Most people interested in learning more about award travel naturally start with how to earn miles and points. Of course, this makes perfect sense. You need miles and points to book that free flight or hotel night!
One frequently asked question, though, involves travel itself.
Can’t you just earn miles from actually traveling?
Seemingly simple, yet earning airline miles from traveling has become harder to do. In fact, it’s by far the least lucrative way to earn airline miles. Credit cards, shopping portals, and dining programs all earn more miles and points in a shorter amount of time.
The short (read: boring) answer is because airlines have changed their earning structures to favor higher priced tickets and big spenders. That means a cheap economy flight purchased on a third-party travel website will earn fewer miles than a full-price economy ticket bought directly from the airline. Naturally, premium seats will earn more than those in economy.
Nevertheless, if you paid for a flight with money and not miles, you should do your best to earn every last mile possible. Travel hacking is all about getting a return on your money. You always want to make your money work harder for you.
It’s exactly in this space where you realize how airline alliances are like the friends you never knew you had. In this guide, I’ll show you exactly how I earn and redeem airline miles with airline alliances and partners for free flights.
Earn Airline Miles with Alliances & Partners.
Before continuing, you’ll want to make sure you know a few airline alliance basics. It’s a quick read and will have you caught up to speed in about 60 seconds. 😉
Most airline loyalty program members know to put their frequent flyer number on their itinerary when they fly that particular airline. But, what happens when flying on another airline?
good great news is you can always find a way to earn airline miles with the help of airline alliances. The key is to choose 1-2 airlines in each of the 3 major alliances and funnel your miles earned into those accounts.
For example, if you fly on Aeromexico but are a Delta SkyMiles member, put your Delta frequent flyer number on your itinerary. Delta and Aeromexico are both in the SkyTeam Alliance. You can fly on one airline alliance member while at the same time earn miles for another airline alliance member.
Why is this important? First, you’ll lose value on your paid ticket by earning nothing in return. Second, it’ll do you no good to earn miles with each individual airline. These miles can’t be merged or transferred to other accounts. You need to avoid having small mileage balances spread out across many loyalty programs. They’ll likely go to waste or expire before you have time to use them.
No matter which airline you’re flying, check to see which alliance they are in (if any) and whether or not they have any one-off partnerships with other airlines. Once you know this, you can decide to which airline loyalty program to credit earned miles.
Redeem Airline Miles with Alliances & Partners.
Once you’ve earned enough miles for an award flight, the thrill comes when you actually book that award ticket! The miles you’ve accrued can be used for flights on that airline, but also with many, if not all, of their alliance and partner airlines. Awesome, right!? 🙂
Now consider, United has 26 alliance partners plus 13 more partnerships. Even accounting for limitations or restrictions with a few of them, that’s a dizzying number of flight options to think about, let alone research. Overwhelming, right!? 🙁
First, whether you’re a miles and points beginner or not, keep in mind these basics.
- Airline miles cannot be transferred to another airline. For example, United miles are always United miles. You can, though, use your United miles to book an award flight on an alliance partner.
- You follow the award chart and the rules of the miles you have are redeeming, not the airline you’re flying. If you use American Airline miles to fly on LATAM, you’d reference the American Airline award chart and award booking rules.
- There is a real learning curve to booking flights and maximizing airline alliances and partners. Certainly, do your homework, but don’t analyze to the point of paralysis. Your first award itinerary won’t be your best and that’s ok. 🙂 Your skills will improve as you learn.
So, where do you begin?
The first step is finding available award seats. But, with so many airlines, where do you search for award flights?
It’s not necessary to search each airline’s website manually. However, the tricky part is not all airline search tools are created equal. Some do a fairly decent job of showing as much partner award space as possible, while others only show certain partners, or do an altogether lousy job of returning useful results.
As a general rule, these airline search engines are considered the best options for finding the maximum amount of award space in their respective airline alliances.
- For Star Alliance partner award flights, search on United and Air Canada.
- While American Airlines shows a few of their Oneworld partners’ availability, Qantas and British Airways show more partners and can handle more complex itineraries.
- SkyTeam partner awards are best searched for on Air France/KLM and Delta.
- Non-alliance partners not belonging to any alliance have to be searched on their own websites.
Keep in mind, all of these websites have their glitches. But, they’re helpful in cutting some of the manual detective work in finding the award flights best matched to your travel goals.
What do you do when you find the award space?
When partner awards show on a website like United or American and you plan to use those miles to book the award, it’ll be a straightforward online booking process.
For example, if you search on United for a flight to Germany and the results show a flight operated by Lufthansa, you’ll book the award flight with your United miles just as if it was a United flight.
However, making award travel plans is not always as simple.
Many times, you’ll find the partner award flight you want on another airline’s website. When this happens, you’ll need to write down all the flight details and call the airline whose miles you’re using. Give the agent on the phone all the information so they can book it with your miles. Remind the agent the award was not bookable online. Any phone booking fee will be waived when this is the case.
For example, when I flew to Patagonia, I found award space for SkyTeam partner, Aerolineas Argentinas, on their website. In this case, I had Delta SkyMiles, also a SkyTeam partner. I noted all the details and called Delta to reserve the award flight with my SkyMiles.
When you call an airline to book an award, don’t expect the agent on the phone to know the ins and outs of the award program. You always want to be polite and courteous. But, you also want to have all the information you need to book the award. If the agent is having trouble with the award, call again and speak with a different agent.
Again, booking award flights and maximizing airline alliances and partners to get the most from your miles can be tricky. You’ll learn more and more as you experiment and practice with different itinerary searches.
A couple of tips to keep in mind as you learn…
- Learn which airlines charge high taxes and fees. It’s not a good value if you use 60k miles and have to pay $700 in taxes and fees. Rules about taxes and fees are not determined by alliance but rather by the individual airlines and the countries. If an award search returns results on a partner with steep fees, it’s worth it to look at another partner.
- Award charts are not created equal, nor are they determined by the alliance. Individual airlines have their own award charts. This means one airline might offer the same exact flights for a cheaper amount of miles than another. For example, when I flew to Mont Tremblant for a ski trip, I used British Airways Avios but flew on alliance partner, American Airlines. At the time, BA only charged 9k Avios round trip for the same flights that would’ve been 25k miles on American! By knowing the advantages of one airline program over the other, you can spend your miles wisely and save the rest for another trip!
How have you used airline alliances to get the most from your miles and points?
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