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Booking flights using your favorite airline’s loyalty rewards program can provide great value for your points or miles — and not only with that one carrier. Many airlines participate in alliances that allow you to book flights on partner airlines. These partnerships open up a world of possibilities by potentially increasing the value of your rewards and providing more flight options for your trip. We’ve created a quick breakdown of how partner airlines work so you can better understand the major airline alliances and how to book award flights within them.
How do partner airlines work?
Airlines want to offer their customers as many destinations around the world as possible to make travel with them easy and accessible. However, it likely isn't profitable or feasible for one airline to fly everywhere that a traveler wants to go.
One way around this is for an airline to partner with other airlines and share routes. This allows a passenger to book flights through one airline yet be serviced by others. For some itineraries, this means that you won't even fly on a plane owned by the airline that you booked the flight through.
For example, instead of American Airlines and British Airways both flying half-full planes between New York City and London, they may pair up and offer a codeshare flight. The plane is a mix of American Airlines and British Airways passengers, while the plane is owned and operated by just one of the airlines. Both airline websites will list these tickets for sale.
While this concept may seem confusing at first, it helps to keep costs down and airplanes full between different city pairs.
» Learn more: Should I be loyal to a single airline?
Aside from additional flight inventory to choose from, another perk of partner airlines is the ability to credit your flight to a partner airline’s loyalty program. When you fly on one carrier, you can enter your loyalty member information for one of their partner airlines to receive credit for that flight.
This helps you avoid having a large amount of miles spread across multiple programs with only a small amount of miles in each. Instead, you can concentrate your rewards in your preferred airline’s loyalty program, which might also accelerate your progress toward elite status with that airline.
When you have elite status with one airline, you may be eligible for reciprocal benefits with other partner airlines. Depending on the airline and your status level, these benefits can include extra baggage allowance, priority boarding, preferred seating and complimentary airport lounge access. The details vary from one partner to another, but airline websites typically spell out the benefits you are eligible to receive based on your status.
You typically aren’t able to transfer miles between partner airlines (or any airlines). But what you can do is use your loyalty program points to book an award flight on a partner airline. While searching for a flight on your favorite airline’s website, choose the option to book or redeem using points or miles. Search results will include award travel on any available partner airline. Just select the partner flight you want, and you can continue the booking process to reserve a partner award ticket.
» Learn more: The best airline credit cards right now
Navigating airline alliances
An airline alliance is a type of partnership formed not just between two airlines, but among a group of airlines. Together, the alliance creates a larger network that can reach most parts of the world and provide travelers with more options and benefits.
There are three main airline alliances in the travel world. The vast majority of frequently flown airlines participate in one of these alliances. However, certain airlines, like Southwest Airlines and some low-cost carriers, do not participate at all.
You can book with 14 member airlines in the Oneworld alliance. This network serves approximately 1,000 destinations in over 170 territories around the world. Oneworld members include Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, British Airways, Cathay Pacific and Qantas.
One of the redemption sweet spots among Oneworld partners is using British Airways Avios for short-distance direct flights within the U.S. and Caribbean. Flights booked with Avios are based on total distance flown and ticket class. You can book short-haul flights for as little as 7,500 Avios and $5.60 within the U.S.
The SkyTeam Alliance has 19 member airlines. It offers more than 15,000 daily flights to 1,036 destinations in 170 countries. SkyTeam partners include Air France, Delta Air Lines, Korean Air and AeroMexico.
For those who love to fly Delta, Delta partner airlines sometimes offer better redemption options than using Delta SkyMiles. For example, you can fly from New York-JFK to Paris in Air France Business Class for only 115,000 Flying Blue miles and $615.87 instead of 240,000 Delta SkyMiles and $153.97. By comparison, the cash price for this flight would be over $3,000 round-trip.
For some travelers, the higher cash dues for fuel surcharges and taxes on the Air France redemption is a deal-breaker. However, you can book two business class tickets through Air France for roughly the same number of miles and points as it would take to book one flight using Delta SkyMiles.
There are currently 26 Star Alliance partners. Member airlines include United Airlines, Air Canada, Lufthansa and Singapore Airlines. This alliance allows travelers to reach 1,300 airports across the globe.
Air Canada’s Aeroplan loyalty program is a popular option to redeem a partner award flight on United Airlines. Using Aeroplan points, you can book a business class flight on United from the U.S. to Europe starting from 60,000 points each way.
The bottom line
When booking an award flight, you aren't limited to redeeming reward miles with the same airline. Many airlines participate in an alliance program that adds even more destinations, elite status options and benefits while traveling. Spend time becoming familiar with your favorite airlines' partners. It will help you know what opportunities for partner award bookings are available to you.
How to maximize your rewards
You want a travel credit card that prioritizes what’s important to you. Here are our picks for the best travel credit cards of 2022, including those best for:
Flexibility, point transfers and a large bonus: Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
No annual fee: Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card
Flat-rate travel rewards: Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card
Bonus travel rewards and high-end perks: Chase Sapphire Reserve®
Luxury perks: The Platinum Card® from American Express
Business travelers: Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card