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How to Maximize Miles with Alliances and Airline Partners

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Freqeunt flyer miles would be a lot less interesting if you could only use them on one airline. Fortunately, that’s not the case, and today TPG Contributor Richard Kerr explains how you can use airline partners for award flights just about anywhere you want to go.

Most frequent flyers have heard of the major airline alliances: SkyTeam, Oneworld, and Star Alliance. However, airlines across the world have many other unique partnerships you might be unaware of. For example, you can redeem Delta SkyMiles to fly from Xiamen to Guangzou in China on Xiamen Airlines, or to fly discount Japanese airline Skymark as a Japanese resident with a Delta credit card.

Understanding partnerships between modern frequent flyer programs can help you learn how to redeem miles for flights to every corner of the globe. In this post, I’ll discuss the basics of earning and redeeming miles on airline partners, and give you some examples of how to maximize these relationships.

Partnerships and Alliances

Since the founding of the first major global airline alliance in 1997, two other worldwide alliances have evolved. Between them, these three alliances encompass 62 airlines and over 47,000 daily flights. Alliances provide all kinds of benefits both to passengers and the member airlines. You can earn and redeem frequent flyer miles, and make use of elite status across a wide range of carriers and regions, rather than just on one carrier and the routes it serves on its own metal. Here’s a quick introduction to each of the global airline alliances:

Star Alliance is the largest of the 3 global alliances

Star Alliance: With 27 airlines from every continent (except Antarctica), Star Alliance is the largest and oldest of the three main alliances. United Airlines is the domestic flagship member in the US. In Europe, Lufthansa, Turkish Airlines, Scandinavian Airlines, and Swiss are the big players. Asia hails founding member THAI, along with ANA, Air China, and new member Air India. Sprinkle in Ethiopian Airlines, Egypt Air, Air New Zealand, Copa Airlines, and the rest of the members, and you have the globe fairly well covered.

Star Alliance’s new Terminal 2 at London Heathrow (named The Queen’s Terminal), is a great example of the benefits to passengers and cost savings to airlines that an alliance can provide. Star Alliance Gold status offers the notable benefits of extra checked baggage allowance and business lounge access. United elites with Premier Gold status and above receive Star Alliance Gold status.

Oneworld: The smallest of the big three alliances, OneWorld claims 15 airlines and 14,000 daily departures. American Airlines (now including US Airways is the domestic carrier in the US. The big kids of Oneworld include British Airways, Qantas, Japan Airlines, Cathay Pacific, TAM, and Qatar Airways. Mid-tier Oneworld Sapphire status (which you get as an AAdvantage Platinum member) gives you extra checked baggage allowance and access to business class lounges.

SkyTeam: 16,323 daily flights to 1,052 destinations sum up this alliance’s daily efforts. Delta is the domestic carrier in the US. SkyTeam includes plenty of airlines you’ve heard of (like Air France, KLM, and Korean Air) and some others you most likely haven’t (like Middle East Airlines and Xiamen Air). If you have a lot of upcoming business around China, I recommend a look at SkyTeam, as China Southern, China Eastern, China Airlines (Taiwanese Airline) and Xiamen Air can offer you codeshare flights pretty much anywhere you may need to go. SkyTeam offers Elite and Elite Plus status, which gives you excess baggage allowance and lounge access. Delta Gold medallions and above are given SkyTeam Elite Plus status.

Alliance members often have liveries showing off their allegiance. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

Most airlines also have partners that aren’t in an alliance, or are even members of another alliance. American Airlines is partners with independent carrier Fiji Airways, and United has 12 partner airlines that aren’t in the Star Alliance. The earning and redeeming principles discussed below apply to all partners regardless of alliance affiliation.

American partners with several airlines that are not members of an alliance.
American Airlines partners with several airlines that are not members of an alliance.

Earning Miles with Partners

In my opinion, the simplest and most important benefit of earning on partner airlines is that you’re not stuck with miles on a carrier you might only fly once or twice in your life. You also have more options when you’re flying on a carrier with a subpar frequent flyer program (cough cough, Delta).

I flew Air China from Beijing to Rome in 2013, and I didn’t have a particular interest in building a large Air China PhoenixMiles balance. Many people would simply shrug and move on, figuring they’ll have 6,000 orphaned PhoenixMiles or just not collect miles at all. However, since Air China and United are both in Star Alliance, I decided to credit the miles from my Air China flight to United. At check-in, I simply asked the agent in Beijing to attach my United MileagePlus number to my reservation.

When flying on a partner airline, a simple check of the fare class you’re booked in and a glance at the United website (for example, the Air China partner page) will show you what percentage of miles flown you can expect to earn. Unfortunately for MileagePlus members, United has demolished some of its partner earning rates. Here are some tips to keep in mind when deciding which airline to credit for your flight:

1. Check the Earning Rate: Go to the website of the airline whose miles you want to collect and look at the particular partner’s section of the flight you booked. If you look back at the Air China page on United.com, you’ll see that discount economy fares on Air China will earn anywhere from only 50% down to a big Goose egg when credited to United.

United's earning rates with partner Air China show fares that only earn between 0-50% of base miles.
United’s earning rates with partner Air China show fares that only earn between 0-50% of base miles.

2. Check Routing Blackouts: You may earn 100% of base miles with some partners, except on certain routes. For example, you can earn AAdvantage miles on all Etihad flights, except flights marketed and operated by Etihad between the USA, Toronto, and Abu Dhabi. Missing out on those miles would be a bummer, so make sure to check the rules in advance.

3. Take Advantage of Promos: My wife and I have an upcoming round-trip, first class ticket (via mistake fare) from Tokyo to Abu Dhabi on Etihad. I thought I would obviously want to earn 150% base miles by crediting the flight to American, but then I got an email that Etihad was offering triple miles on first class flights. With Etihad’s free pooling option for families, I could potentially end up with a ton of Etihad Guest miles by adding my wife’s earnings to my own.

4. Redeeming Does Not Equal Earning: The flow of miles between partner airlines is uneven. For example, you can use AAdvantage miles to fly on Air Tahiti Nui, but you can’t pay for an Air Tahiti Nui flight and credit it to AAdvantage.

To earn miles with whichever airline you decide on, you can either change the frequent flyer number on your itinerary online, or ask at check-in to have that airline’s frequent flyer number added to your reservation.

Etihad's triple Guest miles for first class tickets means I could earn big on my upcoming Tokyo-Abu Dhabi trip.
Etihad’s triple Guest miles in first class means I can earn big on my upcoming Tokyo-Abu Dhabi trip.

Redeeming Miles with Partners

Much more fun (and complicated) is how to redeem your frequent flyer miles from one airline for free flights on one of its partners. For example, you can use American AAdvantage miles to fly on the other 14 Oneworld alliance members, or on many of American’s other partner airlines. This truly opens up the world to you so long as you collect miles inside one of the alliances or with an airline that has several partners.

When it comes to redeeming miles for partner award flights, there are a few misconceptions that I’d like to clear up:

  • You do not transfer your miles to the partner program. If you want to use Delta miles to fly on Air France for free, you will redeem your SkyMiles for an Air France award through Delta.
  • You do not use the partner airline’s award chart. Continuing with my above example, to fly from Paris to Tokyo on Air France using SkyMiles, you’ll be charged according to the Delta SkyMiles program, not Air France’s Flying Blue program.

    Korean Airlines A380 First Class is considered by many the most prestigious ride in SkyTeam. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.
    Korean Airlines A380 First Class is considered by many the most prestigious ride in SkyTeam. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

Redeeming miles on partner airlines is more of an art form than a science. With that in mind, here are my basic tips and strategies to redeem miles with partners:

A is for Availability: Finding available seats for an award ticket on a partner airline is often as difficult as Indiana Jones’ quest for the Ark of the Covenant (but thankfully with fewer snakes and spiders). It’s often so complicated that there are award booking services to help you make your dream trip come true.

B is for Booking Online: Booking partner award flights online is the easiest and least stressful method. Some airline websites are outstanding at showing partner award availability. United and ANA are great at showing most Star Alliance partner award seats. British Airways’ website shows most Oneworld partner availability. SkyTeam lacks a strong option for showing partner availability online — the Flying Blue award search tool is the best, but it’s still rather buggy. There are other online tools for serious points and miles hobbyists to find award availability online. When possible, book online to avoid long wait times and phone booking fees.

BritishAirways.com always shows plenty of Japan Airlines domestic flights available for Avios redemptions.
BritishAirways.com always shows plenty of Japan Airlines domestic flights available for Avios redemptions.

C is for Call: Regardless of which alliance you’re using, you’ll often have to call the airline to find partner availability and book the flight. Spoiler alert: this is without a doubt the most frustrating part of redeeming miles for a partner flight. If you’re trying to book anything more than a simple round-trip itinerary, be prepared to call the airline several times until you land a knowledgeable agent who doesn’t mind putting in a little extra effort. Phone agents often don’t even know their partner airlines.

Before calling, do every bit of preparation you can online, and write down the flight segments you find that show availability. Feeding agents itineraries segment by segment is the most helpful thing you can do.

D is for Dumping Fuel: Fuel surcharges are the bane of award travel, and the cumulative taxes and fees can be so steep that booking an award is hardly worthwhile. You may want to fly British Airways across the Pacific, but be prepared to pay several hundred dollars for your “free” ticket. By doing some research you’ll learn, for example, how to minimize those extra costs by using Oneworld partner Iberia for transatlantic flights (instead of British Airways).

E is for the more Economic decision: American Airlines will charge you 25,000 AAdvantage miles to fly round-trip from Chicago to Denver and back. British Airways will charge you 15,000 Avios for the exact same American flights. Learn the economics of partner redemption rates and put the miles you save toward your next trip.

Redeeming British Airways Avios for American flights can save you 10,000 miles.
Using British Airways Avios (bottom) for short-haul flights on American (top) can save you miles.

There’s only one way to really learn the nuances of earning and redeeming on partner airlines, and that’s through practice. Trying your hand at award booking will begin to show you how much your frequent flyer miles can offer when used to their full potential.

If you’re new to the hobby, the most important step is to check your earning rates based on your fare class, and figure out which frequent flyer program you want to credit. If you’re experienced, the frequent flyer landscape is always shifting, and there’s more to learn about finding partner award availability and how to avoid fuel surcharges, so study up!

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