Most of us are familiar with the concept of airline miles, but to really maximize your travel opportunities, it’s helpful to dig in a bit more into how airlines work with each other, with banks, and how you can make those partnerships work for you.
What is an Airline Alliance?
An airline alliance is simply an agreement between any number of airlines to work together to compete, share resources and provide a seamless worldwide network to connect passengers across the globe. The degree to which airlines work together may vary, but as a consumer, you’ll most commonly see an airline alliance in practice when booking an international trip.
This may be easier to understand with a real-life example. Say you live in Chicago and want to travel to the south of France for vacation. Your normal airlines of choice – American or United – don’t fly there. Thanks to airline alliance partnerships, you could book American to London and connect on British Airways to Nice, all on one ticket. Or, you could book United to Munich and connect on Lufthansa to Nice, all on one ticket.
Most legacy airlines (that means the big-name traditional carriers, as opposed to the smaller or low-cost carriers) are affiliated with other legacy airlines, either through alliances or individual partnership agreements.
Alliances and partnerships are the building blocks of award travel, so it’s important to understand how these work before we get started.
In many cases, this means that you can fly Airline A, and earn miles on Airline B. When you go to redeem your miles, you can often use Airline B’s miles to fly on any number of other airlines, including back on Airline A!
There are three major alliances you’ll need to be aware of, each comprising several airlines:
Star Alliance Airlines:
The Star Alliance is the largest alliance, comprising the following airlines:
LOT Polish Airlines
Scandinavian Airlines (SAS)
Air New Zealand
Juneyao Airlines (Star Alliance Connecting Partner)
South African Airways
Several of the Star Alliance airlines actually share a frequent flyer program, Miles & More, so that adds an extra layer of confusion. We don’t need to worry about that just yet.
oneworld Alliance Airlines:
By contrast, the oneworld alliance isn’t quite as big:
Royal Air Maroc
Cathay Dragon (oneworld affiliate)
Fiji Airways (oneworld connect member)
SkyTeam Alliance Airlines:
The other main alliance is SkyTeam, which I fondly refer to as the “leftover alliance” 😉 :
Delta Air Lines
Middle East Airlines
Similar to the Miles & More program within Star Alliance, several SkyTeam airlines share a frequent flyer program called FlyingBlue.
Other Key Airlines:
Additionally, there are several other airlines that aren’t part of a particular alliance necessarily, but have partnerships with each other, or with other airlines – even those in the main alliances.
Air Tahiti Nui
Etihad Airways, for example, is partners with a dozen or so airlines.
Okay, so why does this matter?
We’ll talk more about each program and their partners later in the series (and every day on the blog), so for now the important take-away is that regardless of what miles you have, you likely have many more options for redeeming your miles than you may have thought.
For the most part you really can’t transfer miles from one airline to another, so it’s best if you can accrue miles on one or two key programs within each alliance. If you have 25,000 Air France FlyingBlue miles, there’s no way to combine them with 25,000 Korean Air Skypass miles, even though they’re both in the SkyTeam alliance.
You can redeem on the various partners, but you’ll always follow the rules of the program you have miles with, so it’s important to know what those are. The miles you have dictate which award chart you follow, and what the rules are. So if you have Delta SkyMiles, you are going to follow the terms and conditions of the SkyMiles program, no matter which airline you end up flying.