Did you know that sometimes it is cheaper in miles/points to book a flight operated by airline A through airline B’s frequent flyer program? For example, it can cost you less miles to book a flight on Air France through their SkyTeam partner airlines, like Virgin Atlantic, than it would through Air France’s own frequent flyer program. This is the beauty of airline alliances, partnerships, and frequent flyer programs.
Today’s question comes from Michelle:
I think something I would like to hear about is using alliances…it’s a little confusing. For example, I recently read it’s cheaper for me to book an American Airlines flight using British Airways Avios. Like where do you even begin?
Thanks for your submission! We are happy to review how airline alliances work and how you can use one airline’s miles to fly another airline and potentially save a lot of miles.
Airline Alliances & Partner Airlines
Most (but not all) airlines belong to one of three big alliances – Star Alliance, oneworld, and SkyTeam. In the U.S.:
- American and Alaska Airlines = oneworld
- United Airlines = Star Alliance
- Delta Air Lines = SkyTeam
What are the benefits of airlines belonging to an airline alliance?
- easy ticketing on multiple airlines
- through check-in for all segments on one ticket
- ability to check bags to final destination, even if travel is on multiple airlines
- frequent flyer elite benefits
- ability to earn miles and points with one airline when you travel on any of their partners
- worldwide lounge access
- redeem miles from one airline on any of their partners
the list goes on and on, but basically, being in an alliance benefits the airline greatly as they are able to expand their global reach and offer flights to destinations they don’t fly to through the help of their alliance partners.
It is also important to understand that airlines can have partnerships outside of alliances or even partnerships with airlines that belong to a different alliance. For example, Alaska belongs to oneworld but has a partnership with Singapore Airlines which belongs to Star Alliance – and you can use Alaska miles to book an award flight on Singapore Airlines.
Alliance-Wide Frequent Flyer Benefits
If an airline belongs to an alliance and you hold elite frequent flyer status with one airline, a lot of the benefits you receive with “your” airline also transfer over to all of the other airlines in the alliance when you fly with them. For example, if you have Star Alliance Gold status with any Star Alliance airline, the following benefits apply to you when you travel on any Star Alliance airline:
- priority check-in
- extra baggage allowance
- priority baggage handling
- security fast track
- lounge access
- priority boarding
- priority reservations waitlist
- priority standby waitlist
there may be more benefits offered, depending on individual agreements between airlines.
Redeeming Miles on Partner Airlines
Major airlines have frequent flyer programs and you can earn and redeem miles for travel on those airlines and their partner airlines. For example, you can redeem British Airways miles for travel on American Airlines, and the same in reverse, because both airlines are in the oneworld alliance.
Going back to Michelle’s question, there are opportunities that exist which allow you to redeem airline A’s miles for travel on airline B, and you could end up paying less miles than if you outright booked your ticket through airline B’s frequent flyer program.
These opportunities exist because the airline who’s miles you are redeeming sets the price in miles – not the airline you are actually flying. So if you are redeeming British Airways miles for a flight on American Airlines, it is British Airways who determines the cost. For example:
- American Airlines flight from New York to Miami in Economy Class, one-way
- price when redeeming American Airlines miles: 12,000 miles + $5.60 (can change)
- price when redeeming British Airways miles: 9,000 miles + $5.60
The price in miles is determined by the issuing carrier while the taxes and fees remain the same, in this case. There are times when taxes and fees can vary greatly depending on what frequent flyer program you are using to book your ticket.
Transferring Bank Points to Frequent Flyer Programs
The points that you should always be collecting from credit card spending are those that belong to transferable points programs from major banks like AMEX Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards, etc. The reason why you should collect these instead of miles directly in an airline’s program is because they give you the flexibility of transferring your points to the airline with the best price and availability. Most transfers from bank points programs to frequent flyer miles are instant and therefore you’re able to redeem those miles right away.
Not only that, but when you collect points in a flexible and transferable bank program, you can also save points when booking the same flight – going back to our example above, there are cases when you can transfer your bank points to a different, partner program and redeem on a different airline where the savings can be huge.
- say we have 100,000 American Express Membership Rewards
- we want to book a one-way Business Class flight on Delta Air Lines from New York to London
- AMEX points transfer to Delta at a 1:1 ratio and Delta wants 350,000 miles (an insane amount of miles for the flight)
- AMEX points also transfer to Delta’s partner, Virgin Atlantic, which could offer the same flight on Delta for just 47,500 miles
In this case, we would transfer to Virgin Atlantic and book through their program for a flight on Delta. This opportunity exists because Virgin determines the cost as we are using Virgin miles – it doesn’t matter if you fly Virgin or one of their partners, if you are using Virgin miles, Virgin sets the price.
This is just one example, but many like this exist in the miles and points world. The best ways to find deals like this is to first find availability on the airline you want to fly and then simply run through each of their partner airlines’ frequent flyer programs and check what the redemption rates are.
All in All
The beauty of miles, points, frequent flyer programs, and airline alliances is that so many incredible opportunities exist where you can redeem awards for flights that would cost thousands of dollars normally – yet the same flights can be booked for miles and some taxes/fees. You should always be collecting flexible and transferable points so that you are well prepared when it comes time to book – the more options you have, the better. Keep in mind the number one rule of booking flights with miles is to be flexible, it will open up many amazing opportunities in travel for you.