Delta Airlines

How I Use Airline Alliances and Partners to Earn and Redeem for Free Flights

Editorial Disclosure: Opinions, reviews, analyses & recommendations are the author’s alone, and have not been reviewed, endorsed or approved by any of these entities.

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!

Beginners want to know about travel rewards credit cards and sign-up bonuses and how much they’ll have to spend in order to earn enough for a travel award.

And, there’s certainly no shortage of travel hacking myths.

Another frequently asked question involves travel itself.

Can’t you just earn miles from actually traveling?

Happy young family have fun on beach run and jump at sunset

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 answer is 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. Premium seats will earn more than those in economy class.

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 that 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 and redeem airline miles with airline alliances and partners
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Earn Airline Miles with Alliances & Partners.

Before continuing, you’ll want to make sure you know a few airline alliance basics.

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?

Savvy travelers know that because of airline alliances you can earn miles even when flying on “another airline.”

It’s also a smart idea to funnel all the airline miles you earn into specific airline loyalty accounts in each of the 3 major alliances as opposed to spreading out your miles across many accounts.

Delta Airplane at JFK

For example, if you fly on Aeromexico but are a Delta SkyMiles member, you can put your Delta frequent flyer number on your itinerary.

Delta and Aeromexico are both in the SkyTeam Alliance. These alliance partnerships have reciprocal benefits that let you fly on one airline alliance member but credit those miles earned to another airline alliance member.

Why is this important?

First, you’ll lose value on your paid ticket by earning nothing in return.

Second, it does no good to earn miles with each individual airline. These miles can’t be merged or transferred to other accounts.

ProTip: 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.

So, what steps should you take?

No matter which airline you’re flying, check to see which alliance they’re in (if any) and whether or not they have any non-alliance partnerships with other airlines.

All of the airlines’ partners are potential accounts to credit earned miles.

Once you know this, you can decide which airline loyalty program to credit earned miles.

How do you figure this out?

First, a helpful site to figure out potential earnings is Where to Credit. You can see what you’d earn for your cash airline ticket across all possible airline loyalty programs.

Second, think about any flexible points programs you earn with, like Chase Ultimate Rewards or American Express Membership Rewards. Who are their airline transfer partners?

Ideally, you’d credit miles earned for flying with airlines that have a high earn rate and are also a transfer partner for a flexible points currency you earn.

Not to worry if you’re feeling overwhelmed!

Earning and redeeming points and miles comes with a learning curve! Enroll in my FREE Travel Hacking Basics course to learn more about airline alliances.

Free Travel Hacking Basics Course Sign Up Form

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!

In case you don’t already realize…

The airline 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!? 🙂

DP United Airplane

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 must-know principles.

  • Airline miles cannot be transferred, converted to, or merged with other airline miles.

For example, United miles are always United miles. You can, though, use the United miles you’re earning to book an award flight on an alliance partner right on United’s website.

  • You follow the award chart and the rules of the miles you have are redeeming, not the airline you’re flying.

If you use United miles to fly on Swiss Air, you’d pay United’s price and follow United’s award booking rules.

  • There is a real learning curve to booking flights and maximizing airline alliances and partners.

Your first award itinerary won’t be your best and that’s ok. 🙂 But, if you’re in the points and miles game for the long haul, you’ll want to invest in learning more.

If you’re ready to go beyond the basics, my course Booking Award Flights Made Easy is a deep dive into maximizing your points and miles with partner redemptions.

You’ll learn a step-by-step booking strategy and get video tutorials for each must-know airline loyalty program.

You can join the course waitlist to be the first to know when the next enrollment period opens.

Booking Award Flights Mock Up

So, what are the basics for getting started?

The first step is finding available award seats.

But, with so many airlines and each airline charging its own award price, where do you search for award flights and how do you know which has the best award price?

airplane seat and window

A good place is to search the airline website that’s regarded as a “good tool” for that particular alliance.

Not all airline websites are created equal.

Some do a better job than others. 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:

  • Search United or ANA to search Star Alliance award availability
  • Use American Airlines, British Airways, or Qantas to find Oneworld Alliance award availability.
  • For SkyTeam Alliance award availability, use Air France or Delta’s website.
  • Non-alliance partners not belonging to any alliance may have to be searched on their own website or on the partner airline’s website.
Star Alliance Airpane

You may also want to learn a few award flight basics to help you understand how to know which airlines fly to your destination.

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, you’ll book the award flight directly on their websites.

For example, if you search on United’s website for a flight to Germany and the results show a flight operated by Lufthansa, you’ll book the award flight with your United miles on the United website just the same as if you were booking a United-operated flight.

Computer desk

However, sometimes it’s not possible to book the award flight you need online.

When this happens, write down all the flight details and call the airline whose miles you’re using to pay for the award flight to book.

Have as much information as possible for the agent. Not all airline phone agents understand loyalty program booking rules so it’s best to make it as easy as you can. If the agent is having a hard time, call back to get another agent.

Remind the agent the award was not bookable online to hopefully get any phone booking fee waived.

For example, when I flew to Patagonia, I found award space for SkyTeam partner, Aerolineas Argentinas, on their website. But I didn’t have Aerolineas Argentinas miles.

But, I did have Delta SkyMiles, also a SkyTeam partner. I noted all the flight details and called Delta to reserve the Aerolineas Argentinas award flight with my SkyMiles.

Delta Airlines

Again, booking award flights and maximizing airline alliances and partners to get the most from your miles can be tricky. There’s a lot to learn, which is why I’ve streamlined the process in Booking Award Flights Made Easy.

A couple of tips to keep in mind as you learn…

  • Watch out for airlines charging high taxes and fees. 

If the award ticket you’re looking at has hundreds (or thousands!) of dollars in fees, it’s likely not worth paying the miles and the fees.

Lufthansa Airplane in the sky
  • Award pricing is not created equal, nor is it determined by the alliance.

It pays to compare prices. You follow the pricing set by the airline whose miles you’re using to pay not the pricing for the airline operating your flight. (I can’t say this enough times.)

Each airline sets its own prices. You want access to the airline with the best price to get the most from your miles. (Flexible points airline transfer partners for the win!)

Let’s use the Delta and Aerolineas Argentinas example from the Patagonia trip I mentioned above.

If I hypothetically had miles for both airlines, I could have compared pricing and booked with the airline program that was offering the best award price for the flight I needed. 

Instead, I had only Delta miles so I paid Delta prices no matter what Aerolineas Argentinas was charging.

Bottom Line

There’s a steep learning curve to redeeming your miles and points for the best value.

Airline alliances and flexible points like American Express Membership Rewards points or Chase Ultimate Rewards points are your keys to success.

The more you learn about airline alliances and partner redemptions…the more you’ll get from your points miles!

Join the waitlist for Booking Award Flights Made Easy to learn more.

Or if you’re new to points and miles, enroll in my Free Travel Hacking Basics course.

How have you used airline alliances to get the most from your miles and points?

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How I use Airline Alliances to earn and redeem for free flights
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18 thoughts on “How I Use Airline Alliances and Partners to Earn and Redeem for Free Flights”

  1. I think it’s so funny that paying for travel is NOT the best way to earn travel miles. Your tips are fascinating, and ones I wouldn’t have thought of. I’m sloooowly getting onto the miles bandwagon (especially now that we have a family of four to pay for), and each piece of advice is helpful.

    1. Jackie Sills-Dellegrazie

      I agree, Lillie! That most logical way to earn travel miles would seem to be travel. But, alas! Check out my free course if you’d like to learn some more of the basics. 😉

  2. Such great, comprehensive info on airline miles. It’s sad it’s become such a game and traveling simply isn’t the best way to earn but at least there are options. Thanks for the info!

    1. Jackie Sills-Dellegrazie

      It’s a total game, Kelly. But, once you know the rules, you can get so many advantages. 🙂

  3. Great writeup! I’ve been able to get free flights with my miles before but I’m by no means an expert. It’s something I could definitely learn more about.

    1. Jackie Sills-Dellegrazie

      Thanks for reading, Nathan. 🙂 I’m happy this guide will useful for you.

  4. Thanks for the great tips! I use my rewards credit card because it’s simple, but we really need to get better at finding the best deals for rewards travel.

    1. Jackie Sills-Dellegrazie

      I’m glad the guide was helpful, Micki. 🙂 Keep learning little by little and you’ll get better and better at getting the most out of your miles.

  5. I am fascinated by the science behind collecting points and miles but I also find it overwhelming to try to get my head around. I think I’ll sign up for your newsletter…
    Great post

    1. Jackie Sills-Dellegrazie

      I’m glad to have you as part of the community, Christopher. 🙂 There is a learning curve to miles and points, but even with the basics you can get a ton a value in return.

  6. Thanks for the tips! I just recently got into using a travel reward credit card and collecting miles and so far it’s going well but there is definitely an art to it! Thanks again for sharing this, it has been really helpful for me 🙂

    1. Jackie Sills-Dellegrazie

      Awesome, Jazzy. 🙂 There’s so much to gain. Keep learning and you’ll get some much value back.

  7. I’ve used credit cards to get miles from American and United Airlines, but I know I still haven’t learned all the tips and tricks to making the best of them! That’s why I enjoy reading posts like yours. I keep hoping if I read enough, I’ll absorb some of that travel smartness!

    1. Jackie Sills-Dellegrazie

      That’s the exact way to do it, Tami. Learn little by little and. eventually, you’ll be an expert! 😉

  8. I love the alliance benefits and am a big supporter of the Star Alliance fleet! I’ve just been super lazy clocking in my points and with the advent of budget airlines, it seems harder and harder to stay allegiant so to speak 😛

    1. Jackie Sills-Dellegrazie

      I think alliance to an airline is hard. That’s why I love to be more opportunistic in how I use miles and points rather than earn for a single airline or alliance.

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