How Airline Alliances and Partnerships Can Help You Maximize Your Miles

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These agreements between airlines allow you to both earn more miles and use them to reach far more destinations.

Most travelers know the basics about how frequent flyer programs work: When you're a member of an airline's frequent flyer program or have any of its airline credit cards, you can earn miles. You can then redeem those miles to book flights with the airline.

That's only scraping the surface, though. Thanks to airline alliances and partnerships, you're not limited to redeeming your miles with one airline. Depending on the airline and what agreements it has, you could book award airfare with dozens of its partners. To make the most of your frequent flyer miles, it's important to understand how alliances and partnerships work.

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What are airline alliances and partnerships?

An airline alliance is an agreement between a group of airlines to work together so they can take passengers to more destinations. As part of this agreement, passengers can use one airline's miles to book travel with other airlines in the alliance. They can also earn miles with an airline even when they're flying on one of its alliance partners.

There are currently three major airline alliances: Star Alliance, SkyTeam, and Oneworld.

Let's say you're a member of the frequent flyer program for United Airlines, MileagePlus. United is part of the Star Alliance. You could use United miles to book airfare with any of the other members of that alliance. This opens up routes offered by other airlines to areas where United doesn't go. If you booked cash travel on an airline in the Star Alliance, you could also earn miles with United instead of that other airline.

An airline partnership works the same way. The difference is that a partnership is an individual agreement between two airlines. It doesn't encompass a group of airlines like an alliance does. For example, Virgin Atlantic isn't part of any airline alliance. It does, however, have partnership agreements with multiple airlines, including Delta Air Lines.

How to use miles with partner airlines

Using miles is generally the same whether you're booking with the airline itself or one of its partners. You still log in to the frequent flyer program where you have the miles and search for what you want. The results will include flights offered by partner airlines that you can book with miles.

For example, let's say you have United miles and you want to use them to book travel with one of United's partners. You would go to United's website, check the box to book with miles, and search for flights. In the results, you'll see available flights offered by both United and its partners. You can use your miles to book any of the flights you find.

There are, however, a couple caveats. The first is that not every airline's website does a good job of showing the partner flights that are available. In some cases, there will be a lot of missing partner flights that you could book.

If you're not finding any flights that work for you, here's what you can do:

  1. See which airlines offer the flight you want using a more general flight search tool. Google Flights is an easy option.
  2. Check which of those airlines are partners with the airline where you have your miles. You can find out by looking at that airline's partnerships page.
  3. Search for award tickets on the partner airline's site. This will show you the award tickets that it has available.
  4. Call the frequent flyer program of the airline where you have your miles and ask if you can book the partner flight you want over the phone.

One other thing to be aware of is that there are sometimes individual airline rules on what can be booked using a partner's miles.

To give an example, Lufthansa is part of the Star Alliance. But it only releases its first-class award tickets to partners 14 days before departure. So, if you want to book first-class airfare with Lufthansa more than 14 days in advance, you'd need to do so with Lufthansa's own miles (or in cash).

There are many more rules like these. It's usually simplest to learn them as you go along. Another option is to research what the rules are for the airline partnerships you plan to use and for any airlines you can book using points from your credit cards.

Airlines set up alliances and partnerships because it benefits them, but it also benefits their passengers. You'll be able to increase the number of miles you earn and go more places with your miles. If you're part of an airline's frequent flyer program, it's worth checking out what partnerships that airline has so you know all the ways you can use your travel rewards.

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