The Top 5 Frequent Flyer Programs for International Travel

The Top 5 Frequent Flyer Programs for International Travel

Picking the right frequent flyer programs for your international travel depends on the region, the distance (short-haul/long-haul), and your own objectives. Are you looking to get status? Or do you favor cheap redemptions?

Start by assessing your travel patterns and booking habits (deep-discounted economy vs. full-fare economy or business/first), and reviewing both the redemption side as well as earning ability of potential programs. Some programs however generally stand out by their number of partners, ease of achieving elite status, and overall value. Here’s a rundown.

Alaska Airlines MileagePlan

MileagePlan is one of the best programs for international travel for both earning and redemption. Since Alaska Airlines is not aligned with any alliance, they have a unique range of partners that cover most of the globe, and allow you to easily find award availability. Those partners include American, British Airways, Air France, Cathay Pacific, Singapore Airlines, Qantas, Emirates, and you can rely on Alaska’s network to connect to these airlines’ US gateways. Most partners can be booked online.

Alaska Airlines is a 1:1 transfer partner of Starwood Preferred Guest.

Their award pricing is generally very reasonable, but depends on the carrier, as award charts are carrier specific.

Example:

From the continental US to Europe in Business class, a one-way journey costs: 62,500 miles on Air France/KLM, 50,000 miles on American Airlines, 60,000 miles on British Airways or a steep 105,000 miles on Emirates and you can’t mix and match partners on the same award.

Alaska Partnerships
Alaska has a large network of partner airines

MileagePlan is the only US-based program that I am happy to mention in this list. It’s not that the other major domestic programs aren’t valuable for international travel: in fact, each of them may have their sweet spots for redemption, but:

  • Revenue-based mileage accrual (on UA, AA and DL) can result in very low earnings on long distance travel, compared to distance-based accrual, especially on cheap economy tickets.
  • United and Delta charge a premium for award travel on partner airlines (on which you eventually need to rely at some point for international travel).
  • American has had really poor saver award availability recently, especially for international premium classes, which means British Airways is often the only transatlantic award option. And it comes with a hefty carrier surcharge.

There is however one substantial downside to MileagePlan. Since Alaska isn’t a member of any airline alliance, you usually won’t get any elite benefits with their partners.

Air Canada Aeroplan – Star Alliance

Aeroplan isn’t as good as it used to be, but can still offer reasonably priced redemptions on excellent carriers through the Star Alliance network – e.g. 55,000 miles without fuel surcharges from the US to Europe on Swiss.

I would not call Aeroplan the best Star Alliance program overall, but it is a pretty good value for most. Elite status however is not especially easy to reach given the spending requirement, but it is a very useful program for redemption.

You can transfer both American Express Membership Rewards and SPG points to Aeroplan at a 1:1 ratio.

British Airways Executive Club – oneworld

Again, it depends on your travel patterns, but Executive Club is an exceedingly useful program for specific flights. Availability is generally good, and status can be easy to achieve with some discounted premium cabin travel – bearing in mind that it would definitely involve international travel as there is a minimum requirement of two to four segments on British Airways or Iberia to achieve elite status.

On the redemption side, the program offers very cheap short-haul awards (as low as 4,500 miles in economy or 9,000 in business class), thus perfect for domestic flights within Japan (with no taxes!) on JAL or within Australia with Qantas, for example. However, long-haul premium cabins can be very expensive.

British Airways is a 1:1 transfer partner of Chase Ultimate Rewards, American Express Membership Rewards, and Starwood Preferred Guest.

Air France-KLM Flying Blue – SkyTeam

It is surely not the perfect program for everyone, but definitely one to consider if you fly often through Europe. Elite status has reasonable requirements (15 segments for Silver which gives you a free checked bag on Delta, 30 for Gold, which gives you lounge access on international SkyTeam itineraries), and accruals are fairly generous for premium classes. Note that deep discount economy however usually only earns 25% of the distance.

Flying Blue Transfer Partners

On the redemption side, the award chart to/from Europe isn’t too bad (62,500 miles for a transatlantic one-way in business class) and you get access to much better availability on AF/KL’s own flights that when booking with Delta. Moreover, they offer Promo Awards to certain destinations every month at 25% or 50% off the regular number of miles, so you can occasionally get a transatlantic flight in business class for only 31,250 miles or economy class for only 12,500 miles. Award prices to Asia or Oceania, on the other hand, can be steep to downright horrendous.

It’s very easy to get miles into the Flying Blue program considering they are a 1:1 transfer partner of Chase Ultimate Rewards, American Express Membership Rewards, Citi ThankYou Rewards, and Starwood Preferred Guest.

Singapore Airlines Krisflyer (SPG, Amex, Chase, Citi transfer partner) – Star Alliance

A very interesting program to both earn and redeem miles, and to top up your balance as they partner with all major transferable points. You can credit both JetBlue and United flights, and earn 100% of the distance even in deep discount economy, making elite status relatively easy to reach. You will also get access to very desirable redemptions in Singapore’s amazing business and first class (including Suites class) that are otherwise generally not available to partner programs.

Even domestic redemptions (on United) an be an excellent value at 40,000 miles round-trip in a premium cabin, compared with 50,000 United miles for the exact same flights.

If your travels take you to Asia, and you can make Singapore Air your carrier of choice, then it is definitely an amazing program. Do note that award miles expire after three years regardless of earning or redemption activity.

Like Flying Blue, Singapore KrisFlyer is a 1:1 transfer partners of Chase Ultimate Rewards, American Express Membership Rewards, Citi ThankYou Rewards and Starwood Preferred Guest.