Beginner's Guide to Airline Alliances and Partnerships

AwardWallet receives compensation from advertising partners for links on the blog. Terms Apply to the offers listed on this page. The opinions expressed here are our own and have not been reviewed, provided, or approved by any bank advertiser. Here's our complete list of Advertisers.

Airline alliances and partnerships are among the most important concepts you need to understand to win the travel rewards game. If you only use your AAdvantage miles to book flights on American Airlines, you’re missing out on a lot of possibilities.

Nearly every airline has established partnerships with other airlines around the world. In this post, we’ll look at why you should care and how to maximize the value of your miles and points.

Why You Should Care About Airline Alliances and Partnerships?

The average traveler assumes that you should use American miles to book American Airlines flights and use Delta miles to book Delta flights. It’s an obvious assumption to make, and that’s why we made this post.

You can indeed use your miles that way, and sometimes you'll find a good deal. But if you don't consider an airline’s partners, you’re missing out on at least 80% of your options. Plus, you may end up spending far more miles than necessary.

Let's say you want to fly with United Airlines from Chicago to Hawaii. Would you rather spend 15,000 miles or 45,000 miles for a round-trip ticket? If you book with United MileagePlus, you'll be paying (at least) 45,000 miles.

So how do you book the same flight for a third of the price? The answer is by redeeming a different type of miles from a frequent-flyer program that partners with United. In this case, you can transfer Citi ThankYou points to Turkish Miles&Smiles and book United flights from anywhere in the U.S. to Hawaii for only 7,500 miles each way.

This is a great example, but there are many others. Airline alliances and partnerships create thousands of opportunities to spend fewer miles. So even if you have no interest in traveling internationally, it still pays huge dividends to know about frequent-flyer programs that are overlooked by almost everyone else.

If you're wondering why there are different prices or which flights you can book with miles, check out these two posts for beginners:

Why Partnerships Exist?

In a word, destinations. It doesn’t make sense for U.S.-based airlines to operate a direct flight to every city in Europe. By forging partnerships with European airlines, airlines can offer you an itinerary to almost any destination you want to visit. For example, American Airlines partners with 22 other airlines, including four in Europe.

If you want to fly to Mayorca, Spain or Split, Croatia, you can easily connect with a short Iberia or British Airways flight after crossing the Atlantic. If AAdvantage miles could only book American Airlines flights, you'd be stuck with a much smaller list of destinations.

american airlines partners

American miles aren't at all unique in this respect. Each type of airline miles offers its own network of options. Now, let's take a look at the partnerships and alliances that can supercharge your rewards strategy.

Airline Alliances

First, let’s talk about airline alliances. Airline alliances are just large networks of airline partnerships. Instead of negotiating with each individual airline, all of the alliance members agree to a single set of rules that apply between all members.

There are three main global alliances:

  • Star Alliance
  • Oneworld
  • SkyTeam

Star Alliance

Formed in May 1997, Star Alliance is the oldest as well as the largest airline alliance. Star Alliance consists of 26 airlines around the globe and is the only alliance with members from all six continents.

Star Alliance airline map

Oneworld

The Oneworld alliance (generally written with a lower-case o) was formed in 1999 and currently consists of 13 airlines, with Alaska Airlines set to join by the end of 2020. It is the smallest of the three major airline alliances. With LATAM Airlines leaving in 2020, Oneworld is a bit lacking in South America (and sub-Saharan Africa).

oneworld alliance airline map

SkyTeam

The SkyTeam alliance was formed in June 2000 and is the second-largest airline alliance in terms of the number of airlines and total passenger count. Its 19 different airlines are well dispersed throughout the globe, meaning that no matter where you want to travel, you can find a flight with SkyTeam.

skyteam alliance airline map

Individual Airline Partners

Not all airlines are a member of one of the global alliances. Many carriers have chosen to remain independent, giving them the freedom to set up strategic, individual partnerships. Some of these airlines are too small to join an alliance or limit their service to a single country or region like JetBlue and Southwest.

But there are also a few independent airlines with global reach. These include airlines like Etihad, Emirates, and Virgin Atlantic.

It's also worth noting that the two types of partnerships aren't mutually exclusive. Many alliance airlines also maintain separate partnerships with airlines that aren't part of their alliance. For example, Oneworld member American Airlines partners with Etihad Airlines and SkyTeam’s Delta Airlines partners with Virgin Atlantic.

How Airline Alliances and Partners Benefit Travelers

In addition to connecting you to more destinations, airline partnerships can simplify travel and make elite status more rewarding. When your itinerary includes multiple airlines, you can usually get your boarding passes for the whole trip when you check in for your first flight. Your bags can be checked to your final destination, and the minimum time to connect between partners is often shorter.

Most airline partnerships also have reciprocal elite benefits. That means your elite status and benefits like free checked bags, airport lounge access, and flight upgrades will apply to partner flights too.

Another key feature of many (but not all) partnerships is the ability to earn and redeem miles with partners.

Earning Miles with Partner and Alliance Airlines

When you pay for a flight with money instead of miles, you can usually choose to earn miles with a partner airline's frequent-flyer program.

If you rarely fly with Aegean Airlines, it doesn't make sense to accrue a few thousand Aegean miles that will be hard to redeem. Instead, you could decide to earn miles with a program like United MileagePlus or Singapore KrisFlyer where you already have a stash of miles. (If you're wondering why you might have a “stash” of Singapore miles, check out our post on consolidating transferable points for an award ticket.)

Just like frequent-flyer programs can have different award prices for the same flight, they also differ in how many redeemable miles they award for partner flights. For example, an economy (T class) on Aegean earns twice as many miles if credited to Singapore KrisFlyer than if credited United MileagePlus. You can learn all about this topic in our post on where to credit miles.

How to Plan a Trip with Partner Airlines

As we mentioned earlier, knowing how (and when) to redeem miles with partners is key to maximizing your rewards. The right strategy can save you cash and miles and get you to less popular destinations faster. So, let's take a look at how you can use your knowledge of partners to plan your next trip.

Your first step should always be to figure out what partnerships are relevant. Sometimes, you'll be starting with a destination in mind. In other cases, you might just want to explore where you can go with the points and miles you already have.

Working Backwards from a Destination

Let's say you want to book a trip to Europe with stops in Barcelona and Paris. To find out what airlines serve those cities, you can head to the Wikipedia page for BCN and CDG airports. An even better, free tool is FlightsFrom.com, which shows a complete list of direct flights. You can even filter by country (flights between Barcelona and the U.S.), and limit the results to a single airline or alliance (Skyteam flights from Paris).

Once you have a list of prospective airlines, you'll need to figure out which frequent-flyer programs let you book them with miles. The global airline alliances offer a helpful shortcut since you can redeem miles from any member with all of the other alliance airlines. The alliance maps should make it easy to see which carriers will be relevant for your destination.

Keeping track of individual airline partnerships can be harder. However, there are many great opportunities to be found, so don't just look at alliances.

If you're planning to book soon, your options will be limited by the airlines that partner with miles you already have. Checking your rewards balances should be quick and easy if you're using AwardWallet to track your rewards. But if you're planning a trip further down the line, keep the search broad. That way you can plan your points earning strategy and credit card applications around the points that work best.

The last step is to check out the pricing and determine if there are any advantages to using one type of miles over another. If you haven't already done so, make sure to review our guide to frequent flyer pricing.

Let the Opportunities Decide Your Next Destination

If your heart isn't set on a specific destination, you let the points and miles decide for you. Every frequent-flyer program offers unique advantages. Some programs are great for a short weekend getaway. Others can facilitate ambitions round the world trips that will keep you busy in retirement.

For open-ended exploration, you'll find our posts on award sweet spots especially useful. Each one focuses on a type of points or miles and highlights the redemptions that make the program stand out from the competition.

Don't forget that transferable points can be converted into lots of different types of airline miles.

Related: An Introduction to the Types of Reward Points

Turning Your Miles into a Confirmed Ticket

Booking with miles isn't nearly as straightforward as buying a flight with money. You can only redeem miles for a small percentage of the flights for sale. We explain why and how to take the next step when you're ready to book in our guide to frequent-flyer availability. If you're new to points and miles, this is essential reading that can save you lots of time and frustration.

Final Thoughts

Airline alliances and partnerships are a critical part of using points and miles. If you only use your miles on the same airline where you earned them, you're limiting yourself to a tiny fraction of the available options—and you'll be competing for limited award availability with all the other travelers who don't know any better.

Using the wrong rewards can mean spending more miles or paying higher taxes for your flight. Without partner airlines, your list of possible destinations will shrink dramatically. And even if you can get to your destination, you'll likely spend more time on a plane when partners or alliance airlines could have gotten you there with fewer connections.

On the other hand, the right rewards can open up creative routing opportunities like stopovers or open jaws. Once you know your options, you can compare prices and booking rules to pick the program that best fits your trip.

Did you learn something new from this post? Is there another topic you'd like to see us cover in a beginner's guide? Let us know in the comments!

The comments on this page are not provided, reviewed, or otherwise approved by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

**You may receive 5 bonus AAdvantage miles for leaving a comment (Details/FAQ)

Comments

  • Avatar

    Nice discovery the site FlightsFrom.com
    Usually I participate in one or two airline programmes per alliance.
    Easy to take care of.

    • Avatar

      Not to mention that if you’re a flying numbers geek, there’s lots of interesting data on that site as well. Data that would allow you to pretty easily monitor the health the airline industry worldwide and watch their attempt to return from Covid.

  • Avatar
    ROBERTO MAURO says:

    Excellent report, concise and well explained. I would add the GOL Smiles Club, which is very interesting even though it is not part of the 3 major alliances. regards

  • Avatar

    Thanks for the information.
    I did not care about alliance before. Perhaps I have missed many miles.

  • Avatar
    Fabian Teves says:

    This blog is very useful. I have been flying since 1999 and even thouh I knew about the alliances, I didn’t how they work. Next time, I will re-read this post again before planning a new trip.
    I appreciate the Post very much!

  • Avatar

    Thanks for this writeup. I will have to save this and study it next time I want to book a trip. I’ve always wondered how the partnership works and it all seems so complicated.

  • Avatar
    Pablo Quilis says:

    Excellent post. Very complete and clarify about airline partners. Thanks

  • Avatar

    Love this post!!
    I always find this topic very confusing and this post clears up a Lot of my doubts. I will keep these tips in mind when planning my next trip. It’s a great help. Thanks!!

  • Avatar
    Alejandro Sosa says:

    It is honestly a very clear and informative article at the same time. It provides very important information and web pages one must visit when planning a trip to get the most out of a mileage program.

    However, I find it hard to believe that in the example of a flight from Chicago to Hawaii, traveling on United Airlines, it is more expensive to use the company’s own frequent flyer program than to use a program from another member of the alliance. Next time, I will check options, for sure.

  • Avatar

    Prior to COVID-19 it felt like Delta was leading airlines away from Global Alliances and instead investing heavily in key partnerships. Does the global impact of COVID-19 strengthen or weaken the position of Global Alliances?

    • Avatar

      That’s a good question. I expect they are less important to airlines right now with international travel suppressed, but I don’t think this situation weakens alliances long term. As things start to pick back up, having partners to share the risk/cost of getting people to destinations will be more valuable than ever.

  • Avatar

    I am a gold member of Star Alliance, They have provider my very good experience at some private trip with my family . Hope Covid-19 gone asap, or else i am afraid i can’t keep my Gold member this year.

  • Avatar

    One world is my most love alliances as the partners have very good Business class . And also they have very good Lounge at HongKong.

  • Avatar

    Very nice and useful sum up. Thank you.
    Will save this post for the future reference.

  • Avatar

    Excellent guide, as always. Have you considered creating a tab in the nav bar or something else that would keep all of your guides in one place? I would love to be able to refer back to them. Depending on the subject, the search feature is sometimes not the most effective way of finding a past post.

  • Avatar
    Juan Ignacio says:

    Excellent post!!
    I work in a VIP lounge and it is incredible how frequent flyers don’t know why is important to have just one FFP per alliance instead having 2 or 3 in the same airlines’ group.

  • Avatar
    Deepak Kar says:

    It is also important to keep track of taxes, some countries have atrocious taxes even on tickets bought with mile, like UK. I try to find ways I dont “start” my journey in those countries!

  • Avatar

    All alliances are only truly strong on 3 continents.

  • Avatar

    I never knew about flightsfrom.com and will definitely use that in the future for trip planning.

  • Avatar

    Nice comprehensive guide to the major alliances- good to refer to when booking with points!

  • Avatar

    Great explanations, learned a couple new websites too, thanks!

  • Avatar

    I really like the American Airlines partners. Really can travel all over the world with all of them. Good deals and great information. Thanks for the post