Education of a Points Freak, Q4 – What are airline alliances and how are they useful?

Most people are familiar with the three major airline alliances: Star Alliance, Oneworld, and Skyteam. What’s important for a points freak like me is how you can use miles from US legacy carries in conjunction with alliance partners to get all the way around the world. For example, I just booked that trip to Asia for my in-laws using United miles, but they are flying on United, Lufthansa, Thai Airways, and Asiana. This post will serve as an intro to the alliances and where they can get you. The more you know about different partners, the more options you’ll realize you have when redeeming miles.

Star Alliance

US Based Airlines: United, US Airways

Important European Partners: Lufthansa, Swiss

Important Asia Partners: Thai Airways, Singapore Airlines

Important South American Partners: TACA, Copa Airlines

Star Alliance was the first global airline alliance, and its also the largest, with 28 partners covering every continent except Antartica. Due to its extensive route network, Star Alliance is one of the best alliances to try to redeem miles on, making both United and US Airways miles very powerful in terms of US airline miles.

In terms of redemptions, there are some pretty exciting options on Star Alliance. For starters, Lufthansa and Singapore have two of the nicest first class cabins in the world, so they are tops in terms of “aspirational” redemptions on Star Alliance. Even without flying first class, there are a lot of nice options. Lufthansa gets you to Europe, while Thai Airways, Singapore, and Asiana cover Asia. South African Airways gets you to Africa, Air New Zealand to Oceania, and TACA and Copa cover South America.

United miles provide the most flexibility in terms of US airline partners. You can transfer points from Chase Ultimate Awards to United instantly, which then opens up the possibilities. Since you can use open jaws and stopovers on United round trip award tickets, you could potentially fly to Munich on Lufthansa, stop there, and then fly on to Singapore on Singapore Airlines or to Bangkok on Thai Airways. Then you could use your open jaw to fly back from Seoul, Korea to the states on Asiana (you’d have to buy a one way ticket there though). If you did that all in first or business class it’d be the trip of a lifetime!


US Based Airlines: American Airlines

Important European Partners: British Airways, Iberia

Important Asia Partners: Cathay Pacific, Japan Airlines

Important South American Partners: LAN

Although Star Alliance has the most extensive network, I personally feel like Oneworld has more interesting redemptions out there. Unfortunately, American Airlines miles are pretty hard to come by, and British Airways miles, though easier to come by, often have expensive taxes and fees (although they have their uses as well).

Oneworld has some great first class options, like Cathay Pacific, British Airways, or Japan Airlines. Using American Airlines miles, they aren’t too expensive (135,000/110,000 round trip in Cathay first/business to Asia for example). You can also redeem such flights using British Airways miles, although that will cost you more miles (that are easier to own).

My favorite thing about Oneworld though is its ability to get you to South America. LAN Airlines has the most extensive coverage network in South America, and you can use any Oneworld partner airlines miles to help get you there. Qantas is also a member, which can help get you to Australia.


US Based Airlines: Delta Airlines

Important European Partners: Air France, KLM, Alitalia

Important Asia Partners: Korean Air, China Eastern

Important South American Partners: Aerolineas Argentinas

Skyteam is probably the least interesting of the three alliances, mainly because their US partner is Delta Airlines. Delta Skymiles are notoriously difficult to redeem. There is value out there, but it’s tough to find. Also, since Delta doesn’t offer first class, you can’t redeem Skymiles for any first class tickets – which is a shame since Korean Air’s first class is supposed to be amazing.

Skyteam has pretty good coverage in Europe with Air France, KLM, and Alitalia. If you are using Flying Blue miles (Air France/KLM), be aware of big fuel surcharges and taxes. Aerolineas Argentinas has just joined Skyteam, making it much easier to get to South America now. Unfortunately, I’ve heard mixed reviews about the airline so I’m a little bit wary about it.

Overall, I consider Skyteam one of the tougher alliances to redeem miles on. This isn’t because there isn’t a lot of availability or value (there is tons) – it’s just because you need to do some work to find it.

Finding Award Space

Each alliance has different ways to find award space. Personally, I like to use United or ANA’s website for Star Alliance availability – United’s site is easiest to use, while ANA is the most accurate in terms of award space shown (see here for how to use ANA’s search tool).  For Oneworld, I like to use American Airlines or the British Airway website. For Skyteam, it gets a little tricky. I use Delta or Air France’s website, although neither site shows availability for all partners. Sometimes, it’s just easier to sign up for a site like expertflyer.com to find award space.

Final Thoughts

This is just a brief introduction to the alliances that are out there. The most important thing to know is, just because you have miles in one airline or program doesn’t mean you have to fly with them! There are a lot of fun redemptions out there, as long as you’re willing to find them.

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