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Redeeming miles on partner airlines is an easy way to increase the value of your frequent flyer miles. Unfortunately, it’s also one of the most commonly misunderstood, and a daunting task for first-timers. How do you know which airlines you can book? Do you book through the frequent flyer program you’re using, or the airline you wish to fly? Does redeeming miles on partners cost the same number of miles as a standard saver award? And perhaps the one question that rules them all; how on earth do you find airline partner award availability?
Before we go any further, the one thing we want to point out is that when you book a flight on a partner airline, you don't transfer your miles from one airline program to another. You use the miles you have, no transfer required. We'll explain further, but make sure you remember this key point.
Today we’ll cover the basics of how to find airline partner award availability, and hopefully, leave you with a basic understanding of how to search out partner awards on your own. Bear in mind this is a broad overview, and we’ll be covering each alliance in more detail in future posts.
What Exactly Is a Partner Award?
What's the difference between a traditional award ticket, and a partner award? We’ll use United MileagePlus as an example.
- A traditional award uses United MileagePlus miles to book a United flight. Either a mainline United aircraft or United Express flight, but staying within the United ecosystem on United-marketed flights.
- A partner award uses those same MileagePlus miles to book one of United’s partner airlines. Either another Star Alliance member such as Air New Zealand, ANA, or Air Canada, or one of United’s other worldwide partners outside of Star Alliance i.e. Aer Lingus or Hawaiian Airlines. On the flip side, you could use a partner program like Singapore KrisFlyer to book award tickets on United-operated flights. Confused yet?
It’s important to differentiate, you are not transferring miles to the partner airline like you would a flexible rewards currency, but booking the partner airline through United using your MileagePlus miles. Where it gets confusing is when comparing airline miles, which typically don't transfer to other programs, with flexible rewards currencies like Ultimate Rewards which transfer to a variety of partner airline and hotel rewards programs.
Give It To Me Straight and Simple
In its simplest form, think of airline miles and flexible travel rewards (such as Ultimate Rewards) each as their own currency.
- They have a bank that issues them (either the airline or credit card program)
- A bank that exchanges them (that same program)
- Each point/mile has an exchange rate that can change at any time (set by that same program!)
- Each program has rules and criteria for redemption (yup, established by the program)
The biggest difference between actual cash/currency and airline miles or flexible travel rewards is that it is a closed system where value, exchanges rates, and the issuing/redemption all happens within the program. This is NOT a free market system. Our job is to understand how to extract maximum value from each program.
Can I Use My Miles to Book Any Airline?
No. To book a partner airline using miles, the airline you want to fly needs to partner with the frequent flyer program you are using to book the award. Most airline partnerships stem from the three big airline alliances, Star Alliance, SkyTeam, and oneworld®; however, most airlines also partner with additional airlines outside their alliance, and a few major airlines outside the three global alliances have built independent networks of partner airlines. These programs include the Persian Gulf pair of Emirates Skywards & Etihad Guest (Qatar being a member of oneworld®), plus our favorite frequent flyer program, Alaska Mileage Plan.
Partner Awards Require Low or ‘Saver’ Level Award Space
To book a partner award, the partner airline needs to have the lowest-level of award space available, often referred to as saver award space. If the only award space you can find on the partner is standard, or, the award travel equivalent of blasphemy, you’ll have no luck booking a partner award via another frequent flyer program.
Airlines make X amount of space available at the lowest (saver) level. Additional seats are available for a price premium (standard), but those seats are only made available to members of the program, and not partners.
Beware of Phantom Award Space and Different Levels of Partner Availability
The internet is rife with horror stories of folks that have checked award availability on a partner airline, transferred points across from a flexible currency like Ultimate Rewards, and attempted to book the award only to discover the award space they could see online was phantom award space, essentially a glitch in the award travel matrix.
You can mitigate the risk of phantom award space either by calling a reservations agent to confirm the award space before you transfer points, or checking on more than one of the recommended websites. Point transfers are typically final once processed, so this is not part of the process you want to skip.
Something else we need to factor in is that many airlines release more award seats to their own loyalty members than they do partners, so partner award availability can be harder to find on those carriers. A good example of this in practice is Singapore Airlines’ KrisFlyer program, which releases more saver-level seats to KrisFlyer members than it does to partners, with Singapore’s awesome first-class product only available using KrisFlyer miles.
Finally, not all airline partners can be booked online. Each frequent flyer program will have some partners that can only be booked with an agent over the phone.
Basics of Booking Partner Awards
What exactly do we refer to when discussing partner award availability. Let’s say you want to fly from the Mainland U.S. to Hawaii. Some options include flying American, United, Delta, Alaska, or Hawaiian using miles. You could redeem 45K SkyMiles for a roundtrip economy award on Delta, or, for that same flight, you could redeem 25K Korean SKYPASS miles or 30K Flying Blue miles for the same seats on Delta. In this case, it's cheaper booking a partner award via SKYPASS or Flying Blue to fly Delta, than it is to book a Delta award using the SkyMiles program. Mind blown?!?
Booking partner awards also increase the available destinations well beyond where the parent airline flies. If you want to fly to Johannesburg with your United miles, for example, you can fly a combination of United and South African Airways outbound, and TAP Portugal and South African Airlines returning home, using miles from your MileagePlus account. Remember, in all cases saver seats are available.
Whether you have Ultimate Rewards earned from your Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card, Marriott points from your Marriott Bonvoy™ American Express® Card, or Membership Rewards earned via a American Express® Gold Card, you can transfer points to airline partners, and redeem those miles on other airline partners, giving you maximum flexibility in your travel.
Best Websites to Search for Airline Partner Award Availability
Each alliance is home to member websites that provide fairly accurate partner award availability.
- United MileagePlus – Great for the initial search, United’s booking engine can struggle with more than two segments, and the award availability is not always accurate. It doesn’t show award space on Singapore, but you can view two months of availability, you don’t need to be logged in, it’s beginner friendly, and a great place to start your award search.
- Aeroplan – We’ve detailed the booking process for Aeroplan in a previous post. The results are laid out in a week-by-week format and the multi-city search function works surprisingly well, plus you’ll find Singapore alongside the rest of the Star Alliance members. The most accurate of the Star Alliance carrier websites for partner awards. You will need to sign up to search award availability.
- ANA Mileage Club – Efficient in the Japanese sense that it almost shows too much information, ANA shows fairly accurate results and is a great place to confirm award availability you’ve found on Aeroplan or United. You’ll need an account and to be logged in to search awards. Catch the details in our guide to booking ANA awards.
- BA Executive Club – It’s a toss-up between the BA and Qantas websites for oneworld® availability, with the latter my favorite more from familiarity than because it turns up better results. BA’s website is easy to use and will show availability for all member airlines, and the search results are accurate and easy to understand.
- Qantas Frequent Flyer – The Qantas website offers an easy search experience when compared to the likes of ANA. Qantas offers a month by month view and allows you to isolate the results by class of service, great if you’re scanning results to piece together dates. Qantas doesn’t show all routes flown by oneworld® carriers, not accepting Doha as a departure city during a recent award search, although Qatar is a oneworld® partner.
- Delta SkyMiles – Delta may no longer publish an award chart, but its partner search ability is ok. Not great, just good. Unlike oneworld® and Star Alliance, there is no ‘best’ booking engine for SkyTeam awards, with Delta, Air France, and Korean Air each having its pitfalls. The upsides to the Delta site are the 5-week search window, plenty of options to filter results, and displays the options in an easy to digest format that instantly shows saver-level awards if available. Just don’t expect all results to be accurate.
- Air France Flying Blue – Although the Air France website is renown for throwing up phantom space, it’s still the most reliable of SkyTeam’s member websites to search for partner awards. Flying Blue offers sharp and accurate search results for Europe, although those results do tend to favor its own flights over partner airlines.
- Korean Air SKYPASS – Korean’s revamped website has become another good resource for searching SkyTeam partner awards. In addition to showing much more of its own premium cabin space than the two sites above, we find it a great way of searching availability on other Asian carriers like China Southern and Garuda Indonesia. The interface is easy to use, but prone to throwing up strange error messages when searching premium cabin space and multi-city searches.
Alaska, Emirates, and Etihad
While you can search Emirates award space on Alaska, it only covers space on specific routes, not Emirates whole network. You’ll get better results searching for Emirates space on Qantas, and leaving the Alaska site for its own award searches. The same goes for Etihad Guest. You’ll find the best resource is the Etihad website, and search for GuestSeat space, which should be bookable with partner programs like AAdvantage.
How Do I Know If Award Space is Available?
While there are exceptions to this rule, in general, you can assume that if a seat is available for one partner to book, it is available for all partners to book. Meaning that if you see an award seat available on a United flight displayed when you search aeroplan.com, it should be available to all of United's partner airlines and their loyalty program members (including Singapore). Re-read those previous two sentences again to make sure you fully understand.
If a seat is available for one partner to book, it is available for all partners to book — effectively airlines are saying, “We'll offer these seats up for all of our partners to grab and the rest we'll hold for our members at a premium.”
Remember, this isn't a 100% guarantee, you should always double check availability, but it is a safe working assumption. Also, check out the free tool http://award.flights if you want to help speed up the searching process.
Expand Your Award Reach With Flexible Miles
One of our primary recommendations, when asked about points and miles strategies, is to collect flexible rewards currencies such as Ultimate Rewards and Marriott points, as it opens up so many potential redemptions. You can collect points earned on Marriott co-brand cards, transfer them to Korean Air SKYPASS at a 3:1 ratio, and redeem them for premium cabin award space that you would likely never shell out the cash for.
Wrapping your head around partner awards takes time, but the return is an exponentially greater value for your miles. The ability to fly United using Singapore KrisFlyer miles or flying Cathay Pacific using AA miles opens up many more routes, and some fantastic premium class products that you may not otherwise fly if you had to collect miles in that airline's rewards program.
If you want to take the easy way out, you can always reach out to our Award Booking Service, and we'll handle the heavy lifting of finding the best flights for your trip. We’d love to hear from you if we’ve missed an easy way of searching partner award availability and if you have any questions, please get in touch in the comments!
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