For me, coming up as a young traveler, the concept of choosing an airline alliance or having airline loyalty was always a practical one: Whichever airline could get me to my destinations cheapest and in the least amount of time was the one I would choose. I’d in turn give my loyalty not only to that particular airline but to the alliance or global confederation of airlines, to which it belonged.
These days, I do keep price and travel time in mind, but as individual airlines (particularly U.S. ones) slash benefits in a race for the bottom, alliance loyalty has become more complicated than it once was. It’s too late to qualify for elite status in time for 2019, but if you’re deciding where you should place your chips next year for elite status qualification in 2020—or if you should at all—this article about the best airline alliance 2020 is for you.
Airline Alliance Choices: The Big 3
Let’s start our airline alliance comparison. Although certain airlines (U.A.E.-based airline Etihad, for example) are attempting to create their only global confederations, three serious international airline alliances currently exist: Star Alliance, oneworld and SkyTeam, which correspond to U.S. carriers United, American and Delta, respectively.
Keep in mind that no matter which you choose as the best airlines alliance, the benefits you receive during your flying experience are largely the same, including priority check-in, increased baggage allowance, expedited boarding and, depending on your tier, lounge access for international travel, even if you don’t fly business class.
Star Alliance vs oneworld vs SkyTeam
If you travel mostly in a certain country or region, your loyalty will generally go to the alliance to which your national or regional airline of choice belongs. For example, if you live in Scandinavia and tend to fly Finnair, any elite status you gain will be valid on airlines across the oneworld alliance, such as Japan’s JAL, South America’s LATAM, American and Australia’s Qantas. Other oneworld airlines include:
SkyTeam might not be the best airline alliance, but is has some very good airlines. First among these is Korean Air and after that, I guess, Air France/KLM. Unfortunately, most of the airlines in SkyTeam are secondary and tertiary player in countries and regions (think Africa and China) where even first-rate carriers are third-world. Plus they’re the alliance of Delta, the U.S. carrier that has probably the best reputation among occasional flyers, but started the aforementioned “race to the bottom” RE: mileage program devaluation, onboard benefits (or lack thereof) and in almost every other sense. SkyTeam carriers also include:
- China Airlines
- China Eastern
- Garuda Indonesia
- Kenya Airways
- Vietnam Airlines
The only true question of the best airline alliance to consider is oneworld vs Star Alliance. Both are home to truly world-class carriers—oneworld’s best, in fact, are arguably the very best on the planet—but Star’s global connectivity is simply unmatched. Unless you absolutely need to fly a SkyTeam airline for convenience (for example, you live in Atlanta or Paris, where two of that alliance’s mega-hubs are located), Star Alliance vs Skyteam or oneworld vs Skyteam is a no-brainer. Although I’ve been a oneworld flyer the past few years, Star Alliance carriers like ANA, Singapore Airlines and Thai are among the best airlines in the world. Other Star Alliance airlines include:
- Air China
- Air New Zealand
- Ethiopian Airlines
The Temptation to Go Commando on Airline Alliance
To be sure, since many of the very best perks of airline alliance loyalty (so-called “ground services” at major hub airports, for instance) are available only to paying premium-class customers, it’s logical to ask whether the basic VIP benefits are available some other way. The answer is “yes,” although the finer points of it are a bit more nuanced than that.
In general, choosing the right travel credit card will allow you to have an elite-status experience without elite status, regardless of which you consider the best airline alliance. For example, the American Express Platinum Card affords you access not only to AMEX’s own Centurion lounges, but to the massive global Priority Pass lounge network. Likewise, the Chase Sapphire Reserve offers a $300 annual airline fee credit, which can offset some of the baggage fees you pay as a non-elite flyer.
The best part about “going commando,” as it were, is that it allows you to return, mostly without consequence, to the simple strategy I mentioned at the beginning of this article: Buying tickets based on price and convenience, instead of with a certain airline or alliance in mind. True travel freedom, the feeling of which is only otherwise achievable by not wearing underwear.
The Bottom Line
The elite qualifying period for 2020 will end in a few months, which means you need to start flying more strategically in 2019 now. In general, for airline alliance perks and best features, if you want to become an elite during the next 12 months, you should do so with Star Alliance vs oneworld—the inferior SkyTeam alliance is only a good choice for the best airline alliance for a small subset of travelers. However, as individual airlines around the world continue to slash benefits and increase qualification thresholds, it’s both tempting and lucrative to use alternative means (namely credit cards) to enjoy the benefits of elite status without actually achieving it.
Robert Schrader is a travel writer and photographer who’s been roaming the world independently since 2005, writing for publications such as “CNNGo” and “Shanghaiist” along the way. His blog, Leave Your Daily Hell, provides a mix of travel advice, destination guides and personal essays covering the more esoteric aspects of life as a traveler.