What You Need to Know About Airline Partnerships

The secrets to booking award travel, navigating rewards programs for free travel.

Saving money always adds to a great travel experience and understanding airline partnerships and the perks of those partnerships can go a long way to a free flight.

Airlines partner with other domestic and international carriers in addition to major credit cards and, in some cases, major banks. Knowing which partnerships fit your lifestyle and travel goals can be mystifying, but here are tips and tricks to help get the most value out of those alliances.

Between Wings: Airline Partnerships

Understanding airline alliances with other air carriers is one of the first steps to harnessing free flights through airline partnerships. 

American Advantage, Delta SkyMiles and United Mileage Plus are the three frequent flyer programs to remember: These programs dominate the partnership game.

“The three major frequent flyer programs […] partner with carriers around the world,” said Zach Honig, editor of The Points Guy. “You can use points, for example, with American Airlines on a partner airline internationally.”

Making the most of those partnerships comes down to some decisions—including travel destinations—before accruing miles. 

“It’s important to know where you want to go before your start collecting miles,” said Ariana Arghandewal, Point Chaser blog author. “It’s probably best to start looking at an alliance and what that alliance covers. Star Alliance is great for Europe. OneWorld Alliance, and American Airlines, is good for South America.”

SkyTeam is one of three major alliances in which Delta partners with more than a dozen international airlines. OneWorld Alliance partners American Airlines—and its American Advantage points—with airlines like Air Berlin, DragonAir and Cathay Pacific. Star Alliance opens up United Mileage Plus reward travel on partners like Air New Zealand, Air Japan, Aegean Airlines and more. 

Understanding Independent Airline Partnerships

While some airlines are independent of the three major alliances, major carriers can still partner with those airlines.

Delta, for instance, partners with Alaska Airlines and Virgin Atlantic. These partnerships can help travelers cover more ground than what might be available only within the major alliance partners.

“Alaska Mileage Plan is one to pay attention to as it has some high-end partnerships,” said Honig. “I wouldn’t write off Alaska [Airlines] especially if you’re based in Seattle or on the West Coast. Cathay Pacific, for example, is in American but they have a partnership with Alaska.”

While these independent partnerships open up more ground, they also give way to sky-high luxury options. Emirates, with its highly coveted and luxurious flights, is an independent airline that partners with JetBlue, Virgin America, Alaska Airlines and more. 

Here’s one last piece of advice before you commit to a rewards program: Check the taxes, too. Taxes, fuel surcharges and other airline-enforced fees add to the price of awards travel.

“You need to look at which costs the least amount of miles and taxes,” said Arghandewal. “Figure out where you want to go, research the different programs and see which ones have the best miles rates and check on the taxes.” 

Credit card is swiped through a machine.

Airline Partnerships With Credit Cards and Banks

One of the easiest ways to get frequent flyer miles, outside of travel, is spending. The bulk of major airlines have agreements with major credit card companies to reward credit card holders for spending with rewards points and frequent flyer miles.

Typically, credit card companies will offer 30,000 or more miles for spending a certain amount within a given time limit.

“There’s the risk of overextending yourself,” said Honig. “It’s really easy to get excited about these offers, but if you’re signing up for six credit cards at a time, you might end up walking away empty-handed because you couldn’t meet those requirements. The clock starts ticking when you’re approved for the card, not when you activate it.”

While the best investment for those rewards points is usually travel, sometimes using a low amount of miles on other rewards doesn’t hurt.

“If you have a very low amount of miles and you know you’re not going to fly with that airline, then maybe you should consider redeeming your miles for magazine subscriptions or other merchandise,” said Honig. “I’ve done it. I had 2,000 miles once and got four or five magazine subscriptions. The reason that the programs push those options is because it's much less expensive for them to send you merchandise than for you to book flights.”

Man at laptop with hands in hair

How to Book Reward Travel on Partner Airlines

Rewards miles have to be transferred from one carrier or brand to another to book flights. While you can accrue points toward the same flight with multiple different-partnered loyalty programs or credit card perks, those miles all have to be consolidated into one loyalty program to book the award flight with that carrier. 

When booking reward travel, weigh all costs that might accumulate separate from the miles you’re already handing over. Like everything in travel, doing a little research and shopping around can save time and money. 

"It pays to do your research on rewards flights and revenue flights as the rewards flights comes with taxes and fees," said Honig. "You might end up with $700 in fees on coach reward tickets that would be comparable to revenue fares." 

During shopping, Honig said that it's also a good idea to book reward flight on partner airlines because flights on partner airlines cost "far fewer miles" than reward flights on the carrier's own routes.