When American Airlines, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Canadian Airlines (now defunct) and Qantas got together in 1998 to launch oneworld, it reshaped flying and mileage earning. It made global travel seamless and the collection of frequent flyer miles easier than ever before.
Prior to these global alliances, while you could earn miles with partners, it was not as seamless as it is now. Today, there are three major alliances:
- oneworld: 12 airlines – American, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Finnair, Iberia, Japan Airlines, LAN, Malev, Mexicana (if it ever comes back), Qantas, Royal Jordanian and S7
- SkyTeam: 14 airlines – Aeroflot, Aeromexico, Air Europa, Air France, Alitalia, China Eastern, China Southern, Czech Airlines, Delta, Kenya Airways, KLM, Korean Airlines, Tarom and Vietnam Airlines
- Star Alliance: 27 airlines – Adria, Aegan, Air Canada, Air China, Air New Zealand, ANA, Asiana, Austrian, Blue1, BMI, Brussels Airlines, Continental (Soon to be United Airlines), Croatia Airlines, EgyptAir, LOT Polish, Lufthansa, SAS, Singapore, South African, Spanair, Swiss, TAM, TAP Portugal, Thai, Turkish, United, US Airways
So to answer the question, you really only need to join 3 programs to collect miles with over 55 airlines (and growing — in the next year, oneworld will add Air Berlin, Kingfisher and Malayasian, while SkyTeam will add China Airlines, Garuda and Saudia. Star will add Ethopian and Shenzen). Global alliances allow you to earn miles with alliance members without having to have a frequent flyer account outside of your own airline (i.e., if you are flying British Airways, give them your American number and you will earn miles in your American account for the miles flown on the British Airways account. If you are flying Korean Air, give them your Delta number.) In addition to letting you earn with partners, it also let you redeem with partners (i.e., you have miles with United and you want to fly Lufthansa, you call United and ask them for availability on Lufthansa)
Which 3 should you join? Have an American and Delta account for oneworld and SkyTeam flying. For Star Alliance, pick either United (Continental is going to be merged with United and the United frequent flyer program will survive and Continental miles will be transferred to United) or US Airways.
In some scenarios, you might only need two frequent flyer accounts, this is especially true if you fly out of San Francisco, Houston, Charlotte and Phoenix. San Francisco, Houston, Charlotte and Phoenix are dominant Star Alliance hubs, so I would have United for SF/Houston and US Airways for Charlotte and Phoenix… and then have Alaska Airlines to collect for American and Delta flights. Alaska Airlines is unique in that it is partner with most oneworld and SkyTeam members. So for frequent flyers in those 4 cities, the decision is a lot easier.
And when you fly, remember to attach your frequent flyer number to the reservation.
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