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Redeeming miles for partner award flights is an easy way to get greater value from your frequent flyer miles and credit card points. Unfortunately, the process is commonly misunderstood and can be a daunting task for first-timers. How do you know which airlines you can book? How do you find flights on a different airline? Does redeeming miles on partners cost the same number of miles as a standard saver award? In addition, perhaps the one question that rules them all: How on earth do you find airline partner award availability?
In this article, we’ll cover the basics of how to find airline partner award availability. Hopefully, this will leave you with an understanding of how to search for partner awards on your own. Keep in mind this is a broad overview and won't cover every possible scenario in each airline alliance.
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 (such as from Delta to United). You use the miles you have, in the program they're in. We'll explain further, but make sure you remember this key point.
What Exactly Is a Partner Award?
Airlines release award seats to their members to book with their program's frequent flyer miles. For example, United Airlines makes seats available to book with MileagePlus miles. However, airlines also make a certain number of award seats available to their partners. These are the seats you can book as a partner award flight.
Here's the difference between a traditional award ticket and a partner award flight, using United Airlines' MileagePlus program as an example:
- A traditional award uses United MileagePlus miles to book United flights. This can be either a mainline United aircraft or United Express flight, but you remain within the United ecosystem on United-marketed flights.
- A partner award uses those same MileagePlus miles to book flights on one or more of United’s partner airlines. This can be another Star Alliance member — such as Air Canada, Lufthansa, or Singapore Airlines — or it can be one of United’s other worldwide partners outside of Star Alliance (e.g., Aer Lingus, Emirates, or Hawaiian Airlines).
Things can go in both directions. You can book partner award flights using United MileagePlus miles (such as a Singapore Airlines ticket from San Francisco to Singapore using United miles), and you can book a United flight from San Francisco to Singapore using Singapore KrisFlyer miles.
It’s important to note that you are not transferring miles to the partner airline (like you would a flexible rewards currency); you're booking the partner airline through United using your MileagePlus miles. Where it gets confusing is when comparing airline miles with flexible rewards currencies like Chase Ultimate Rewards, because you can send these points to numerous different transfer partners.
Give it to me straight and simple
In its simplest form, think of airline miles and flexible travel rewards (bank points you can send to numerous programs, like Chase Ultimate Rewards or American Express Membership Rewards) each as their own currency.
- Each has a “bank” that issues them (either the airline or credit card program).
- A bank 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, also established by the program).
The biggest difference between cash and airline miles or flexible travel rewards is that it is a closed system where value, exchange rates, and the issuing/redemption all happen within the program. This is NOT an open market system. You can't use your miles and points for anything and everything, which you can do with cash.
Some programs offer more redemption options than others (e.g., the variety of uses of Amex points are much wider than possible uses of Avianca LifeMiles). Our job is to understand how to extract maximum value from each program.
And again, partner awards are when you use miles from airline A to book a flight on airline B. You don't need to move your miles/points between these programs — and you typically can't do that, anyway.
Taking things a step further
You may find better prices/value by booking partner awards, rather than booking an award flight through the program of the airline you want to fly with. While it may be possible to transfer your points to the airline you're flying with or may be possible to use the miles you have to book with the respective airline, that's not always the cheapest or best option.
Here's an example:
- Air Canada operates a flight from Vancouver (YVR) to London (LHR). The Air Canada Aeroplan program charges 37,800 points in the economy cabin for its own nonstop flight. Air Canada Aeroplan is a transfer partner of American Express Membership Rewards.
- However, Avianca LifeMiles charges just 30,000 miles for the same Air Canada economy flight. As LifeMiles is also a partner of Membership Rewards, I could save 7,800 points by transferring my points to LifeMiles and booking through this program instead.
This example directly compares two partner programs where you can use a partner award flight to save points. However, I've left off some of the other aspects you should consider, such as the award change and cancellation policies of the airline programs. Sometimes, the partner award flight savings are not worth it when you may be harshly penalized for canceling or changing a reservation later on.
Basics of Booking Partner Award Flights
Can I use my miles to book any airline?
No. To book a partner airline using miles, the airline you want to fly must 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, many airlines also partner with additional airlines outside their alliance. A few major airlines outside the three global alliances have built independent networks of partner airlines.
Non-alliance airline examples include the Persian Gulf pair of Emirates Skywards & Etihad Guest (with regional airline Qatar Airways being a member of Oneworld).
Here are some examples.
Air Canada is a member of Star Alliance, and you can use your Aeroplan points to book flights on an impressive 47 airlines (including Air Canada itself). While that list obviously includes Star Alliance partners like United Airlines, it also includes Cathay Pacific — which is a Oneworld alliance member — and Emirates (not a member of any alliance).
With Emirates' Skywards program, there's no alliance, but you can book partner award flights with a bunch of airlines, such as Japan Airlines, Qantas, South African Airways, and, both United Airlines and Air Canada.
So while you can't book every airline, you have a few different methods for booking a flight on United Airlines, for example: booking through Emirates, Air Canada, or United itself. There are more options beyond this, but it proves the point.
Partner award flights require ‘saver’ award space
To book a partner award flight, the partner airline needs to have the lowest level of award space available. This is often referred to as saver award space. If the only award space you can find on the partner is standard (the award travel equivalent of blasphemy), you’ll have no luck booking a partner award via another frequent flyer program.
Airlines only make a limited amount of space available at the lowest (saver) level. Additional seats are available for a higher price (standard awards), but those seats are typically held for the airline's own program and not shared with partners.
Unfortunately, some airlines obscure the difference between Saver and Standard awards. Conversely, some carriers clearly label saver award space, but most don't. The main U.S. frequent flyer programs have gotten worse over the past several years with a slow move into dynamic award pricing, which obscures award pricing and what type of award you're seeing.
Benefits of Booking Partner Awards
Save miles using partner frequent flyer programs
Let’s say you want to fly from the mainland U.S. to Hawaii. Some options include flying American Airlines, United Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Alaska Airlines, Hawaiian Airlines, and Southwest Airlines. All of these carriers operate flights to Hawaii, and you can book these flights using miles from their respective loyalty programs. However, in many cases, you can also book flights using partner miles — and may spend less doing so.
For example, I could redeem 24,600 United MileagePlus miles for a one-way economy award from Seattle to Honolulu via San Francisco. For a seat on the same flight, I could redeem 22,500 Avianca LifeMiles. This is a modest savings. Air Canada Aeroplan also offers this particular award for the same price as LifeMiles.
But what if you could take the same flight for just 7,500 miles by booking with Turkish Miles & Smiles? Now we're talking.
In this case, it's far cheaper to book a partner award via Miles & Smiles (and then fly on United) than it is to book this United flight using United's own program. Mind blown?!?
Reach more destinations
Booking partner awards also increases your available destinations well beyond where the parent airline flies. If you want to fly to the Seychelles using your United miles, for example, you can do so. United doesn't operate flights there, but you can reach this island nation using partners. Fly Star Alliance partner Ethiopian Airlines to get there. Remember, saver seats must be available.
Whether you have Chase points earned from your Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card, Marriott points from your Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant® American Express® Card, or Amex points earned via the American Express® Gold Card, you can transfer points to airline partners and redeem those miles on other airline partners. This provides maximum flexibility in your travel.
Expand your award reach with flexible points
One of our primary recommendations, when asked about points and miles strategies, is to collect flexible rewards currencies like Chase Ultimate Rewards and Amex Membership Rewards. These open up so many potential redemption opportunities. You can collect points earned from several Amex cards, transfer them to programs like Virgin Atlantic Flying Club or Avianca LifeMiles, and redeem them for premium cabin award space that you might never afford if you had to pay cash.
Take advantage of better change or cancellation policies
While airline award ticket change and cancellation policies are better post-COVID, some carriers still hit you with fees. In some cases, you can book using partner miles in order to take advantage of a better cancellation policy (e.g., using United miles to book Avianca flights, or Delta miles to book Air France flights).
It can be beneficial to book with a carrier that requires fewer miles, but you may give up some flexibility in the process. Carefully consider whether this is worth it. I prefer to book with programs that allow free cancellation — or at least only charge a nominal fee. It's painful to pay upwards of $200 to get my miles back.
When you need to change or cancel a ticket, you follow the rules of the program you booked with. Which airline you're scheduled to fly is irrelevant here, so booking flights through a change-friendly program can be beneficial.
But beware of phantom award space and limited partner availability!
The internet is rife with horror stories of folks who checked award availability on a partner airline, transferred points across from a flexible currency like Citi ThankYou Points, and attempted to book the flight only to discover the award space they could see online was phantom award space. 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 by checking 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.
We also need to consider the fact that many airlines release more award seats to their own loyalty members than they do partners. 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. Singapore’s awesome first-class product is 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.
Best Websites to Search for Airline Partner Award Flight Availability
Each alliance is home to member websites that provide fairly accurate partner award availability. Use these to help you find partner award space efficiently.
- United MileagePlus: Great place to start your initial search. United’s booking engine can handle most itineraries, and you don't need to be logged in to search. You can view up to 30 days of availability at a time. It doesn’t show premium cabin award space on Singapore Airlines, but the search engine is 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 Airlines alongside the rest of the Star Alliance members. Aeroplan is the most accurate of the Star Alliance carrier websites for partner awards. You will need to sign in to search for 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 must log in to search awards. Catch the details in our guide to booking ANA awards.
- British Airways Executive Club: It’s a toss-up between the British Airways and Qantas websites for Oneworld availability. The latter is 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. The search results are accurate and easy to understand. However, the main downside is that you have to search one day at a time.
- 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, which is great if you’re scanning results to piece together dates. However, it doesn’t show all routes flown by Oneworld carriers and doesn't accept Doha as a departure city — even though Qatar Airways (based in Doha) 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 pitfalls. The upsides to the Delta site are the five-week search window, plenty of options to filter results, and seeing 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 renowned for displaying phantom space, it’s still the most reliable of SkyTeam’s member websites to search for partner award flights. Flying Blue offers sharp and accurate search results for Europe, although those results do tend to favor its own flights over partner airlines. Using the calendar feature is handy, as well.
- 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 method for searching availability on other Asian carriers like China Southern and Garuda Indonesia. The interface is easy to use, but it's prone to throwing up strange error messages when searching premium cabin space and multi-city searches.
Emirates and Etihad
You’ll get the best results for Emirates flights available to partners by searching for space on Qantas. You'll also get decent results searching Emirates' own website.
The same goes for Etihad Guest. You’ll find the best resource is the Etihad website. Search for GuestSeat space, which should be bookable with partner programs like AAdvantage and Aeroplan.
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 should be available for all partners to book. What does this mean? If you're on the Aeroplan website and see see an award seat is available on a United flight, it should be available through all of United's partner airlines Re-read those previous two sentences again to make sure you fully understand.
If a seat is available for one partner to book, it should be available for all partners to book. Effectively, partner awards are airlines saying “We'll offer these seats up for all of our partners to grab, and the rest we'll hold for our members.”
Remember, this isn't a 100% guarantee. You should always double-check availability. However, it's a reasonably safe working assumption. I've run into issues here just once when trying to book a Cathay Pacific business class flight using Alaska miles. After searching British Airways, I found three award seats were available. However, upon calling Alaska to book, agents could only see two seats.
It takes time to wrap your head around how partner award flights work. The return on this investment is an exponentially greater value for your miles. The ability to fly United using Singapore KrisFlyer miles is a great way to save a few miles on some routes. The same can be said for flying Cathay Pacific business or first class using Alaska miles — a fantastic premium cabin redemption that you may not otherwise fly if you had to collect miles in that Cathy's own rewards program.
If you want an even easier option, you can always reach out to our Award Booking Service. We'll handle the heavy lifting of finding the best flights for your trip.
We’d love to hear from you if you think we’ve missed an easy way of searching partner award flight availability. If you have any questions, please get in touch in the comments!
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