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What is an Airline Alliance and How does it Work?

Airline alliances and airline partnerships are downright confusing. Learn what an airline alliance is and how to maximize your miles by using them!

I had a conversation earlier this week that made me realize just how confusing airline alliances and airline partnerships can be. I thought I could clarify it by explaining what an airline alliance is, how to take advantage of airline alliances by using miles on partner flights, and choosing what airline to credit your miles to. These airline alliances and airline partnerships give you a great chance to fly in first and business class to different destinations on of the best airlines in the world for a fraction of what it would normally cost.

What is an airline alliance?

I have given you guides about how to maximize your miles on American, Delta, and United. Each of the three legacy airlines in the United States belongs to an airline alliance. But what does this mean? An airline alliance means you can earn frequent flyer miles on one airline and redeem them on any of the other airlines in the alliance. Through the alliance groups, airlines can market seats for partner airlines on their website. When our flight from Tampa to Los Angeles booked on American Airlines was canceled on our way to the Maldives, we were able to get rebooked on Qatar Airways giving ourselves a big product upgrade on a 15-hour flight!

Qatar Airway 777 Business Class

The three big airline alliances are Star Alliance, OneWorld Alliance, and the SkyTeam Alliance. The SkyTeam alliance, which includes Delta, Air France, and Korean Air is the largest serving more than 665 million passengers per year. The Star Alliance, which includes United, Singapore Airlines, and Lufthansa serves the widest group of countries with destinations in 192 of the 193 UN recognized countries! The alliance I spend the most time on is the OneWorld Alliance, which includes American Airlines, British Airways, and Cathay Pacific.

Airline Partnerships vs. Airlines Alliances

To make things even more confusing a lot of the airlines have partnerships in place with airlines that aren’t part of one of the alliances. These partnerships can be among the most lucrative ways to redeem those hard earned miles. Etihad Airways is not a member of an airline alliance, but I was able to redeem just 90,000 AAdvantage miles + about $55 for their first class product from Abu Dhabi to New York, that would normally cost me over $10,000 each way.

Alaska Airlines is a partner airline of American Airlines but does not belong to an airline alliance. This means you can book flights on Alaska Airlines through American and vice-versa. You can also transfer your Marriott BonVoy points to your Alaska MileagePlan account. Even after recent devaluations, Alaska Airlines is still a great option to “bank” your miles to because of the great partners including Emirates, Japan Airlines, and British Airways.

How does a Airline Alliance Work
Alaska Airlines’ Partners

With airline partnerships, you will often only be able to earn miles on flights marketed by the airline you want to bank your miles with. For example, if I were to go to Etihad’s website and book a flight from JFK to Abu Dhabi, I couldn’t earn AAdvantage miles on the fare. Instead, I would have to call American Airlines Customer service to have them search and book the trip to be eligible to earn miles. Delta has an agreement with Virgin America and Virgin Atlantic that allows you to earn and redeem miles. Virgin Atlantic offers a great option for redeeming your Delta miles, but also has very reasonable redemption rates using their own loyalty program from the US to London.

How to Take Advantage of Airline Alliances for Free First Class Flights

Now the fun part. I have been able to use these airline alliances to my advantage and get thousands of dollars worth of flights for basically free. How do we take advantage of these airline alliances and partnerships to get free first class travel around the world?

Most credit cards have from 5-10 airline partners that you can transfer your points to at a 1:1 (or sometimes even better) ratio. For example, Chase has 9 airline partners including British Airways, United, and Air France. This means, depending on where you are heading, and which airline you typically bank your miles with you have an opportunity to transfer your miles to a partner of the big three US airlines to get business class or better travel for just the taxes of the ticket. One thing to be aware of is that the partners from abroad may or not have lower redemption rates than the domestic carriers. Below you will find a list of the best value airline redemptions and what alliance and credit card(s) they are partnered with.

What is an airline alliance

How do I know which Airline to Bank My Miles to?

Everyone should have a frequent flyer account for the major US Airlines – American, United, Delta, JetBlue, Southwest, and Alaska. Chances are you’ll use some more than others, but certain airlines’ miles never expire. I’d also recommend a British Airways account (to search for OneWorld airline alliance flights), a Singapore Krisflyer Account (because their product is awesome), and a FlyingBlue account (Air France and KLM are part of the Skyteam alliance, but have award travel promos every month).

Once you have these accounts it makes the decision on where to accrue your miles a little more difficult. Luckily the website wheretocredit.com shows you exactly how many miles you will earn on a given airline in a given fare class on all possible partners.

Drawbacks of crediting your miles to an airline alliance partner

While using partners for earning and redeeming miles can be lucrative, there are some drawbacks of not banking your miles to one of the big 3 carriers.

  1. If you credit your miles to a partner airline the miles and segments will not count towards elite status on the US big 3airline alliance
  2. Banking miles in a partner airline’s program can result in fewer points
  3. Some partners’ loyalty programs are less valuable, so the same amount of points doesn’t get you as much for a redemption

Be sure you do a little research before you decide to just skip crediting your miles to one of the big 3.

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Airline alliances and airline partnerships are downright confusing. Learn what an airline alliance is and how to maximize your miles by using them!


  1. […] real benefits start when you fly 100,000 EQMs on an airline (or one of their alliance partners) each year. Before this year’s AA program changes you received 8 system wide upgrades (SWUs) for […]

  2. […] major airline alliances to help you find award space for your next adventure. It also helps to know how an airline alliance works and I’ve got you covered there as […]

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