Category: Alliances

Why I sometimes earn miles with airlines I’ll never fly

Why I sometimes earn miles with airlines I’ll never fly

At the time of writing this, I recently got off a flight from San Jose to Boston via Denver on United Airlines. I was lucky enough to score a great last minute deal, booking it for just $137, despite it being a nearly 3,000-mile journey.

Now, in a more simpler era, airlines had the very simple policy of giving you one mile earned for every mile you flew. Unfortunately, itineraries like the one I booked above meant that the airline would give away a lot of miles without earning much money. In contrast, (business) travelers who often booked very expensive short-distance (often last-minute) itineraries would not earn very many miles, creating a disincentive against a behavior that is very profitable for the airline.

Consequently, over the past three years, the Big Three airlines (United, Delta, and American) have all made the switch to what is known as revenue-based earning, where the number of award miles earned correlates with the amount of money spent on the ticket, rather than the amount of miles flown. Southwest, JetBlue, Virgin America, and Sun Country have always operated this way, leaving Alaska, Frontier, and Spirit as the only domestic airlines that still award miles based on distance flown rather than money spent (though there is rampant speculation that Alaska may be switching away from this, and redeeming miles and Frontier and Spirit is an exercise in frustration).

With the Big Three airlines, they now award you miles equal to five times the price of your airfare before taxes, assuming you don’t have any status. So for the itinerary I booked recently on United, despite flying 2,705 miles, I would have only earned 535 United award miles:


Considering that domestic one-way awards on United start at 10,000 miles (for trips under 700 miles), this means that I won’t have enough award miles to redeem for a free trip until I’ve spent $2,000 on airfare!

If that sounds like a lot of money to spend in order to book a free flight that often prices for under $100, it is!

The good news is that given United’s membership in the Star Alliance, you can choose to earn miles with any of the 27 airlines in the Star Alliance, or one of their non-alliance partners like Aer Lingus.

And while the other airlines would love to also award miles based on how much you spent on United, for obvious reasons, they do not have that data, nor is United going to provide it to them. So they have no choice but to award miles based on how far you fly. That being said, not all tickets will earn miles at the same rate. And that’s not just whether you’re flying in first, business, or economy – even within economy, not all tickets earn at the same rate.

I’m not going to get into a detailed explanation of airline fare classes given how complex a topic is, but what it comes down to is that airlines sell there tickets in different fare “buckets”. Availability of those buckets varies depending on a number of factors, which is also why the person next do you on your flight may have paid a different amount for the same flight.

Somewhere on your ticket there should be a letter indicating the class; in my case it was “G”:


Thanks to the very helpful website, I can now see how many miles I’ll earn on a G fare on United Airlines:capture

Knowing that my flight is 2,702 miles (which I can see from the “PQM” field above), I know that if I credit to Singapore Airlines, I can earn 100% of those miles flown, or 2,702 miles with Singapore Airlines’ KrisFlyer program. As you can see from the chart, my flight will earn the most miles on Singapore Airlines (as it turns out, almost all United flights will earn 100% on Singapore Airlines).

Of course, that’s not to say you should always credit miles to the program where you will earn the most miles, as intuitive as that may seem. Before deciding where to credit your miles, you should first look at the award chart of the airline you want to earn miles on to see how many miles you would need for an award. In this case with Singapore Airlines’ award chart, I can see that a round-trip flight within the United States (which would be on United) booked through Singapore Airlines is 25,000 miles, or, the same as it would cost if I were booking with United miles:


But that’s not the only thing to consider. You should also think about how easy it is to accrue these miles. In this situation, I know that I can transfer my Starwood Preferred Guest points, Citi ThankYou Points, AMEX Membership Rewards, or Chase Ultimate Rewards to Singapore Airlines if I encounter a situation where I need more miles to book an award. Furthermore, you also should be aware of any taxes and fees that airlines may add on to your ticket – in this case I know that none would be added for a domestic flight on United Airlines, but Singapore Airlines can sometimes add on thousands of dollars in fees for first-class redemptions on Singapore Airlines.

But let’s say instead this flight earned 75% on Singapore Airlines and 100% on Ethiopian Airlines. Given that there is no other way to accrue Ethiopian Airlines miles other than flying Star Alliance airlines, I might still lean toward earning on Singapore Airlines. Furthermore, you should look to see how easy it is to redeem miles in the program you are earning with. While I know that it is relatively easy to redeem Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer miles (it does require a phone call if you aren’t booking on Singapore Airlines itself), I might be a little bit more skeptical about doing something like crediting all of my Delta Airlines flights to Czech Airways; while Czech Airways generally earns the most miles for Delta flights (usually 100%), a brief search for stories about redeeming those miles indicates it’s nearly impossible.

I should also mention that this strategy should only be used by people who are not trying to attain status with a particular airline. In order to do so, you need to be crediting all your flights to the same airline, and then based on how many miles you fly, you may be able to earn status with that airline, even if you don’t earn nearly as many actual redeeemable miles. As someone who rarely pays for a flight though, airline status (which requires paid flights) has never been something I’ve prioritized too much. Furthermore, all of the calculations about miles earned are assuming you don’t have status – if you do have status, then you’ll need to factor in any multipliers when determining miles earned.


Did I miss something? Have a question? Let me know!


Cover image: Marina Bay Sands Hotel in Singapore, courtesy of


A Guide to Airline Alliances and Partnerships

A Guide to Airline Alliances and Partnerships

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.

Airline partners

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.

Easy enough?

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.