What is an Airline Alliance and Why Should I Care?
Imagine you have a wallet full of money.
Not just any money, lots of DIFFERENT KINDS of money. American dollars, Canadian dollars, British pounds, Korean won, Chinese yuan, Japanese yen, Tanzanian shillings, Mexican pesos.
Money is great, but if you only have a little bit of each currency, how will you actually spend it all in one place?
This is what airline loyalty programs are like. If you are always chasing the cheapest deal, chances are you are going to have some Delta Skymiles, some American AAdvantage points, maybe some British Airways Avios or Hawaiian miles. Flights are big ticket items, so if you have your points (or currencies) in all different places, how will you ever redeem for something so expensive?
Enter airline alliances!
Note: For the purpose of this post, “miles” and “points” are used interchangeably as the name of the currency in which an airline gives a customer based on the length and cost of the flights the customer booked.
Let’s say groups of airlines got together and said “Hey, let’s be friends. Your customers can earn your points on our flights, and our customers can earn our points on your flights. We all share the customer base and the rewards.”
Actually, that’s pretty much what happened. But how does this affect you as a consumer?
Instead of randomly earning small amount of points from multiple airlines, you can concentrate your earning into just three programs, one from each alliance.
The three alliances are:
Almost every airline in the world is a part of one of these alliances- even random ones, such as Kenya Airways or Sri Lankan Airlines.* This means that wherever you travel, you can almost always concentrate your earnings into one of the three pots, which means you will have enough points to redeem flights later.
Alan travels from Houston to Seattle once a year to visit relatives. He usually flies on United, since Houston is a United hub. Alan wants to visit Asia for the first time and is excited to go to Taiwan this year. Alan finds a flight on EVA Air, which is Taiwan’s main carrier. Does Alan want to earn EVA miles for his transpacific flights on EVA Air? NO. However, Alan can earn United miles for his flight to Taiwan because United and EVA are in the same alliance. Alan will simply add his United MileagePlus number to his flight booking, and the miles will show up in his account soon after flying. Now instead of having some miles with United and some miles with EVA, Alan has ALL of his miles in his United account, and he can redeem them for another flight.
Clear as mud, huh?
Maybe it will help if I share a true story of what NOT to do.
In 2010 I went to Australia. I was 20 years old and had no idea what I was doing when it came to travel hacking,- I just knew that I might as well earn some points if I was going to fly. I booked a ticket on a third-party website (Expedia probably, but I really don’t remember). The flight, naturally, was on the main Australian airline, Qantas. I signed up for the Qantas loyalty program, and my roundtrip flight earned me around 12,000 miles. Sweet!!
But maybe not. I never went back to Australia, and I didn’t know how to use the points. Tick tock tick tock… the miles expired after three years of inactivity. I remember getting an email in 2013 saying that my miles were gone, but I could pay to get them back. Yeah right. I was irritated, but I didn’t know anything about airline alliances and I didn’t know what I would have done with the miles anyway.
What I SHOULD have done was skip the Qantas account entirely and just used my American Airlines AAdvantage number on that flight. American Airlines and Qantas are both members of the Oneworld Alliance. I could have earned 12,000 miles on American instead, and those I DEFINITELY knew how to use!
So what should you do with this information?
If you have not already done so, sign up for a frequent flyer program with one airline in each of the alliances. If you are American, the obvious choices are American (Oneworld Alliance), Delta (Skyteam Alliance), and United (Star Alliance).** When you book a flight, simple google the airline you will be flying on to see which alliance it is in. Then you can use your frequent flyer number from that account and add it to your booking. Now you can earn miles for almost every flight you take, and they will be concentrated enough that you can actually spend them!!
*It is important to note that budget airlines, such as Air Asia or Ryanair, are always excluded from airline alliances
**If you’re Canadian, you may want to opt for Air Canada instead of United. If you’re British, you may want British Airways instead of American. If you’re Australian, you may want Qantas instead of American. However, you do not HAVE to use the loyalty program from your country. I’m American but have gotten a lot of good use from the British Airways program, and I know Singapore KrisFlyer and Cathay Pacific Asia Miles are popular with travel hackers from around the world. If you’re from outside North America, I would look for more specific information from a blogger from your country- this is just to be sure that you using points in a way that serves you the best.
Does it cost anything to create a frequent flyer account?
Nope! They’re totally free for Americans. Ironically Qantas charges Australians and New Zealanders for their program, but all the rest are free.
Can I transfer my points from one alliance to another?
No. Once your points are in the account of a specific program, they are stuck there. There is no system to transfer American miles to Delta or anything of that nature. You also cannot transfer miles within the same alliance, such as from Qantas to American You can transfer miles from one account to another in the same system (i.e. your United account to your friend’s United account) but it is expensive.
What if I already took a flight- can I get the miles retroactively?
Yes. This all depends on the individual airline- some allow you to claim points from the previous 30 days up to the previous six months. You’ll have to check the airlines website and see what paperwork is required.
Do I have to use all the alliances?
No! You can use as many or as few as you like. Personally I use Star Alliance and Oneworld, but what works for you is going to depend on the routes from your home to where you want to go.
Do I have to book the flight on the airline’s website to get the miles?
No. You can add your frequent flyer number to your flight no matter where you booked it, who booked it, or who paid for it. You can even add it to your boarding pass at check-in if you forget.
Can I earn miles on flights that I paid for but someone else flew?
No. You can only earn miles to your account on the flights in which your butt is in the seat. It doesn’t matter who pays for it, whose account was used to buy the tickets, etc.
What about Southwest?
Southwest is considered a budget airline and is not part of any alliance.
If I’m American, should I always redeem flights on American, Delta, or United?
The short answer is no. There are ways to strategically use programs from other counties for redeeming free flights, which often required earning those points via credit cards and then transferring them to the frequent flyer program of your choice. But if you have NO idea what that means… don’t worry. Just start with the alliances in this post and you’ll be fine!!
In a nutshell
Sign up for a frequent flyer program in one of each of the three alliances. Try to concentrate
your earning within those three programs. If you are going to be flying somewhere, make sure
you get some miles for it!