Most people, even those who fly frequently, are unaware of airline alliances. Alliances are basically agreements between major carriers that often include things like code-sharing on certain routes and a pooling of resources at major airports. Airlines are members of these alliances because they can lower their operational costs and increase their reach and the number of routes that they offer. Airline alliances create partnerships that can positively affect the bottom line for member airlines, but they can also provide benefits to fliers. If you are aware of how airline alliances operate, you can take advantage of the perks and services that they offer to save money and to earn better frequent flier perks.

The three main airline alliances and their major members

Star Alliance

Photo: BriYYZ / Flickr

There are three major alliances in the commercial airline industry. Star Alliance, the largest alliance, has 27 members, including United Airlines, TAP, Singapore Airlines, Thai Airways, and Turkish Airlines. Sky Team has 19 member airlines, including Delta, Air France, KLM, and Korean Air. Twelve-member Oneworld includes carriers like American Airlines, Cathay Pacific, British Airways and Iberia. All three alliances have a global reach. You may have taken advantage of one of these alliances without even being aware of it. People who have to catch connecting flights to other parts of the world can buy cheaper tickets if they make the second part of their journey on an airline that is allied with the carrier who flew the first leg. This can save a lot of money over booking the two legs separately. Both legs can be booked at the same time through either one of the allied carriers.

How you can maximize your frequent flier earnings by taking advantage of airline alliances

Ffrequent flyer

Photo: Jun Acullador / Flickr

The most valuable feature of airline alliances, for fliers, is that it is possible to earn frequent flier miles on all carriers hat are part of the alliance. That means that United Airlines Mileage Plus members can earn frequent flier miles even if they do not fly on a United flight, but instead fly on another allied airline such as Swiss International or Thai Airways. This means that fliers are not tied to one airline and can, more or less, cover the entire world and still earn frequent flier miles and membership points that can lead to a status upgrade. Almost all airlines will give 100% of the miles earned for a flight on an allied carrier, so you won’t lose anything by not flying on your main airline every time that you travel.

Circle fares and other airline alliance special offers

Circle fares

Photo: martinteschner / Flickr

Another major feature of alliances is the availability of “circle fares.” These fares are basically air travel packages that allow users to fly to four or more different destinations within one region for one price. This is often cheaper than buying individual tickets for each leg. Often, an airline alliance will allow fliers to choose from a number of destinations in a region regardless of which airline serves each city. There are even “around the world” options for this type of airfare package.

Airport lounge access

First Class Lounge, British Airways

Photo: Tom Mascardo 3 / Flickr

Another perk for high-tier frequent flier members and premium class passengers, is that they can often use the airport lounges operated by airlines allied with the carrier that they are flying. For example, if the American Airlines lounge at a certain airport is in another terminal, then the flier will be able to access the nearby Cathay Pacific lounge with their frequent flier card or a voucher from American Airlines. This is not always the case, but, more often than not, fliers are allowed to use the lounges of allied airlines when no other lounge is available.

Using an airline-specific credit card to help earn a higher frequent flier status

Plane and Moon

Photo: daspader / Flickr

Serious travelers can earn a high amount of frequent flier miles very quickly if they use an airline-specific card frequently and they always fly on airlines that are allied with the carrier that they normally use. Spending frequent flier miles to get free flights is nice, but so is earning a higher frequent flier status (usually color coded with terms like silver, gold, and platinum). Earning a higher status on your airline can often lead to free or cheap class upgrades, lounge access and other perks. You will be able to enjoy these perks when flying on allied airlines as well.

Do you have any insights into the benefits (or drawbacks) of airline alliances? How can fliers use alliances to their benefit? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Josh Lew
Josh Lew
Josh Lew has traveled widely in Asia and the Americas. He has contributed to popular travel sites like Gadling and Brave New Traveler and currently writes a weekly travel column for MNN. His work has also appeared on the websites of CNN and Forbes Magazine.

If you enjoyed this article, get email updates (it's free).


  1. Julia says:

    Thank you for this article – I am constantly getting lost int he mess that air travel can be sometimes, and I am also in love with my Delta membership. So I’ll be looking more closely at Delta’s allies!

  2. DEALYST says:

    Another great benefit of airline alliances is that many times you can redeem alliance airline miles on other carries. For instance you can redeem British Airlines Avios on American Airlines at the British Airlines rates. This is very beneficial in this case because British Airlines works off of a distance system while American works off of a regional system. This means that all domestic flights on American cost 25,000 miles roundtrip, while short domestic flights cost far less when using Avios. So if you are flying American from NY to Miami or LA or Vegas, you’ll want to use Avios instead of AAdvantage miles as you will save hundreds, if not thousands of miles.

    Another great example of this is using US Airways Dividend Miles for United flights. US Airways has some great sweet spots that include charging the same amount of miles for Business and First Class tickets between LA/SFO and NY and mainland US and Hawaii, while United charges more for First Class tickets in both cases. So if you use your US Airways miles to book your United First Class ticket from NY to LA, you’ll be saving about 20,000 miles.

    These are just two examples, but there are far more examples around.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>