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It seems like over the past ten or so years, U.S. frequent flyer programs have been participating in a race to rock bottom – there are constant changes almost monthly to either elite benefits or award charts or some other part of the program; people can’t keep up and it has become frustrating. In a world of dynamic award pricing and constant changes in the U.S., it has been business as usual outside of the U.S. with minor changes here and there – you should use foreign frequent flyer programs to your advantage and win at award travel.

Benefits of Foreign Frequent Flyer Programs

There are numerous benefits to using foreign frequent flyer programs for award redemptions:

  • transfer in miles from flexible bank points programs in the U.S.
  • published award charts (most programs)
  • good redemption rates
  • same award space access at the saver/partner-levels
  • competent phone agents
  • low cancellation and change fees (most programs)
  • generous routing rules and stopover policies

While there are probably more benefits to foreign frequent flyer programs, I think the biggest advantage is that they don’t change from year to year – when there are changes, they are announced ahead of time and once implemented, they tend to stick around for a few years at least.

Foreign Frequent Flyer Programs for Domestic Awards

Did you know in some cases you will come out ahead by transferring your AMEX points to Virgin Atlantic and then redeeming those on a Delta flight instead of transferring those points to Delta directly? That’s just one example, but in a huge number of cases, you are better off redeeming miles from a foreign program on a domestic flight.

You can redeem on these U.S. airlines using programs from foreign airlines such as:

  • Alaska Airlines & American Airlines
    • British Airways
    • Cathay Pacific
    • Qatar Airways
    • Qantas
    • any oneworld program and more
  • Delta Air Lines
    • Air France
    • Korean Air
    • Virgin Atlantic
    • any SkyTeam program and more
  • United Airlines
    • Air Canada
    • Avianca
    • ANA
    • Asiana Airlines
    • Lufthansa
    • THAI Airways
    • any Star Alliance program and more

In some cases, you can transfer your AMEX, Chase, Citi, Capital One, Marriott, etc. points to these programs and then come out ahead by booking through them. Using major foreign frequent flyer programs is generally easy and redemptions can be made online for most flights.

Domestic Award Redemption Example

Let’s take a look at some examples:

  • AMEX points on Delta Air Lines flight KOA-SEA
    • Delta 19k miles
    • Virgin 15k miles
    • Air France 17k miles
  • Chase points on United Airlines flight EWR-BOS
    • United 7.8k miles
    • Air Canada 6k miles

Note that Alaska and American Airlines do not partner with bank transferable programs but they do partner with Marriott Bonvoy. However, the best way to redeem on these two oneworld airlines is usually through British Airways Executive Club – for example, a West Coast to Hawaii redemption will only cost you 13k miles while Alaska and American will charge more directly.

International Award Redemption Example

Like with domestic awards, you will get more value from foreign frequent flyer programs on international flights as well:

  • Chase points on SWISS flight JFK-GVA
    • Air Canada 60k miles
    • United 88k miles

This doesn’t apply in only a few cases – but rather in a lot of cases you will find that transferring your points to a foreign program instead of a domestic one will lower the cost of your award ticket.

It is important to note that if you are redeeming miles/points on a partner airline, there must be saver/partner-level award availability – just because you see a seat on Delta’s website at a decent price, it does not mean that Air France or Virgin will have access to that seat – that’s why it is always best to check for award availability at the saver-level by searching through a partner airline instead of searching on the website of the airline you want to fly.

Earning Elite Status with a Foreign Airline

The biggest benefit that U.S. frequent flyers offer that foreign programs do not, is complimentary space-available upgrades on select flights. For example, if you have United Premier status, you are automatically added to the upgrade list on domestic flights and if there is a seat available in First Class, it could be yours. This does not exist with foreign programs.

However, complimentary upgrades have gotten so hard in the past few years that this benefit is not as valuable as it once was – which means that you could easily fly United a lot but instead credit the flights to Air Canada and use your Air Canada Star Alliance status on United flights for almost all of the same benefits.

When you have elite status with a U.S. frequent flyer program, you do not get lounge access domestically – only if you fly internationally (there are restrictions on which flights, too). However, if you have elite status with a foreign airline, you could get lounge access on a domestic flight. For example, if you have British Airways Silver status you get access to AA Lounges even on a domestic American Airlines flight, per the oneworld rules. However, BA Silver would not get you on the AA Upgrade List, whereas if you had status with AA, you might be eligible.

If you are loyal to a U.S. program but don’t find much value in some of the benefits, consider switching to a foreign program in the same alliance to keep your core benefits and perhaps add others, like lounge access.

All in All

With the constant changes to U.S. frequent flyer programs, many have decided to shift their loyalty and instead credit flights on U.S. airlines to foreign programs which offer better award pricing in a lot of cases and sometimes, more benefits. I love that foreign programs do not keep devaluing their benefits and changing constantly – yes, changes happen, but once they do they stick around for a while so it is easy to learn and be updated on the program. Foreign frequent flyer programs offer tremendous value and you should be making the most of them when possible.

Travel Miles 101 has partnered with CardRatings for our coverage of credit card products. Travel Miles 101 and CardRatings may receive a commission from card issuers.