Window shopping is an important factor in any life decision. When you pledge loyalty to an airline, you’re committing time, money and effort to give them your business. Shouldn’t they do the best to reward it? In our estimation – US frequent travelers are missing out on lucrative free perks, by using domestic US based airline programs, rather than programs for foreign carriers. Here’s why you should ponder a switch…

Lounge Access

US based airlines have done a marvelous job monetizing their airport lounges, to the dismay of their own frequent flyers. Why? Because they’re not allowed in, unless they pay a yearly fee or leave the country. Even top tier American Airlines flyers are excluded from the airlines world class new Flagship lounges on domestic flights. But an elite member of a foreign loyalty program holding just OneWorld Sapphire status can access any Flagship lounge, even when flying domestic economy. The same could be said for Star Alliance Gold members.

Valuable Points

It’s hard to make a case for the value of Delta SkyMiles. The program has done its very best to mystify their mileage currency in ways even the savviest travel bloggers can barely keep hold. At the same time, loyalty programs outside of the US have been devalued far less, with fewer credit card deals and easy ways to create points. Programs like Asiana, Japan Airlines and Korean offer consistently high performing points currencies, with aspirational ways to use points. Many airlines outside of the US also still reward miles based on distance, which can work in a travelers favor. This would apply, even on domestic flights on US airlines.

Family Pooling

Surprisingly, not a single major US loyalty program offers points pooling, with the exception of JetBlue. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could combine the points of family members into one account? Many loyalty programs outside the US allow family members and people sharing an address to pool points at no additional cost. The benefits of such a system do not need explaining. You’ll just need to explain to your children one day how all those family trips didn’t amount to any miles!

Superior Benefits

In more than one instance, being a member of a foreign loyalty program yields better treatment and perks when flying in the US than the US counterpart! For example, as a British Airways Gold Member (OneWorld Emerald) you can access Flagship Check In facilities on all flights. Yes, even economy flights too. Members of all other airline alliances would still retain priority check in, security fast track access and baggage fee waivers too.

But What About Upgrades?

The big loss for US frequent flyers jumping ship is a decline in complimentary upgrades. Using foreign loyalty programs will bring you below most everyone else on any upgrade list. But each airline offers business programs, where travelers can simultaneously earn points for upgrades, while still using foreign loyalty programs. These upgrade instruments are not as meaningful or effective, but “free” upgrades are harder and harder to come by these days anyway.

How do you feel about this interesting proposition?

Gilbert Ott

Gilbert Ott is an ever curious traveler and one of the world's leading travel experts. His adventures take him all over the globe, often spanning over 200,000 miles a year and his travel exploits are regularly...

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22 Comments

      1. Do the research and tell us HOW to take advantage of this. It would appear you’ve done some research to lead you to the conclusion that US frequent flyers should look outside the country, but what does that research say? To whom should *A or SkyTeam or OW flyers now credit their status to stay within the alliance?

  1. Word of encouragement: You posted about a day (or so) ago about having 1/2 written articles / wondering if anyone will read the blog / etc. I know it’s challenging but continue writing in your own voice and your own style. I appreciate you and the articles that you push out. I look at boarding area sometimes and see the same articles (and basically the same titles) talking about the same thing. Your information is so different. I like when you highlight something like the article above. Don’t doubt yourself. You know more about this than anyone reading your blog. That’s why we’re here! You’ve experienced and understand the programs in the US and understand programs from living in the Europe now. We (in the US) wouldn’t have the knowledge to even think about considering a foreign FF program let alone actually doing it because the overwhelming majority of us have never lived abroad and/or took time to understand the difference in the FF programs. As you pointed out in this article…we don’t 1/2 understand the programs in the country we live in, how are we going to understand additional foreign programs!? Keep your head down and keep rockin’ it!

  2. Yes, you have elaborated on this before. I am seriously contemplating Asiana for *A and suitable alternatives for Skyteam and OW.

  3. Do you have suggestions on which loyalty programs you recommend and why? Also, JetBlue does allow combining of family miles.

  4. Making a blanket statement, as in the headline, that US travelers should switch is not good advice. While you sort of softened it in the opening paragraph, there are still lots of possible pitfalls that need to be carefully weighed.

    I take advantage of several non-US loyalty programs so I’m not by any means against it, but you have to know what you’re getting into and understand what it is you’re looking for in a FFP.

    Earning status with foreign FFPs can be just as tricky as with US programs particularly for US-based flyers. Some still may require a certain amount of flights on their own metal, the elite qualifying mileage earning on the foreign FFP’s U.S. partners can be low, making it harder to earn.

    Whether a given program’s points are more or less valuable depends of course on a passenger’s travel patterns and plans. You really need to look at what sort of uses you’d have for miles and which program tends to offer better mileage “rates”. Some foreign FFPs have distance-based redemption which can be better for short hauls but worse – much worse – for long-haul. Fuel surcharges for awards are still more common with foreign FFPs, in general. Also some foreign FFPs have much stricter mileage expiration policies than US airlines. Again it’s all very fact-specific.

    The ability to supplement butt-in-seat miles with credit card spend and other promotions is a consideration, too. For US-based folks some foreign FFPs have rather pathetic offerings while some have great offers – and can be transferred in from bank points programs.

    Website functionality and phone customer service experiences can be widely variable as well. Avianca’s website and call center is less reliable or consistent United’s, for example (which isn’t saying much!).

    It’s definitely worth people considering and many people will find it advantageous to redirect their earning program. But it takes some time and careful analysis before making a change. I think this post is a good starting point for thought and discussion, but leaves more questions than answers for newbies – and the headline is just way off base.

  5. Nice post, but it would have been nicer if you could share your recommendations on which foreign program to choose for each alliance.

  6. Most people reading this blog already know this. Would like more details. Like ranking of various foreign programs and what it would take to get a status with them. Finally, if lounge access is all that we are getting, why even have a status. Just be a free agent and get access to lounges (excluding Flagship) through credit cards.

  7. I would say one thing you are not considering is that with US based airlines the fees to redeem for free flights is usually pretty low. With foreign carriers the fees can be crazy. For example, book thru UA and you will likely be at under $100 for a business class award on a Star Alliance carrier to Europe…..book thru LH and for the same award you could be paying over $1000 for the same flights.

  8. 100% agree with this. I still hold US frequent flyer accounts of course, but hardly credit any flights to them nowadays. Take for example Star Alliance: I’ve accounts set up with United, Singapore, Avianca and more recently Aegean. I have no qualms flying basic economy on UA domestically, and tend to credit them to the highest-paying program. For example I had a $99 CLE-LAX rt recently and credited to Avianca at 50% – much much more than if I had credited to revenue-based UA. I primarily earn UA miles from shopping portals, MileagePlus X and non-UA ticketed flights (as they tend to accrue on % of miles flown), and still find some value on the redemption side of MileagePlus.

    In regard to your note about status, I don’t fly enough to get status anyways, so I’m not bothered. I hold the Amex platinum anyways so do get access to Centurion/PP/Airspace/Escape and if flying DL, delta sky clubs. As the centurion increases its footprint I feel the value of status would go down further.

  9. I agree that you have a distinctive house- style within the Boarding Area framework – keep that, it’s your USP.

  10. I’ve actually done this already. For my Star Alliance, I’ve switched to Asiana and for Skyteam I was going to switch to KLM/AF but they made some changes which pushed me towards Korean. It’s kinda funny that I’ve chosen competing Korean airlines but I like their expiration policy which is 12 years if I’m not mistaken before the miles expire. Oneworld I’m still not sure about but I’m leaning on British Airways. I am keeping my Alaska Mileage plan though because they remain very generous. I don’t fly as much as some of these mileage hackers but I go to at least once a year to Asia, Europe and Latin America. Sometimes twice a year for Asia so I get a lot of chances to collect miles.

  11. I started doing this last year and essentially became a double Emerald in Oneworld. Now I gat to access the Flagship Lounge in my home airport of MIA for even a 45-minute flight across the state.

    One thing to point out is that many airlines require at least 4 flights on their metal, so it’s important to know where you’d like to go, or have a trip planned to the home country of your chosen airline so that you can take multiple flights in the same trip.

  12. I’m keeping my AA status for free domestic upgrades and international mileage upgrades on AA metal, which I fly more often than others. Some flights for my kids go on BA though. If the miles flown are more than the cost x 5 it’s a no brainer. Those miles can then be combined with Amex MR or Chase UR.

    Lounged aren’t reason enough to switch though. Amex Platinum + Citi Exec give more than enough lounge access for economy flying.

  13. I agree with the other posters who expressed gratitude for bringing up great points in this article. I’ve been a points enthusiast for years and fly premium on long international routes several times a year so I’m no newbie to the game. I’ve been seeing more opportunity with international programs (United was once my favorite domestic program but their continuous devaluations and program changes are no good) but your article really brought home the need to seriously consider updating my points accumulation strategy. Looking forward to future posts with some more details on what specific alternatives you’d recommend. Thanks!

  14. Just an observation that a steer in the right direction is great. If people are interested and willing to do some work themselves then they generally don’t request spoon-feeding. Spoon feeding – as occasionally requested after a good steer has been given – may also lead quite quickly to advantages disappearing.

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