re going to have a lot of trouble using your “free” one way.[rule]

About the author

- Written by Sam Simon. All ideas are my own, but I encourage you to see my point of view and I promise I'll try to do the same. Connect with me on Twitter @Milenomics.


  1. I just used AA miles to book travel back from TPE with a stopover in HNL. Nice way to gradually recover from the time difference.

    1. David, good job on the booking. The point of the post was that it isn’t always best to try and get a free one-way. In your example you get to experience HNL, and relax a bit on your way home. Probably can’t put a value on that, but either way it is still a good use of the program’s benefit. Interested in why you chose the stopover vs. a free one way? Do you not live in a gateway city? Or was it something else? I would probably have done the same, would be nice to have a little “R n R” on the beach in HNL before coming back to the daily grind vs. a domestic one way.

  2. I think it’s our travel pattern…we only take 2-3 trips a year, and each trip normally has 2-3 cities. With the points bank we have, it feels like we can book US/Canada anytime, whereas if we were going to Japan, it’s fun to tack on a stopover in Seoul or Hong Kong. Or our upcoming EU trip, we’re going to Barcelona and Madrid in addition to Paris.

    For me, it’s not a gateway issue (SFO), but it does feel like LAX has the most options. Also, the few times I’ve checked, there wasn’t availability to my preferred destinations, and didn’t want to deal with too many changes.

  3. Hello,
    I’d like to know if I add a free one way to my AA award flight, and for some reason is unable to take the flight what happens? Will I be charged with points or cash if I ended up not taking it? Do I have to cancel the flight (free stopover)?

    I am booking 1st class award seats for 2 from Singapore-connecting in HKG-LAX (stopover for 1 month) – MIAMI. I do know I must complete my travel within one year when my flight is ticketed (today, Dec. 21, 2013); our international flight is taking place on Nov.22, 2014. Hence I only have until Dec.20, 2014 to complete my free one way. Being so close to holidays, I’m not sure if we would be able to get away for our free stopover. Please clarify what would happen if I ended up not taking the free stopover.

    Thank you so much and Happy Holidays.

    1. Lena,

      Realistically nothing will happen if you don’t take the flight. You’ll be out your $2.50 or so for taxes on that segment. Plans change, and this is why airlines oversell flights (especially during the holidays). I wouldn’t sweat it–one dropped segment is NBD.

      Sounds like a great trip! Happy holidays as well.

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