What is an Airline Alliance and How does it Work?

I had a conversation earlier this week that made me realize just how confusing airline alliances and airline partnerships can be. I thought I could clarify it by explaining what an airline alliance is, how to use miles for partner flights, and choosing what airline to credit your miles to. These airline alliances and airline partnerships give you a great chance to fly to different destinations and experience some of the best airlines in the world for a fraction of what it would normally cost.

What is an airline alliance?

I have mentioned in my posts about how to maximize your miles on American, Delta, and United, that each of the three legacy airlines in the United States belongs to an airline alliance. But what does this mean? An airline alliance means you can earn frequent flyer miles on one airline and redeem them on any of the other airlines in the alliance. Through the alliance groups, airlines can market seats for partner airlines on their website. When our flight from Tampa to Los Angeles was canceled on our way to the Maldives, the OneWorld Alliance came to the rescue allowing us to fly on Qatar Airways!

Qatar Airway 777 Business Class
Qatar Airway 777 Business Class

The three big airline alliances are Star Alliance, OneWorld Alliance, and the SkyTeam Alliance. The SkyTeam alliance, which includes Delta, Air France, and Korean Air is the largest serving more than 665 million passengers per year. The Star Alliance, which includes United, Singapore Airlines, and Lufthansa serves the widest group of countries with destinations in 192 of the 193 UN recognized countries! The alliance I spend the most time on is the OneWorld Alliance, which includes American Airlines, British Airways, and Cathay Pacific.

Skymiles
Skyteam Alliance Members

Airline Partnerships vs. Airlines Alliances

To make things even more confusing a lot of the airlines have partnerships in place with airlines that aren’t part of one of the alliances. These partnerships can be among the most lucrative ways to redeem those hard earned miles. Etihad Airways is not a member of an airline alliance, but I was able to redeem just 90,000 AAdvantage miles + about $55 for the experience of a lifetime!

Alaska Airlines is a partner airline of both American Airlines and Delta. You can also transfer your SPG points to your Alaska MileagePlan account. Even after recent devaluations, Alaska Airlines is still a great option to “bank” your miles to because of the great partners including Emirates, Japan Airlines, and British Airways.

Alaska Airline's Airline partners
Alaska Airline’s Airline partners

With airline partnerships, you will often only be able to earn miles on flights marketed by the airline you want to bank your miles with. For example, if I were to go to Etihad’s website and book a flight from JFK to Abu Dhabi, I couldn’t earn AAdvantage miles on the fare. Instead, I would have to call American Airlines Customer service to have them search and book the trip to be eligible to earn miles. Delta has an agreement with Virgin America and Virgin Atlantic that allows you to earn and redeem miles. Virgin Atlantic offers a great option for redeeming your Delta miles, but also has very reasonable redemption rates using their own loyalty program from the US to London.

How do I know which Airline to Bank My Miles to?

Everyone should have a frequent flyer account for the major US Airlines – American, United, Delta, JetBlue, Southwest, and Alaska. Chances are you’ll use some more than others, but certain airlines’ miles never expire. I’d also recommend a British Airways account (to search for OneWorld airline alliance flights), a Singapore Krisflyer Account (because their product is awesome), and a FlyingBlue account (Air France and KLM are part of the Skyteam alliance, but have award travel promos every month)

Once you have these accounts it makes the decision on where to accrue your miles a little more difficult. Luckily the website wheretocredit.com shows you exactly how many miles you will earn on a given airline in a given fare class on all possible partners.

Drawbacks of crediting your miles to an airline alliance partner

While using partners for earning and redeeming miles can be lucrative, there are some drawbacks of not banking your miles to one of the big 3 carriers.

  1. If you credit your miles to a partner airline the miles and segments will not count towards elite status on the US big 3

    airline alliance
    You must book through American for miles to count toward elite status

  2. Banking miles in a partner airline’s program can result in fewer points
  3. Some partners’ loyalty programs are less valuable, so the same amount of points doesn’t get you as much for a redemption

Be sure you do a little research before you decide to just skip crediting your miles to one of the big 3.

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Airline alliances and airline partnerships are downright confusing. Learn what an airline alliance is and how to maximize your miles by using them!

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