In the past six years, I’ve flown dozens of flights on United and its partners. I haven’t earned a single United MileagePlus mile from any of these flights. Yet, every time I fly United, I get a free checked bag, lounge access, priority boarding, priority check-in and more.
How could that possibly be the case? I’m strategic about where I credit my United and Star Alliance flights. As you’ll learn below, it’s not always best to credit flights to the mileage program of the airline you’re flying.
In this post, I’ll show you how to determine where it’s best to credit the miles you earn from your flights, and how doing so can help you score more miles or elite perks.
Playing the Points and Miles Field
Many travelers may not realize it’s possible to credit the miles earned from a flight to a mileage program other than for the airline you’re flying.
However, many airlines partner with other airlines, either as part of an alliance or a non-alliance partnership. As part of these partnerships, you can choose to earn miles on one of potentially dozens of airline mileage programs. Playing the points and miles field can be key to getting the most from your flights.
The Three Airline Alliances
Before you can start leveraging airline partners, it’s important to learn about airline alliances. The three major airline alliances and their U.S. partners are:
- Star Alliance: United Airlines and 25 partners
- SkyTeam: Delta Air Lines and 18 partners
- Oneworld: American Airlines and 12 partners—plus Alaska Airlines effective March 31, 2021
The agreements between each airline may vary. But generally, you can expect to earn miles through any alliance member’s mileage program when flying on an alliance member flight. And then you can redeem those miles on any member (as long as there’s award availability).
However, alliance partnerships offer a much deeper bond than just mileage earning and redeeming. If you earn elite status on one alliance airline, you can enjoy perks like lounge access, checked bag benefits, priority boarding and more each time you fly on another alliance partner.
Non-Alliance Airline Partnerships
The other U.S.-based airlines aren’t members of the three major airline alliances. However, some have partnerships with other airlines. For example, JetBlue and American Airlines have a codeshare agreement. This agreement allows members to earn points/miles and elite status as if they were flying on their favorite airline when flying on these routes.
Even before it joins Oneworld, Alaska’s Mileage Plan program has 17 airline partners for earning and redeeming miles. These non-alliance partners help make the Mileage Plan program so valuable. After all, some domestic Alaska first class award flights can cost more than 50,000 Alaska miles. Or, you can use the same 50,000 miles for a one-way business class award flight to Asia on Cathay Pacific.
Setting a Goal for Your Earnings
Before you start considering where to credit flights, it’s important to consider your goals. Think about what’s going to be the most valuable for you to get out of crediting your flights.
Decide Between Earning Elite Status or Earning Miles
The first decision to make is whether you want to focus on earning the most award miles or earning elite status.
Personally, I’m a budget traveler at heart. I’m happy to fly across the world in economy if the price is right. Economy flights don’t come with perks. Yet, thanks to elite status, I’ve enjoyed many tasty meals, pre-flight drinks, showers and even massages before taking a long-haul economy flight.
My focus is generally on earning elite status when figuring out where to credit my flights. However, if you’re booking business- and first-class flights when you travel, you’ll get many of these elite perks as part of your ticket. In this case, earning elite status offers little additional value.
Also, you may not fly enough miles to earn elite status on any airline even if you focused on earning elite status. In either case, it’s better to focus on what mileage program offers you the most (and most-valuable) miles.
Consider Which Miles You Should Earn
When deciding where to credit miles, it’s important to figure out what type of airline miles will be most valuable for you.
For example, American Airlines AAdvantage miles aren’t easy to accumulate. That’s because AAdvantage isn’t a transfer partner of any major bank program. So, if you’re trying to build up your balance to take advantage of an AAdvantage sweet spot, you may want to credit your flights to AAdvantage instead of a higher-earning option.
Or you may want to focus on earning miles in a niche program like Turkish Airlines Miles & Smiles. Miles & Smiles offers one of the best sweet spots around right now: flights to Hawaii for 7,500 miles in economy or 12,500 miles in business class. If Aloha is in your future, you may prioritize earning Miles & Smiles rather than United miles when considering where to credit Star Alliance flights.
Keeping It Simple
With all of that said, it’s important to keep in mind that sometimes the simplest solution is the best. If you don’t fly much each year, it doesn’t make sense to earn miles in several different programs. Instead, it may be best to just focus on one program.
In this case, it’s still worth figuring out which program that should be. You shouldn’t just default to the U.S.-based airline program that’s most convenient.
Earning the Most Redeemable Miles
If you’re looking to earn the most award miles from your flight, you’ll need to do some math. There are typically three elements that you’ll need to use to calculate the award miles you’ll earn: the booking class, the earning rate and the flight distance. With some airlines, you’ll need the dollar cost of the flight instead.
Find the Booking Class
The first piece of information you’ll need is the booking class for your flight. How you’re going to find this is going to vary on the airline that you booked. Hopefully, this booking code will appear in your confirmation email or e-ticket, but this isn’t always the case.
For example, this All Nippon Airways (ANA) e-ticket shows that the booking class is K for all of the flights of this trip:
It may be easier to use a trip aggregator such as TripIt or AwardWallet to track your trips. In the flight details, you should find the fare class for the flight. If you are not able to find this, you may have to contact the airline directly.
Figure Out Which Airline to Credit the Flight
The appropriately named Where To Credit has become the go-to for finding the earning rates for a given airline fare class. Where To Credit aggregates the earning rates for many different mileage programs all in one spot so you can easily compare your options.
For the ANA flights above, you can credit these flights to one of dozens of mileage programs. That’s because ANA is part of Star Alliance and most alliance partners will give you at least some credit for these ANA flights. Thankfully, you can sort the results by the earning rate:
As you can see in the results, this process isn’t straightforward. For example, you can earn 100% of flight miles as Philippine Airlines Mabuhay Miles—but only if it’s a domestic ANA flight.
Sharp eyes may have noticed that Where To Credit lists Etihad Guest twice. That’s not an error on Where To Credit’s end. Etihad Guest’s mileage earning chart for ANA flights lists “K” booking class flights in both the 50% “Economy Discounted” and 70% “Economy” earning lines.
This is clearly a mistake, as K-class flights can only credit at 50% or 70%. The problem here is that we don’t know which it is. In cases like this, it’s best to assume that you’ll get the smaller number of miles and end up pleasantly surprised if you get more than you’re expecting.
Determine the Flight Mileage
Generally, the last element that you’ll need when calculating your mileage earnings is the distance of the flight. That’s because many airlines programs outside the U.S. still award miles based on the distance of the flight. The percentages in the Where To Credit results above reflect the percentage of flight miles that you’d earn as award miles.
The easiest tool to find the distance between two airports is Great Circle Mapper. Continuing with our example above, we can use the Great Circle Mapper to find that it’s approximately 6,745 miles from New York Kennedy (JFK) to Tokyo Narita (NRT):
This entire convoluted four-leg trip on ANA from New York Kennedy (JFK) to Tokyo Narita (NRT) to Singapore (SIN) and returning from Delhi (DEL) to Tokyo Haneda (HND) and Tokyo Narita (NRT) to New York JFK is 20,461 miles. You generally want to credit all flights to the same program, so that’s what we will use in the section below.
Calculate the Earnings
Once you have the earning rate and flight miles, you now need to do some math for each of the programs to which you’d consider crediting the flight. For me, that’s as follows:
If you have elite status with any of these airlines, you’ll additionally need to factor in the elite mileage bonus that you’d earn.
Deciding Between the Options
The last step in this process is the most important: making a decision. Even though you can credit these ANA flights to Aegean at a 50% rate doesn’t mean it’s the best place for you to credit these flights. While the Miles+Bonus program has some sweet spots, it’s not easy to accumulate Aegean miles. The only major transferable points program that Miles+Bonus partners with is Marriott Bonvoy.
However, Etihad Guest partners with American Express Membership Rewards (1:1 transfer rate), Capital One Miles (4:3 transfer rate), Citi ThankYou Points (1:1 transfer rate) and Marriott Bonvoy (3:1 transfer rate). So, crediting these ANA flights to Etihad might be a good option if you want to take advantage of Etihad’s incredible sweet spots—such as flying from the U.S. to Africa in business class for just 44,000 miles.
In the 30% earning bracket, there are a few excellent choices, such as Aeroplan, Turkish Miles&Smiles and Virgin Atlantic Flying Club. But again, it comes down to deciding which program you can best utilize. That means it can make sense for you to credit these flights to United, even though it offers the lowest number of miles.
Focusing on Earning Elite Status
If you—like me—prioritize earning elite status over award miles, the process is a bit more complicated than just calculating the award mileage earnings.
Learn the Metrics Required to Earn Elite Status
With some international programs, the award miles that you earn are equivalent to the elite-qualifying miles you’re earning toward elite status. For example, Asiana Club elite status simply looks at how many miles you’ve accrued for determining elite status.
Unfortunately, it’s not that simple for many well-known mileage programs. Many programs have a separate calculation for elite-qualifying miles than award miles.
For example, Alaska Mileage Plan has a different Elite Qualifying Miles earning rate than the rate for earning award miles. Japan Airlines first class tickets earn 3.5X the flight miles as award miles but only 1.5X the flight miles as Elite Qualifying Miles.
Other programs have different elite qualifying metrics, either in addition to or besides elite qualifying miles. For example, American Airlines AAdvantage elite status requires members to earn a certain amount of Elite Qualifying Dollars (EQD) in addition to either Elite Qualifying Miles (EQM) or Elite Qualifying Segments (EQS).
Meanwhile, British Airways’ Executive Club requires members to hit Tier Point and flight thresholds to earn elite status. And United Airlines requires a certain level of Premier Qualifying Points (PQP) and/or Premier Qualifying Flights (PQF).
Entire articles could be dedicated to the nuances of Elite Qualifying Dollars, Tier Points, Premier Qualifying Points and these types of elite-qualifying metrics. But, suffice to say that these programs take a bit of mastery to figure out how to earn elite status.
Figure Out the Timing
Also, different mileage programs have different timing requirements for earning elite status. Many U.S.-based airlines use a calendar year. So, you’ll need to meet the requirements on flights between January 1 and December 31.
Other programs aren’t as straightforward. For example, British Airways uses your “membership year” for determining elite status. Your membership year starts on the date that you sign up for the Executive Club program, and you can’t change it after it’s set.
Meanwhile, Singapore KrisFlyer considers a rolling 12-month period when determining elite status. That can make KrisFlyer ideal for crediting flights late in the calendar year if you aren’t going to be able to reach elite status through another Star Alliance program.
Consider Which is Best for You
With all different types of programs and elite-qualifying calculations, the right program for you is going to take some research and calculations. However, the effort can pay off.
For example, I credited just three round-trip flights to Asiana Club to earn Star Alliance Gold elite status for nearly four years. Asiana Club requires just 40,000 miles for its Diamond elite status, and members have a 24-month qualification period and then a 24-month elite period.
While Asiana Club is the right choice for me, it might not be the same for your situation. So, it’s worth digging around different elite status programs to find the right one for you.
It’s easy to simply credit all of your flights to the airline you know the best. But, with a little research, you may be able to earn more miles and potentially qualify for elite status more quickly. When considering your options, make sure to factor in what’s important to you—whether that’s earning the most miles or focusing on earning elite status the fastest.