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One of the first steps in the journey toward true frequent-flyer-dom is choosing one or two airline frequent flyer programmes and remaining loyal to them to earn miles and enjoy the resulting perks, such as upgrades or access to shorter lines.

But few travellers have a true “choice” among airline programmes. That decision largely depends on which airline dominates their hometown airport and which destinations they fly to most often. For business travellers, the decision could be made by employers, which may have negotiated special discounts and mandate the use of a specific carrier or one of the three global airline alliances: Oneworld, SkyTeam and Star Alliance.

But given the choice, loyalty to one or two carriers eventually pays off in the form of entrance into the hallowed halls of airline “elite” status, granting an array of valuable perks at your chosen airline. But what may be even more important to global travellers is that these benefits extend to the carriers’ alliance partners around the world.

For example, imagine you are a member of United’s US-based Mileage Plus plan and you would like to redeem miles for a honeymoon trip to Santorini in the Greek Isles. Without an alliance, you could use your miles to fly as far as London or Frankfurt, and then you would have to buy a ticket on another airline to get to Santorini. But since Lufthansa is a member of the Star Alliance, as is United, your ticket redeemed with miles could include the leg from Frankfurt to Athens. And since Greece’s Aegean Airlines is also a Star Alliance partner, you could add on the short flight from Athens to Santorini. The reverse holds true for a member of Aegean’s Miles & Bonus plan who may want to travel to the US.

“You may have heard the adage ‘Marry the girl or the boy, but you end up marrying the family’ — the same holds true when choosing an airline and its alliances,” said Henry Harteveldt, the travel industry analyst for the Atmosphere Research Group in the US.

Just like the airline you choose, the alliance you marry into is an increasingly important factor that can affect your airport experience, your ability to upgrade, your ability to earn treasured airline elite status, the ease with which you earn or burn frequent flyer miles, the price you pay for your tickets — and even where you take your hard-earned vacations.

“Like frequent flyer programs, the ‘best’ global alliance is the alliance that works best for you, given your travel patterns,” said Tim Winship, editor of FrequentFlier.com. “As tie-breakers, first would be coverage [number of cities served], second would be the quality of the partner airlines.”

To help you find the one that works best for you, here is a primer on the world’s three global alliances, listed below in alphabetical order:

Oneworld
Among the three global alliances, Oneworld is the smallest in terms of number of member airlines (12) and number of destinations (766). But for what it lacks in quantity, it makes up for in quality with major players that fly to iconic business travel destinations, such as London, New York, Tokyo, Sydney and Hong Kong.

Larger members include American Airlines in the US, British Airways/Iberia in Europe, Qantas in Australia, LAN in South America and both Japan Airlines and Cathay Pacific in Asia. Smaller member carriers include Finnair, Hungary’s Malev, Royal Jordanian and Russia’s S7 Airlines.

Oneworld recently decided to bring India’s Kingfisher Airlines into the fold, filling a major gap in its global coverage. However, the revelation of the carrier’s severe financial difficulties could delay its admittance, and prolong the pain caused by missing a partner in a key growth market like India. The alliance also lacks significant coverage in Africa.

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