What Are Airline Partner Awards?
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As you spend more time in the world of credit card points and airline miles, you’ll hear plenty of people use the phrase “partner awards.” But what does it mean exactly? Essentially, a partner award is a flight on one airline booked with another airline’s points.
Of course, you can book travel on a particular airline directly with the airline itself; it’ll often be easier to do so. But booking partner awards will often be cheaper than booking directly with the airline actually operating the flight, thus stretching the value of your points.
For example, a domestic flight with United will sometimes cost fewer points if you book through its partner Air Canada, so you’re better off transferring your Chase credit card points to Air Canada rather than United. As always, your mileage may vary, so it’s important to be a mindful shopper and to compare prices across programs.
In this guide, I’ll explain the basics of partner awards and how you can use them to your advantage when booking with points to travel on different airlines.
Let’s talk about airline partnerships and alliances
Airlines, no matter how extensive their route networks, cannot feasibly fly between every possible destination in the world. Trying to get from Little Rock, Arkansas, to Sofia, Bulgaria? No flight or airline can get you between those two places directly. (Sorry to all the Bulgarians in Little Rock.) But what an airline like American Airlines can do is fly you from Little Rock to their hub in Dallas, then fly you to London, where they can link you to their partner British Airways, who can then fly you to Sofia.
An airline partnership between American and British makes this possible. Among the advantages of such a partnership: You can have all three of those flights reserved on the same ticket; you won’t have to pick up your baggage and check it in again at every connection; and—perhaps most importantly, for our purposes—all that traveling can earn you miles in your airline loyalty program account with either American or British (though not both at once). Partnerships like these offer connectivity, consistency, and a more seamless passenger experience overall.
Airline alliances work similarly. They are networks of partnerships between a group of airlines. There are three major airline alliances today: Star Alliance, oneworld, and SkyTeam (click the links for a complete list of each alliance’s member airlines). If you’re flying with multiple airlines on one ticket, you’ll generally be flying airlines within their alliance; in the case of our sample journey from Little Rock to Sofia, that ticket is made possible by the oneworld alliance.
That said, airlines can partner with other airlines that are not within their alliance. For example, Australia’s flag carrier Qantas belongs to the oneworld alliance, but it also partners with Emirates, even though Emirates does not belong to any alliance. Qantas also partners with Air France-KLM in Europe, even though Air France-KLM belongs to the competing alliance SkyTeam.
Yes, it’s all rather confusing. The important thing to remember: Airlines partner with each other to offer passengers greater connectivity, as well as mileage and frequent flyer benefits across groups of airlines. As travelers using points and miles to book flights, we can use this to our advantage and get maximum value out of our points.
How to use points and airline partnerships in your favor
Let’s say you want to travel from Omaha, Nebraska, to San Francisco, California, and you want to book that flight with points to save some money. The only airline that flies that route nonstop is United, and the one-way flight costs 11,500 points and $5.60 in fees. Cheap enough, but you don’t have enough United MileagePlus miles to book directly with the airline. You consider transferring credit card points over to your MileagePlus account—but you only have points with American Express and Capital One, and only Chase points can be transferred to United.
But wait! All is not lost! Look at the list of airline partners for both Amex and Capital One: their points can be transferred to Aeroplan, the loyalty program of Air Canada, which is an airline partner of United through Star Alliance. That means you can use Air Canada Aeroplan to book travel on United.
The main takeaway here is that you can use airline partnerships and alliances to expand both the value and the reach of your transferable credit card points.
Re: value — Let’s say you actually have Chase points. They transfer to both United and Air Canada at a one-to-one (1:1) ratio. At a points cost of 11,500 with United vs. 10,000 with Air Canada, you save 1,500 points by transferring your points to Air Canada instead and booking that United flight through its partner. Those are marginal savings, sure, but this is an important principle to note: Frequently, airlines don’t offer the best points prices for their own flights; the amount of points you save by booking partner awards are even greater when you’re redeeming for business class and first class flights.
Re: reach — If the credit card points you have do not transfer directly to your desired airline, there may be workarounds made possible by partner awards. This principle can be broadly applied across all airlines. Here are a few more applicable scenarios.
- You can transfer any of the Big 4 points currencies—that’s American Express, Capital One, Citibank, and Chase—to Air France-KLM Flying Blue, then use those miles to book travel on a SkyTeam airline like Delta, often for fewer points than if you were to book directly with Delta.
- Although none of the Big 4 points can be transferred directly to Lufthansa, you can transfer Amex, Chase, and Capital One points to Air Canada Aeroplan, and use those points to book, for example, a first-class flight on Lufthansa between the east coast of the US to Europe for 100,000 points.
- Outside of alliances, you can even transfer any of the Big 4 points to Emirates Skywards miles to book an award flight for one of its partners like JetBlue to transfer in the US carrier’s Mint business class (Emirates and JetBlue have a partnership, who knew?).
One thing to consider: Even if two airlines are partners, an award flight on one airline may not be bookable on the other, or the redemption rates may be absurdly expensive, or you have to get on a waitlist (that you may or may not get off of). Sometimes airlines restrict which partners have access to their award seats to incentivize travelers to book with them directly.
Partner awards are often the best way to maximize the value of your points
Generally speaking, the best “sweet spots” for points redemptions are partner awards like those I’ve mentioned above—a flight on one airline booked through another that sells the same flight to travelers at a lower points cost.
For example, a business class flight in Qatar Airways’s QSuites, from Chicago to Cape Town via Doha, would set you back 95,000 Avios (that’s Qatar’s miles currency) and $206 in taxes and fees. In itself, that’s a pretty solid redemption for almost 24 hours in one of the best business class seats in the world.
To book that flight directly with Qatar, you can transfer Citibank points at a 1:1 ratio to Qatar Airways Privilege Club, the airline’s loyalty program. You can also transfer points from Amex, Capital One, and/or Chase to British Airways Flying Club, then transfer those points from British to Qatar—a transfer made possible because both programs use Avios as their miles currency. (Normally, you cannot transfer points between airlines, even if they are partners; no transferring Delta miles to Air France-KLM, and the like. The Avios family—British, Qatar, Iberia, and Aer Lingus—are a special exception.)
But you can also book that Qatar flight from Chicago to Cape Town via Doha as a partner award with American AAdvantage miles because both Qatar and American are in the oneworld alliance. In fact, the points cost would be even cheaper: that same routing would cost just 75,000 AAdvantage miles and $45 in taxes and fees. (The drawback is that none of the Big 4 points currencies partner with American Aadvantage, but the new kid on the block, Bilt, does. You can transfer points from Bilt to American at a 1:1 ratio.)
Not all partner awards are created equal
Just because one program will get you better value in one situation does not mean it will always get you better value in every situation. This is why it’s imperative that you explore all possible options when booking travel with points. Ask yourself: What are the airlines that can get me from one place to another? Who do those airlines partner with? How much will my desired flight cost in points if I booked it directly with the airline, or through a partner? Which of my credit cards can transfer points to those airlines?
To better understand how airline partnerships work in practice, take one of your most traveled routes (do you often fly home to Taiwan from Los Angeles for the holidays?) or a dream vacation you’ve always wanted to take (do you crave the warmth of Rio de Janeiro while at home in chilly Chicago?). Then do some searching on the internet. (May I humbly recommend a resource called Going dot com the website?) Study the routes, airlines, partnerships, and points redemptions that could make your favorite trips possible.
By looking at real-world examples that matter to you, you’ll start to get a grasp on all the intricacies of partnerships and alliances. As ever: With some research, patience, and due diligence, you’ll be booking partner awards in no time.
Published September 6, 2023
Last updated December 21, 2023
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