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What, no miles?

Flying on a U.S. airline’s foreign-based “partner” line doesn’t mean you get full frequent flyer miles. Often you get less than the full mileage—and sometimes you get none at all.

One reader recently found out the hard way: “I was surprised this week to find that my economy trip on Cathay Pacific didn’t qualify for AAdvantage frequent flyer miles because of the class flown. I fly overseas at least once a year and have never encountered this problem before. Is this a general trend with oneworld compared with SkyTeam and Star Alliance, is it an issue with Cathay Pacific, or was I just unlucky in this case?”

The short answers are “no” to all three. It is in fact, a general trend, not confined just to oneworld. All the alliances do it, at least to a degree, as do individual airlines.

U.S. airlines

For the most part, when you fly on an airline based in the U.S., you get credit for the full mileage you fly (or a minimum, usually 500 miles, for short hops) regardless of the fare you pay. As far as I know, the only flights that don’t earn full mileage are those you take on “tour-basing” fares (such as you might get with a package tour or cruise), consolidator fares, and other fares that aren’t published and available to the general public.

U.S. airlines invented frequent flyer programs, and most of them started up when the spread between full and reduced fare tickets was much smaller than it is now. That’s why awards were based on mileage flown rather than, say, fare paid. It’s my belief that, given the chance to start over, the airlines would base earnings on fares paid or limit earnings to only a few of the more expensive ticket categories. But switching to that system at this late date would undoubtedly create a groundswell of resentment that no airline wants to face.

Foreign airlines

Foreign airlines started up their programs after the U.S. lines did, and so they weren’t locked into a mileage-for-any-ticket system. That’s why several important foreign lines give reduced mileage on their less-expensive economy fares. For example, on their own flights:

  • Air France gives only 50 percent of actual miles on tickets booked in G and U classes, 25 percent on L class, and none on A, O, and X classes
  • British Airways gives 25 percent of actual mileage on “lowest” economy fares
  • Cathay Pacific gives 50 percent of actual mileage on “discounted” economy tickets
  • JAL gives 70 percent of actual mileage on “discounted” economy tickets
  • Lufthansa gives 50 percent of actual mileage on tickets booked in S and W classes
  • Singapore gives no credit for tickets booked in V, Q, G, N, and T classes

You can find similar examples among most of the world’s other international lines.

Partnership miles

The situation regarding partner airlines is even more complicated. The websites of all the large U.S. airlines indicate that, in general, they exclude some partner-airline fare classes from mileage earning. Unfortunately, the websites are not specific enough to permit an easy tabulation. Here, however, are some typical examples:

  • American (oneworld) gives only 25 percent of the full mileage for economy flights on British Airways classes K, L, M, N, O, R, E, G, Q, S, and V; it gives mileage for economy flights on Cathay Pacific only in classes B, Y, and H (pretty much full-fare classes); it gives 50 percent of full mileage on Qantas flights in M, V, L, R, G, O, and S classes.
  • Delta (SkyTeam) gives no credit at all on a handful of fare classes on Air France, Alitalia, Emirates, KLM, Korean, Singapore, and others.
  • United (Star Alliance) gives no credit on Air New Zealand flights in L, G, S, and K classes; it gives 50 percent of actual mileage flown on “discounted” Air Canada flights within Canada; it gives no credit on Singapore flights in G, Q, V, N, and T classes.

You also find significant differences in whether partner-line miles count toward elite status on the U.S. airline.

What class is it, anyway?

Figuring out which tickets do and don’t award full mileage—or any at all—is virtually impossible for individual travelers. After all, who can wade through the alphabet soups of economy-class booking codes, which are different on each airline?

As far as I can see, there is no possible way you can book a partner-line ticket online, at less than full economy fare, and figure out whether you get mileage, and if so, how much. None of the sites I checked provides even a clue. You generally get a choice between “lowest” and “flexible” economy fares, not among K, L, M, N, O, R, E, G, Q, S, and V fares. I know of no website that allows you to specify that you want a fare level offering full mileage.

At best, sites such as British Airways and Virgin Atlantic show you how many miles you earn when you select the “lowest” option, but not about what you have to do to get a full-mileage ticket. And most other lines don’t even go that far.

What to do

My recommendation to most travelers is that you figure out your best combination of fare and schedule and let the miles fall where they may. After all, on a round-trip from the U.S. to Europe, full credit would amount to 6,000 to 10,000 miles, worth no more than $60 to $100. That’s probably less than the extra you’d have to spend to earn those full miles. Even on a long round-trip such as Los Angeles to Singapore, the full mileage would be worth about $175.

You may find cases, however, when the mileage could become important:

  • If you’re concerned about making or maintaining elite status and need all the miles you can get.
  • If you have virtually identical fares and schedules on different airline combinations, and the trip is long enough that the miles really matter.

Here are my suggestions for those cases:

  • The easiest way to make sure you get full mileage (and credit toward elite status) is to arrange your entire trip on your U.S.-based airlines.
  • If your only choice is to use one or more partner lines, start by checking the frequent flyer sections of the websites of the U.S.-based airlines involved. The sites are much better about showing elite qualifying miles than about telling you how many miles you get with a specific dollar fare.
  • To get a full answer, you almost always have to book by phone, through a live agent, to find out the specifics.

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