Choosing an airline frequent flyer program in which to focus is as much about the airline you fly as it is the Alliance they are in. If you have saved your miles and signed up for a credit card bonus because you have always wanted to go to Hong Kong but you fly with American Airlines, you will be able to redeem your miles but it will be with one of their partner airlines in the one world Alliance because AA doesn't fly there. Alliances allow airlines to offer you the world in a convenient and affordable manner.
In this example, American would likely take you part of the way and then you would go the rest of the way with Cathay Pacific or Japan Airlines. Even if your airline has direct service like Delta from JFK- Paris Charles D'Gaulle (CDG) you may still be routed on partner Air France because they have more available space.
But how do you know with which airline to start? As always you need to look at the end before you begin. If you could go anywhere in the world, where would it be? You should come up with an ultimate dream destination like Maldives or Bali, and a shorter meaningful award ticket like Lima, Peru to visit Macchu Pichu or Hawaii.
Then you should look at award charts for airlines that serve your most used airport. I did the homework for you, here are the main players:
United (Star Alliance) Delta (SkyTeam) American (oneworld) US Airways (Star Alliance) Southwest JetBlue Virgin America
You may want to consider some foreign airlines but I will get to that in a later post.
Of the above airlines, if you are using your miles for international travel you can pretty much eliminate Southwest, Virgin America - but if you aren't interested in international redemptions or Hawaii - Southwest is probably the best possible program for securing a seat when you want to redeem. JetBlue isn't particularly strong because their international network outside of the Caribbean is limited and using otherwise disconnected carriers (like Etihad and American Airlines) but it's getting stronger.
Now that you have chosen an alliance you can start maximizing your earning potential by earning through partners.
The beauty in flying with an alliance member airline is value and flexibility. For any flight you take on any member carrier you can credit to your own program within that alliance. If I fly on British Airways between London and Madrid, I can earn American Airlines Aadvantage miles (and status) for the journey. When I book the reservation I simply enter my American Airlines Aadvantage number
Similarly, when I want to redeem my hard earned miles, and I want to fly between Sydney and LA, I can book on alliance partner American Airlines and fly the service operated by Qantas. This allows you to see the world for the miles you fly at home, with a comparable service.
Not all fares are created equal
Some fares may earn less with other airlines depending on what you pay. Some may earn more, it just depends on the fare code and the airline you are flying and crediting to. That sounds more complicated than it is. When searching for a fare (this one was done on Kayak.com), there is an option to pull up more details.
On this route (Bangkok to Hong Kong) the most affordable option is Air Asia, recently voted the best low cost carrier in the world and one of my personal favorites. Unfortunately, their frequent flyer program is not quite as valuable to me as Delta SkyMiles right now, so for just $8 more I was able to fly with Kenya Airways and credit the miles to my Delta account. The reason I would pay more and fly an airline that I have never flown is because I know I will earn miles, and if I have status within the alliance I will get other perks like priority boarding and lounge access.
But Delta does not give the same credit to all fares. Extremely discounted fares will pay less SkyMiles by percentage than premium fares. Here is a comprehensive chart showing what you will earn per fare code.
What's a fare code and how do I find it?
On Kayak you can simply select the "Details" button and the following will drop down.
There it is, on the bottom, right next to the class of seat "Coach". The fare code for this flight starts with a "T", so using the chart from Delta earlier we can see that "T" should earn 100% of miles flown. For this journey (BKK-HKG roundtrip) I should earn just over 2,000 miles into my Delta account by flying Kenya Airways. There are many other partners domestically like Alaska Airlines where you can credit and even earn status without even flying Delta or your own carrier. As I mentioned before, you can earn American Aadvantage miles flying on JetBlue, or within the alliance US Airways on United jets and the other way around.
It's important you make the most of each earning opportunity.
Coming soon, my experience on Kenya Airways, Hyatt Sha Tin, Private Kitchen, Bangkok Le Meridien and falling in love with the Sherpstress all over again. Here is a preview...