Fortunately, most airlines are part of an alliance.
When I talk of alliances, I am not talking NATO vs. Warsaw Pact. Back when I was a Lieutenant, every time I flew on a different airline, I had to sign up for that airline’s frequent flyer program (FFP) meaning that I had a lot of miles spread thinly over a bunch of programs so it was hard to be considered an “elite” flyer and to have enough miles for free awards.
Thankfully, the airlines solved a lot of this problem by allying together so that even when flying on another airline your miles and status were earned on your main FFP. Consolidation of the airline industry has helped even further so those 38,000 miles I had had for years on Continental(CO) joined my United(UA) miles and enriched my total to a useful level on my main airline. There are three alliances out there today to which the majority of airlines belong.
The largest is the Star Alliance (http://www.staralliance.com/en/) which counts UA, CO, US as U.S. carriers and Lufthansa (LH), Air Nippon Airways (ANA), Thai Air (TH), and Singapore Airways (SA) as key foreign carriers. US Airways will obviously be leaving soon as it merges with American Airlines.
Note that not all of the Star Alliances airlines are shown above and include some pretty small ones such as Ethiopean Airlines and Croatia Airlines. If you find yourself planning a journey on an obscure airline, check which alliance it belongs to so you can collect miles for that flight too. While most of the airlines follow the same general mileage earning rules, be sure to check the details beforehand. Several airlines will restrict the mileage earning ability on other airlines if they feel that travellers are abusing the system and gaining cheap EQM.
One great thing to note about the Star Alliance is that with Gold level on any of the airlines, you get free access to all of the Star Alliance airlines’ lounges when you are flying internationally. This includes the “Gateway” city in the U.S. on your way out. The “Gateway” city meaning the last U.S. stop on your journey. Say you were traveling DEN-IAD-MUC (Munich); you would get lounge access at IAD, but not at DEN. Unfortunately, you don’t get it at all when returning to the U.S. That said, it is still a great benefit, as the airline lounges overseas are fantastic compared with what you will find in the States.
Second major alliance is One World (www.oneworld.com) which is affiliated with American (AA), British Airways (BA) and Japan Airlines (JAL).
The strength in One World is primarily the American Airlines – British Airlines axis with JAL, Quantas, and Cathay Pacific giving you access to almost any destination in the world. This alliance serves you well if you are based in American hubs such as Dallas or New York and, of course, those stationed in the UK. Just to be different, OneWorld elite levels are Emerald, Sapphire and Ruby. Like Star Alliance, those at Sapphire (Gold) level and above are accorded access to lounges when traveling internationally. Here is a list of all thir benefits for their first elite level:
As a frequent flyer member of one of the oneworld® member airlines, you earn miles and points towards your tier status every time you travel on an eligible flight.
When your top tier status is equivalent to oneworld Emerald, you are entitled to the following oneworld benefits, no matter which oneworld airline or cabin class you are flying:
- Priority First Class or Business Class check-in
- Preferred boarding
- Preferred seating (where offered)
- Priority standby and waitlisting
- Access to more than 550 airport lounges (with one guest) when travelling internationally, including premium First Class, Business Class and frequent flyer lounges, regardless of the class of service flown that day. For details about the oneworld lounge access policy, click here.
In addition to all of the above privileges, Emerald frequent flyers can now enjoy two new benefits:
Extra baggage allowance
As an Emerald frequent flyer you can check in one additional bag for free in addition to your ticketed baggage allowance when you fly on oneworld airlines. If your ticket mentions a weight allowance, you can check in an extra 20kgs (44lbs). (This benefit is not available on British Airways ‘Hand Baggage Only’ fares on select short-haul routes and airberlin’s JustFly hand baggage only fares).
Fast Track through security at select airports
We know your time is precious and you would rather be in one of the 550 oneworld lounges rather than waiting in line at airport security. That is why, at select airports worldwide, our member airlines have arranged for oneworld Emerald frequent flyers to access the ‘Fast Track’ or ‘Priority Lanes’ at security check points. See here for details and the list of airports where this privilege is available:
oneworld benefits are available only to top tier frequent flyers of the oneworld airlines when travelling on flights that are both operated and marketed by a oneworld member airline. Fast track security lanes are not available at all airports.
Due to restrictions or local agreements with Security Fast Track facility operators, not all oneworld carriers are currrently able to extend this benefit to all Emerald tier customers.
The third is the smallest, but can be your choice is you live in the south or other hub location, is Skyteam (www.skyteam.com). This team has Delta (DL), including the former Northwest Airlines, Air France (AF), and Korean Air (KL) and so you can still travel the world if this is your choice. Check out the website of each one to see the long list of airlines that each alliance includes. Obviously, the strategy here is to pick one and try to accumulate all your miles on that one both to attain higher status and to accumulate a big pot ‘o miles that you can spend on any of the alliance’s member airlines. However, we all get stuck with flights that are not our choice and you should not turn down miles just because they are not part of your alliance. Continental used to be in another alliance from UA, but now they are merging showing that those orphan miles can come home to roost.
Although some people look down on this alliance because it is the smallest, if you live in or near a Delta hub, then this is your alliance. With KLM, Air France and Korean Air, you can still get to most of the world through this alliance. Their access to international lounges follows similar rules to the other alliances:
Lounge Access Policy
- All international First and Business Class passengers traveling on or connecting to/from a same-day international flight operated by a SkyTeam member airline have access to our exclusive lounge facilities. Simply present your same-day (First or Business Class) ticket for an international SkyTeam airline flight.
- SkyTeam Elite Plus members, regardless of their travel class, are allowed access to a SkyTeam lounge at a particular airport if traveling on or connecting to/from a same-day international flight operated by a SkyTeam member airline. Simply present your same-day ticket for an international SkyTeam airline flight and a valid Elite Plus membership card.
In addition, SkyTeam Elite Plus members are allowed to invite a guest, who is also traveling on a flight operated by a SkyTeam member airline, to join them in the lounge. The guest does not necessarily need to travel on the same flight as the SkyTeam Elite Plus member.
- Access to a lounge must be within a 24-hour window before the scheduled departure time of the flight at the airport in question
- Lounge access will be provided only at your departure airport and not on arrival, unless you are connecting to a domestic flight or other qualifying international flight
There are other good FFPs that are not part of any alliance, such as Alaska Air (AS), that still have a mini-alliance. AS’ Mileage Plan allows you to credit both DL and AA miles and they count for status. This is a rare program that crosses the boundary of OneWorld and SkyTeam.
Accumulating miles on two alliances like this can also be useful. For example, I am Gold on AS’s Mileage Plan program as well as a 1K on UA’s Mileage Plus program. Between the two, I capture almost any flight I can take and compile it into only two programs that I need to watch. It also compiles my miles into a useable amount.
Mainly, you are going to join a program if that fits your travel requirements. I lived in Alaska for 7 years, so naturally I joined their program for local and domestic flights, but used UA for international flights. Having the second program is also beneficial since I can use AS miles for flights on AA or DL which means extra flexibility when flying or redeeming. Your choice of alliance or independent program will likely depend most on what area of the country you live in. Different airlines have hubs in different cities meaning that you are more likely to fly that airline so sign up with them. Also, look at where you are most likely to be stationed in the future. My cousin is one of those Satcom types that is only stationed in three places around the world, Germany, Okinawa, and California. Joining UA’s program makes the most sense since he can use it for flying LH in Germany and ANA in Okinawa. Whichever alliance you choose try your best to stick with that one. If you get stuck taking an airline that is not in your chosen alliance, you should still sign up and collect those miles. Who knows? You may be able to use them in the future.