5 reasons I pursued elite status with a foreign airline
Over the years, I've held elite status with a number of airlines, including American, Alaska and United, just to name a few. Although there's the overarching question of whether elite status is even worth it anymore, there's one program, in particular, that's provided me far greater value than the rest — Japan Airlines Mileage Bank.
Despite being based in the U.S. and having only flown with the Japanese carrier a handful of times, I currently hold top-tier Diamond status in the program and am able to get tremendous use of it. The main reason is that Japan Airlines is a member of the Oneworld alliance, and I get reciprocal loyalty benefits when flying on partners like American and Alaska.
The idea of foreign elite status has become more prevalent with new status match opportunities from ANA, Royal Air Maroc and ITA Airways. So today, I'll share why I'm loyal to a foreign airline loyalty program — and why you might want to be too.
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Status is easier to earn
First things first: Elite status is often easier to earn with a foreign airline when compared to many U.S. carriers.
Unlike most U.S. airline loyalty programs, foreign airlines generally don't have spending requirements to qualify for elite status. This is great for those who book cheap tickets, as you'll usually earn elite-qualifying credit based on the distance and class of service flown rather than your fare.
Related: What are airline alliances, and who’s in them?
Some foreign programs even have lower thresholds for qualifying for status than U.S. ones too.
For instance, Asiana Club Diamond status (which translates to Star Alliance Gold) requires a modest 40,000 elite-qualifying miles, and you have 24 months to accrue them. Just note that some programs require you to fly a certain number of segments on their own metal to qualify. Aegean Airlines allows you to earn Gold status (also Star Alliance Gold) with just 24,000 Tier Miles within 12 months, but you must fly a minimum of four flights on Aegean — otherwise, the requirement is 48,000 Tier Miles.
Foreign airlines also tend to be more generous with their status match offers. As the name suggests, status matches are where an airline matches your status from a competitor to the equivalent level in their own program. The U.S. airlines generally have a challenge component to their status matches, while foreign airlines often match your status outright.
We've recently seen several lucrative status matches in each major alliance, including ANA for Star Alliance status, Royal Air Maroc for Oneworld status and ITA Airways for SkyTeam status. Several TPG staffers are newfound Star Alliance Gold elites thanks to a status match offer from Air Canada last fall.
Related: Current airline elite status match and challenge options you should know about
Lounge access on domestic trips
One of my favorite perks of mid and upper-level elite status is airport lounge access. The only problem? If you earned your status with a U.S. airline, you generally don't have access to this benefit on domestic trips. Luckily, this restriction doesn't extend to Oneworld and Star Alliance elites who earned their status with a foreign airline.
If you have elite status with a foreign Oneworld or Star Alliance carrier, you can enjoy lounge benefits whenever you fly with an alliance member, including on domestic U.S. itineraries.
As a Oneworld Emerald member through Japan Airlines, I have access to swanky lounges like American's Flagship Lounges and the Qantas International First Lounge at LAX — normally reserved for long-haul customers — even on short domestic hops. These are fancy lounges that even the most premium credit cards normally don't grant you access to.
Unfortunately, SkyTeam always requires its elites to travel internationally to access lounges, regardless of the airline you earned status with.
Related: Best credit cards for airport lounge access
Priority treatment on the ground
The U.S. airlines treat partner elites basically the same as their own on the ground. This means that you'll still get access to the usual priority ground services like priority check-in, boarding and baggage delivery. You'll also get your usual checked baggage allowance, even if you're flying domestically.
As a Oneworld Emerald member of a foreign program, I get access to American's exclusive Flagship First check-in areas whenever flying with the carrier. This perk is normally only available to passengers flying Flagship First or invite-only ConciergeKey members. Even top-tier American AAdvantage Executive Platinum elites can only use these areas when flying on qualifying long-haul routes.
The biggest downside to having elite status with a foreign carrier is that you generally don't get upgrades on partner flights. At least that's the policy on paper.
I've found that partner elites are at the top of the list for operational upgrades (generally when a flight is oversold and the airline "needs" to bump someone to a premium cabin). As a Japan Airlines elite, I've gotten a number of surprise upgrades on American Airlines flights, including on popular routes like New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) to Miami International Airport (MIA) and Los Angeles International Airport (LAX).
Although premium cabin upgrades aren't a published benefit, preferred and extra-legroom economy seating on partner flights generally is. My Oneworld Emerald status gets me free Main Cabin Extra seating on American Airlines flights at the time of booking, while partner SkyTeam elites may be eligible for upgrades to Delta Comfort+ close to departure. Eligible Star Alliance elites get access to preferred seats on United, but not Economy Plus.
Related: How to ensure an upgrade on your next flight
The redeemable miles are more valuable
Although you may be able to work around this, you are generally expected to credit your flights to the foreign program to reap your status benefits. That means that I'm earning JAL Mileage Bank award miles when flying American, as opposed to AAdvantage miles. While some might think this is a drawback, I actually see this as an advantage.
This varies by program, but I find many foreign mileage currencies more valuable than those of the U.S. airlines. This is because many foreign programs still publish award charts with fixed redemption rates and still have some really good sweet spots.
For instance, if you're crediting flights to ANA Mileage Club instead of United MileagePlus, you'll be able to book round-trip business class awards to Europe for just 88,000 miles round-trip — significantly less than the 73,000+ miles United usually charges one-way when you book with a partner airline.
Related: Airline miles that are hardest to earn — and why you want them anyway
Most travelers will instinctively choose to be loyal to frequent flyer programs from their home countries. However, depending on your travel habits and preferences, it might make more sense to chase elite status with a foreign partner airline — even if you rarely fly with them.
Remember that because you'll also be crediting your redeemable miles to that program, make sure it has useful redemptions. Although ANA has low redemption rates, it's not ideal for those who like to book one-way awards as all tickets must be booked round-trip.
So if you're OK with fewer upgrades and the redemptions make sense, it could be worthwhile to earn status with a partner instead.