For almost 40 years (give or take), airlines have been enticing passengers to stay loyal to their airlines offering them frequent flyer miles, in which they will earn a certain amount of “miles” (often equal to the amount of miles they flew), which can then be redeemed for award (read: free) flights based on a redemption chart.
When I tell people I book most of my flights using frequent flyer miles, they often wonder how many flights I had to take (pay for) to earn all those miles. And, with the exception of a few, the answer is often “none.” That’s because thanks to Americans’ awful financial management habits, American credit card companies have been able to offer outstanding signup bonuses on a wide variety of credit cards which has made it very easy to accrue frequent flyer miles without setting foot on an airplane.
But this and the subsequent post is going to stick to how to earn miles when you’re actually flying, which can be especially useful for business travelers whose flights are being paid for on the company dime, but also for those times when it just makes more sense to pay for a flight than redeem miles.
There are three main airline alliances in the world: Star Alliance, Oneworld (or oneworld), and SkyTeam. Conveniently, there are also three “legacy carriers” remaining in the US: United, American, and Delta. Each of these belongs to a different alliance: United to Star Alliance, American to Oneworld, and Delta to SkyTeam.
So, what is an alliance? Despite certain airlines’ attempts to seemingly do so (like Emirates), no one airline can fly you everywhere you need to go. This is a result of practicality, cost, legal obstacles, and a number of other factors. Rather than make it so you have to separately book each leg of a flight that is on a different carrier, airlines have formed alliances, meaning that if I want to book a ticket that involves flights on more than one airline, I can still book it as one ticket, provided that they are in the same alliance or partner with each other. And consequently, I can earn miles in one loyalty program from paid flights on another airline, provided that they are in the same alliance or partner with each other.
For example, if I wanted to fly from San Francisco to Tehran (a flight that US airlines legally currently can’t offer even if they wanted to), I could fly United from San Francisco to Frankfurt, then Lufthansa from Frankfurt to Tehran. I can still earn United miles for my flight on Lufthansa since they’re also part of Star Alliance. I can then use those United miles I earned to book a flight (or series of flights) on any Star Alliance airline.
The question of which alliance is the best is one of heated debate (which I’ll probably explore at a later point), though Star Alliance has the highest number of airlines and the most destinations. To be honest, it really depends where you want to travel, as some alliances are better in certain regions. For example, Star Alliance is very useful in Africa, given that it has three member airlines, whereas Oneworld has none. On the other hand, Oneworld is very useful in South America, with two member airlines as well as a plethora of flights from American Airlines’ hub in Miami.
This Wikipedia page provides a more concise overview than any travel blog I’ve seen.
The whole alliance thing sounds easy enough, right? Three US airlines, three global alliances. Well, it would be if every major airline fell into one of the three alliances. The problem is, many airlines do not belong to an alliance. This can happen for a number of reasons, sometimes airlines determine that they can be more profitable by staying independent of an alliance, other times, an alliance may determine an airline does not meet certain standards required for admission into an alliance.
Instead, they’ll form a partnership with airlines that they consider important to their flight destinations (often with airlines that serve the country they fly to). For example, Emirates and JetBlue have a partnership so that people flying into one of the major US cities from Dubai on Emirates can smoothly continue their flight to a smaller US city not served by Emirates (for example if I wanted to fly from Dubai to Charleston, South Carolina, I could fly Emirates from Dubai to Boston, then JetBlue from Boston to Charleston all on one itinerary). As a result, if I primarily fly domestic and don’t anticipate flying Emirates for a while, I could choose to earn JetBlue TrueBlue points for my Emirates flight (or earn Emirates Skywards for the JetBlue flight if I anticipate it being more important to fly Emirates again). Always check the individual airlines’ rules first before making any decisions however, as some may choose you to earn miles on partner flights but not redeem miles on partner flights (or vice versa). This is indeed the case with the Emirates-JetBlue partnership, as you can NOT use JetBlue miles to book Emirates award flights.
The Emirates-JetBlue partnership is an easier example however, because neither of those airlines are affiliated with an alliance. Where it can get complicated is when you have partnerships involving one airline in an alliance and one airline not in an alliance. A good example is Alaska Airlines. Alaska has partnerships with both American and Delta (among other airlines), even though they are in rival alliances. So, what does this mean?
Can you earn Alaska Airlines miles on American Airlines flights? Yes
Can you earn Alaska Airlines miles on Delta Airlines flights? Yes
Can you earn Delta Airlines SkyTeam miles on Alaska Airlines flights? Yes
Can you earn American Airlines AAdvantage miles on Alaska Airlines flights? Yes
Can you redeem Alaska Airlines miles for American Airlines award flights? Yes
Can you redeem Alaska Airlines miles for Delta Airlines award flights? Yes
Can you redeem Delta Airlines SkyTeam miles for Alaska Airlines award flights? Yes
Can you redeem American Airlines SkyTeam miles for Alaska Airlines award flights? Yes
Can you redeem Alaska Airlines miles for Oneworld award flights? NO. It doesn’t matter that Alaska Airlines partners with an airline (American) that is a member of the Oneworld alliance.
Can you redeem Alaska Airlines miles for Skyteam award flights? NO. It doesn’t matter that Alaska Airlines partners with an airline (Delta) that is a member of the Skyteam alliance.
The bottom line: Whenever you have a paid flight, take time to learn about what frequent flyer programs you can earn miles for, and which will make the most sense for you given your future travel plans.