Supercharge Your Credit Card Miles Through Airline Alliances

Time Spent Researching Travel Options Can Go a Long Ways

Travellers getting their boarding passes at airline check-in counter.
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If you’ve ever booked a paid flight or an airline award flight with airline miles, you may have found yourself on a flight operated by a completely different airline. Let’s say you booked a flight to the Caribbean using miles from the Air France/Flying Blue program. In that case, you might have actually flown on Delta, or even another European carrier like KLM. It can be surprising and disorienting if you’re unfamiliar with airline partnerships.

By and large, airline partnerships are a boon for consumers since they make it easier to book complicated itineraries. They can also help you get significantly more value out of rewards miles that you earn with an airline or a travel rewards credit card. This may take some digging and research, but it can be worth your time. To learn more, read on.

Airline Partnerships: Core Details

If you hope to make the most of airline miles you’ve accrued or earn more miles each time you fly, understanding airline partnerships and how they work is crucial. It all starts with having a basic understanding of the three leading frequent flyer programs and their alliances with other airlines—United MileagePlus (Star Alliance), American AAdvantage (oneworld), and Delta SkyMiles (SkyTeam). 

The main benefits of airline alliances and partnerships include:

  • Access to more destinations using airline miles from a single program
  • Chance to earn airline miles in your program of choice when you fly partner airlines
  • Reciprocal elite status benefits when you fly with partner airlines

In addition to their alliance partners, the major U.S. carriers often have partners outside of their alliances, too. American, for example, partners with non-alliance airlines such as Air Tahiti Nui, Etihad Airways, and Hawaiian Airlines.

Earning Miles Through Partner Airlines

Flying with an airline partner within an affiliated airline alliance generally nets you the same number of miles within your desired program as you would earn if you flew your favorite airline. For example, you could earn 100% of base miles plus fare-class bonuses for flying eligible fares on British Airways using your American AAdvantage frequent flyer number. You’ll also receive elite status benefits of your airline program when you fly with an alliance partner, including perks like priority boarding and extra baggage allowance. 

However, you may not always be able to earn airline miles if you fly a paid fare with non-alliance partners. For example, you cannot earn American AAdvantage miles on paid flights with Air Tahiti Nui. You can, however, redeem American AAdvantage miles to fly with this airline if you find award availability. 

Every non-alliance partnership is different. For instance, you can earn American AAdvantage miles when you fly with non-alliance Hawaiian Airlines, and you can redeem American miles for Hawaiian Airlines flights. 

Airline partnerships can be complicated—both inside and outside of airline alliances. The rules for different airlines can vary dramatically, which is a good reason to become familiar with your favorite airline’s partners and how they work. 

Airline Partnerships and Credit Card Miles: The Connection

There are a couple of roles that travel credit cards play in the airline partnership game. First of all, some general travel rewards credit cards let you transfer points from their programs to multiple airline and hotel loyalty programs. The four main ones are:

It helps to know what your card program’s airline partners are and who’s in an alliance with those airlines. Those partners of the card’s partner multiply the choices you have for destinations and for getting good deals.

The other role that credit cards play is giving you more points or miles to use. Many airline credit cards and general travel credit cards offer bonuses of 50,000 miles or more when you sign up and meet a minimum spending requirement. That’s on top of miles you can earn through regular spending with the card. 

Redeeming Miles Using Credit Card Transfers and Alliance Partners

Understanding airline partnerships and how they work can help you stretch those miles further—even on the exact same flight.

For example, Virgin Atlantic has a frequent flyer program that allows rewards point transfers from Chase Ultimate Rewards, American Express Membership Rewards, and Citi ThankYou Rewards. While Virgin Atlantic is not part of a formal alliance, it does have partnerships with Delta, Air France, KLM, SAS, ANA, Hawaiian Airlines, and a few others. 

If you had American Express Membership Rewards points and wanted to fly to Europe, for example, you could transfer points to Virgin Atlantic and fly round-trip on Delta in business or first class for just 100,000 miles, round-trip (plus any taxes or fees). The same flight booked through the Delta SkyMiles program, however, could easily cost 250,000 miles or more.

When booking flights with miles, explore the partnerships available to you. Sometimes, airline partners charge fewer miles for the same flight or a similar flight, which lets you save some miles for another trip.  

The same is true when it comes to booking flights to Europe with Delta using the Air France/Flying Blue program.

You can often fly economy to Europe on Delta for around 50,000 miles round-trip with Air France/Flying Blue, whereas the same flight purchased through Delta might set you back 80,000 miles or more. For this to work, you need to have a Flying Blue frequent flyer account to search for award flights, but signing up is easy and free. Once you have an account, you can search for the flights and book them with Flying Blue miles, potentially even miles you transferred from credit card rewards programs like Chase Ultimate Rewards or American Express Membership Rewards. 

Note that you transfer points from a credit card’s general travel rewards program to an airline. But you can’t transfer miles between airlines, even alliance partners. Instead, you use your airline’s miles to book flights on a partner airline. 

How to Book Award Flights With Airline Partners

You may already be accustomed to booking flights with your favorite frequent flyer program. Just log in to your account, search for the dates and destinations you want, and then decide whether the flight is a good value based on the cost in miles, plus airline taxes and fees. 

However, determining the miles value for awards flights has become difficult over the last few years. While some frequent flyer programs post award charts that tell you how many miles you’ll need to fly to certain destinations, more and more airlines are switching to dynamic award pricing—or variable pricing that changes based on demand. This new development means if you have a destination in mind, you may want to plan far in advance to figure out which type of miles will best get you where you want to go, and come up with a way to earn those or earn through an alliance partner. 

Also be on the lookout for fuel surcharges. Some overseas-based airlines, such as British Airways, tack hundreds of dollars worth of these fees onto international flights.

Searching for award flights with partner airlines can add additional layers of work to your travel planning. You’ll spend time researching airline partners, where they travel, and the cost in miles. 

After all that research, you may not be able to book your flight using the airline’s online portal. It really depends on the frequent flyer program and its online capabilities. With the Delta SkyMiles program, for example, you can book award flights with partners like Air France, KLM, and Virgin Australia online. If you want to use Delta SkyMiles to fly with Kenya Airways or AirEuropa, on the other hand, you’ll have to call Delta to redeem your miles over the phone. 

The Bottom Line

Airline partnerships sound complicated because they are. The same rules don’t apply to every alliance, and some non-alliance airline partners can come with an entirely different set of benefits and restrictions. The best way to learn is to practice. It can be frustrating, but you may find that the savings you get are worth the hassle. 

If you focus most of your efforts on a specific frequent flyer program and airline credit card, your goal should be figuring out which partnerships are available to you. From there, determine how they might help you make more of your miles based on where you travel most or where you dream of traveling. 

Airline partnerships bring more options to the table, but only if you know how to use them.

Article Sources

  1. American Airlines. "Partner Airlines." Accessed June 30, 2020.

  2. American Airlines. "Air Tahiti Nui." Accessed June 30, 2020.

  3. Virgin Atlantic. "Delta Air Lines." Accessed June 30, 2020.