Frequent flyer alliances: What do they mean for you?

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I’ve encountered a lot of confusion recently about frequent flyer program partnerships and alliances, specifically how these benefit travelers, and how they don’t.  Let’s take a moment and clear a few key issues up for quick and easy reference.

What is a frequent flyer partnership?

This is when two airlines come together and agree to let their program members earn and redeem miles on each other’s flights.  This doesn’t require one of the big global alliances – any two airlines can do this.  For instance members of the Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan can earn miles in their Alaska account by flying Emirates Airlines, and Emirates Skywards members can earn Emirates miles by flying Alaska.  The same goes for redeeming miles.  In fact, I recently redeemed 72,5000 Alaska Airlines miles for a one-way business class award from Seattle to Dubai.

Partnerships are simply a way for airlines to make their frequent flyer programs more appealing by expanding the opportunities to earn and use miles.

What is a global frequent flyer alliance?

Think of the big three alliances – Oneworld, SkyTeam and Star Alliance – as supercharged partnerships.  These are entire groups of airlines that have gotten together and agreed to cooperate and market jointly, even sharing booking revenue in some cases.  The same benefits apply as in a regular partnership: You can earn and redeem miles on any of the carriers involved.  So in the case of Oneworld, you could fly British Airways and put those flight miles into the account of any other member of the Oneworld Alliance (American, Cathay Pacific, Qantas and others).

Alliances also have a joint elite status.  This means that, for certain frequent flyer elite levels, you will be recognized by all the partner airlines in the alliance with benefits including priority check in and access to airport lounges.

Finally, it is sometimes possible to use your miles to upgrade on an alliance partner (for example, using United miles to upgrade a Thai Airways flight) but there are several caveats, the most important of which is that you will have to buy a very expensive fare to qualify.

Oneworld

What you can’t do

As great and beneficial as the alliances are when you understand how to leverage them, there are some misconceptions out there about what is possible.  The following are generally off limits:

  • Transferring or combining miles between partner programs.  Airline miles can almost never be moved out of a frequent flyer program in any way that is beneficial to you.  They have to be spent.  You can use AA miles to book a British Airways flight, but you can’t transfer the miles to a British Airways account.
  • Upgrades.  Excepting the caveat described in the previous section, you won’t be able to use your miles in one program to upgrade a different airline’s flight.
  • Other benefits of elite status. Your Qantas Platinum membership entitles you to the Oneworld Alliance Emerald status, but that does not mean you are equal to an American Airlines Executive Platinum when you’re flying AA.  You’ll be treated well and get some benefits, but things like complimentary domestic upgrades are off the table.

I hope that clarifies some of the more common misconceptions about frequent flyer partnerships and alliances.  It can be a nuanced subject, so hit the comments with any specific questions.

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Ryan has been a travel expert for more than ten years. His journeys have taken him to all six inhabited continents, including living in the Middle East and backpacking across Australia, Asia and Europe.

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