Alliances play huge roles in higher flying, and in order to really elevate your travels, it’s best to understand how they operate and shape the industry. The strategic partnerships formed between airlines all over the world create unique opportunities and easily allow passengers to go to places in ways that would otherwise be much more difficult and/or expensive. Despite how useful alliances can be, they’re not particularly easy to understand, and I often get a number of questions about their basic functions. To help clear up some confusion, here’s a list of FAQs!

1. What are alliances?

Alliances are formed when two or more airlines agree to pool their resources and streamline their operations in cooperation with one another. The hope is that such consolidations will reduce costs and entice greater passenger traffic. Some of the corporate features include shared ticket offices, maintenance facilities, and ground and airport crews, while travelers benefit from more convenient and more comfortable travel experiences, greater flexibility, and cheaper prices. In theory, such agreements create win-win situations for all parties involved.

alliance presence map.png
The world, as depicted with airlines and their respective alliances. Star Alliance is gray, oneworld is purple, and SkyTeam is blue.

2. How many alliances are there?

There are three major alliances: Star Alliance, oneworld, and SkyTeam.

3. Is every airline in an alliance?

No. In fact, more airlines than not are unaffiliated with any of the three alliances. That said, the vast majority of the world’s most prominent carriers are members of either Star Alliance, oneworld, and SkyTeam. There are some important exceptions though: Emirates and Etihad, glitzy and glamorous airlines based in the United Arab Emirates, are not alliance members, and neither are any of the Virgin brand companies (i.e. Atlantic, America, and Australia). Low cost carriers, like Southwest, JetBlue, Ryanair, and easyJet, have historically stayed independent too.

emirates first class suite
Emirates, among others, is famously not affiliated with any of the major alliances

4. What are the differences between alliances?

Conceptually, the three alliances operate in similar ways and offer passengers the same general perks: a streamlined travel experience all over the world, reciprocated perks between carriers for loyal/returning customers, and opportunities to purchase cheaper airfares with more convenient routings. Because there is a high degree of cooperation between each member carrier, it’s a lot easier to provide these benefits than it otherwise would be.

PEK Terminal 3
Efforts like Star Alliance’s “Move Under One Roof Initiative” mean easier connections for you and your bags!

Beyond those though, there are plenty of noteworthy differences between Star Alliance, oneworld, and SkyTeam. Access to specific airports/markets will vary, as will your experiences onboard and on the ground. Star Alliance is the biggest of the three, oneworld has a solid roster of elite carriers, and SkyTeam has strong legacy carriers, but there are a number of other differences too!

5. Is one alliance better than the others?

This is a bit of a loaded question, and it really depends on what you value in your travels. If you prefer the biggest, most expansive route network with the greatest number of affiliates, then your best bet is with Star Alliance.

Star Alliance cannot be beat when it comes to transatlantic options…or really anywhere else in the world!

If you would rather have access to well regarded airlines and some of the most comfortable experiences both in the air and on the ground, then fly oneworld.

Qatar Lounge
Enjoy Qatar’s renowned Al Safwa First Class lounge, reserved exclusively for elite oneworld passengers

If you travel frequently in and around the United States, Europe, or Asia, you’ll probably like SkyTeam the most; they feature the strongest legacy carriers of the bunch.

delta regional f seat
Regardless of the class of service that I’m in, Delta is my favorite way to fly domestically.

I personally prefer Star Alliance to oneworld and SkyTeam, and that’s because I appreciate the flexibility that its many members offer to their customers. You might disagree, you might not, and either is okay — you just have to travel to find out for yourself!

6. How do alliances work to serve passengers?

In higher flying and beyond, I think it’s important to always remember that corporations are not your friend. Airlines are not exempt from this either. They want to make money, and they value your loyalty because that means continued revenue for them. Knowing that, you can use your power as a consumer to maximize the quality of your travel, and that’s where higher flying comes in to the equation. An airline wants to encourage you to return to it and it only, so it must create incentives to consistently make that worth your while. Alliances make that easier by not only allowing for safe travel all over the world, but also by granting special permissions and privileges to passengers every step of the way. They’ll also work to ensure that logistics are taken care of, so you’ll be less likely to miss a connection or lose your luggage!

7. What sort of benefits can I expect from an alliance?

It depends on how loyal you are to any one alliance. If you fly its affiliate carriers frequently, you’ll be rewarded with nice perks and benefits throughout the entirety of the network. This should go without saying, but the more you travel, the more you get to enjoy. Someone who racks up hundreds of thousands of miles per year will get access to complimentary upgrades, airport lounges, priority boarding, dedicated customer service and other special privileges everywhere courtesy of member airlines. Conversely, if your only trip is a summer vacation every other year from New York to Florida and back, then you’re probably not going to experience many of these perks. If you’re somewhere in between these two extremes, then you can expect some perks, but probably not all of them. You’ll have to consult with your specific alliance to see what you’ll get!

8. Will my benefits transfer between loyalty programs?

Yes, but with some exceptions. Alliances are good to passengers in the sense that the perks that come with status on one airline are usually reciprocated by all of the other members. Granted, there are some alliances that are much better at ensuring parity (oneworld) than others (SkyTeam), but frequent flyers can, at the bare minimum, expect some form of recognition like priority boarding or lounge access.

Perhaps the most compelling benefit is the ability to earn your favorite frequent flyer mile currency on a partner carrier, and then redeem those same points for a flight on another affiliate. For example, if you fly once on Lufthansa (a member of Star Alliance), you can earn United MileagePlus miles (also Star Alliance), and then redeem those later for a seat on Thai Airways (also Star Alliance).

Earn any kind of Star Alliance points when you slog through Economy Class on United.

9. Will my miles transfer between loyalty programs?

Not exactly. To use the example in the previous point, if you want to directly convert your Lufthansa miles into United miles, then you’ll be out of luck unfortunately. You’re stuck with the currency you’ve earned, but if you want to start collecting a particular currency, you easily can credit your trips to a different program… just make sure that you specify which one when you book your ticket! You could also redeem Lufthansa miles for travel on United, or on any other Star Alliance carrier for that matter.

united polaris
Redeem MileagePlus miles for travel on United…
lufthansa first class
…or on Lufthansa…
singapore business class
…or on any other Star Alliance member!

This feature isn’t unique to Star Alliance — it’s a prominent benefit enjoyed by oneworld and SkyTeam travelers too. Do be aware of certain restrictions that may plague your program of choice!

10. What if I routinely fly on multiple airlines/alliances?

That’s great! If you can earn status with a carrier in each of the three alliances, you’re quickly going to become an elite higher flyer. Elite perks and boatloads of miles will follow you everywhere! Unfortunately, achieving status with one airline is a challenge and it’s really quite expensive too. Replicating such a feat twice is that much more difficult, especially if you’re not an extreme road warrior. Only a few people can claim levels of recognition like that (I can’t), so unless you start traveling excessively, then you’re not going to be doing yourself any favors by dividing your time among multiple airlines. Don’t spread yourself too thin, and start out by choosing just one airline/alliance to be loyal to. You can expand from there!

If you have a better understanding of how airlines and alliances work together, good, then I’ve done my job. Without alliances, it’s really hard to fly higher, and if you’re unsure of how to use them to your advantage, then you might be forced to settle for something less than what it is you want. That said, if you have any more questions, feel free to ask in the comments section or if you don’t want to post publicly, you can send me an email too!