Airline Alliances 101: What They Are and How They Work

Rachel Morgan CauteroOctober 21, 2019
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If you’re a frequent traveler, you’re likely familiar with various airline carriers’ points programs, from Delta SkyMiles to American AAdvantage and United MileagePlus. But in order to really take advantage of frequent flyer programs and all their perks, you’ll need to familiarize yourself with airline alliances.

Put simply, airline alliances are partnerships that allow airlines to offer reciprocal benefits on partner flights. This includes honoring elite status benefits and offering elite qualifying and redeemable miles on partner flights.

Here’s what you need to know about them, from how to use them to which airline alliance is best for your travel inclinations.

The basics

While airline alliances are one of the best ways to get the most out of your airline miles, the rules are complicated and these alliances certainly don’t apply to any and all airlines.

But first, let’s chat about the three major airline alliances: SkyTeam, Star Alliance and Oneworld.

The SkyTeam alliance encompasses 19 airlines and their rewards programs, including Delta, Air France and KLM Royal Dutch Airlines. Star Alliance’s 27 member airlines include United, Air Canada and Air China, while Oneworld's 13 members include American Airlines, British Airways and Cathay Pacific.

Keep in mind that these are only the three major airline alliances. There are partnerships between airlines outside of alliances that honor the same type of reciprocity.

Redeeming miles with partner airlines

The most obvious benefit of airline alliances is the ability to use your airline points from one airline with travel on a member carrier in the same alliance. But why do this? First, not every airline flies to every location. Taking advantage of an airline alliance allows you to expand your travel options using miles.

For example, most of your miles may be tied up in United’s MileagePlus program. But because both United and Ethiopian Airlines are members of Star Alliance, you can use your United miles to finally book that long-awaited trip to Africa you’ve been saving for.

If Europe is on your travel list, you can use your Delta SkyMiles to fly Air France to Paris or Nice. Both Delta and Air France are members of the SkyTeam alliance.

Second, when you fly with member airlines, you can also still earn reciprocal miles with your alliance airline of choice, a big plus for those who painstakingly track their miles in order to gain elite status with their preferred airline. (In other words, you can purchase a paid ticket on AirFrance but opt to credit the miles you earn for the flight to Delta, for example.)

Third, with airline alliances, you can also gain access to other member airlines’ lounges. For example, if you’re a member of American Airlines' Admirals Club, you’ll get access to 100 clubs and partner lounges. Membership normally costs $600 to $650 for non-elite members, or you can get it through the Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite Mastercard®.

Oneworld elite members traveling on qualifying itineraries get access to more than 650 airport lounges.

Redeeming miles with member airlines

Unfortunately, redeeming your miles from one airline with a member airline isn’t always a seamless process. First, search your route via a website like Google Flights to get a sense of what fares cost in cash. Then search the partner airline’s site for your preferred dates and flights. That way, you’ll have a general idea of flight availability and whether you're getting a decent value for your miles.

Once you determine your preferred flights, then you can redeem your miles for the flight via the airline’s rewards booking system. In some cases, you may need to call the booking department to book award travel with a member airline.


  • Before you start accruing miles within a specific airline alliance, make sure the member airlines offer travel destinations and perks that work with your travel goals.

  • Take advantage of the other perks offered by airline alliances, such as access to business and first class lounges.

  • Look into status match options between alliance members.

  • Don’t forget about using airline-branded credit cards. It’s another solid way to earn miles to cover your next trip.

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