How to leverage airline and alliance hubs to book better award tickets

14 March 2023

Airlines worldwide rely on the hub-and-spoke system to efficiently move thousands of passengers across the globe.

What is a hub-and-spoke system? In short, hubs allow airlines and their alliance partners to fly into larger airports where passengers can be transferred to a smaller aircraft to reach their final destination. This is why you might fly through Frankfurt Airport (FRA) on your way to Stuttgart Airport (STR) or London’s Heathrow Airport (LHR) on your way to Manchester Airport (MAN).

Understanding this system is critical to redeeming points and miles, so you can build itineraries even if award space isn’t available for your whole journey.

Airport hubs and airline alliances

CAMILO FREEDMAN/SOPA IMAGES/LIGHTROCKET/GETTY IMAGES

Familiarizing yourself with airport hubs is important because it guides how you redeem and earn your miles. Airport hubs are part of the picture, but so are airline alliances. There are three airline alliances: Oneworld, Star Alliance and SkyTeam.

Within a given alliance, individual airlines place their main hubs in different regions of a country or continent. Flying into a hub airport has a number of important benefits. For starters, it offers the widest number of flight options compared to airports with a smaller operational footprint. As an example, Delta Air Lines serves just over a dozen destinations out of Orlando International Airport (MCO), including a single international route. However, if you take a short hop to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL), you’ll gain access to the carrier’s main hub. From there, you have nonstop flights to more destinations in Europe alone than you get across Delta’s entire operations in Orlando.

These hubs also offer flights from partner airlines that may not be available in a small- or medium-sized market. A U.S. airline effectively incentivizes partners to fly to its hub airports with the promise of connecting traffic. After all, British Airways will probably never launch nonstop service to Des Moines (DSM). However, it can fly to Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport (ORD) from its hub at Heathrow and from there, you can seamlessly connect to Des Moines plus dozens of other destinations served by American Airlines, its Oneworld partner.

Additionally, you’ll frequently find an airline’s top amenities and best products at itss. A great example of this is the network of United Polaris lounges. Polaris lounges are a premium offering from United that is shared with business-class passengers on its Star Alliance partners as well as those with confirmed United Polaris tickets.

But most importantly, knowing (and utilizing) an airline’s hub can be a great way to make the most of your points and miles.

Searching for award space

An American Airlines aircraft at the gate at Dallas Fort Worth International Airport (DFW). SEAN CUDAHY/THE POINTS GUY

When searching for award space, many travelers start with their respective home airport (or airports). In some cases, that works beautifully. However, U.S. airlines can be especially stingy with releasing saver-level award inventory on domestic flights. As a result, you could see inflated award rates.

On the other hand, if you start your search at major hubs, you may be able to find more plentiful award space.

Here’s a rundown of major hubs for key U.S. carriers.

Oneworld: American

Booking American Airlines awards through the following hubs can be the most effective way to fly on the carrier’s top cabins. The airline operates out of the following hub airports, each used in a different capacity, depending on the geographical location and market needs.

Charlotte Douglas International Airport (CLT).
Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport (ORD).
Dallas Fort Worth International Airport (DFW).
Los Angeles International Airport (LAX).
Miami International Airport (MIA).
New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK).
Philadelphia International Airport (PHL).

These hubs are also a fantastic way to fly on other industry-leading premium cabins from the Oneworld alliance. As an example, flying Japan Airlines to Tokyo’s Haneda Airport (HND) is a great way to experience an exceptional product. JAL flies out of JFK, ORD, DFW and LAX. Once you reach Tokyo, you can use that airport as your base for surrounding countries.

Be sure to check out our list of the best websites for searching for OneWorld availability to find these tickets.

Star Alliance: United

United also operates out of a number of major hubs across the U.S. Specifically, you’ll find a major United presence at the following airports.

Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport (ORD).
Denver International Airport (DEN).
Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH).
Los Angeles International Airport (LAX).
Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR).
San Francisco International Airport (SFO).
Washington Dulles International Airport (IAD).

However, just as United operates out of those airports, so do its Star Alliance partners. As an example, Lufthansa operates flights from many of the above airports to Frankfurt Airport (FRA), including some with the carrier’s Boeing 747-8 and Airbus A380. And as Lufthansa’s hub, you can jump from there to numerous smaller destinations across Europe, including on low-cost carriers like TUI Fly.

For more information on booking these awards, check out our article on the best websites for finding Star Alliance award availability.

SkyTeam: Delta

Delta also operates its own set of hub airports across the U.S. and many include service from SkyTeam partners as well. Here’s a rundown of Delta’s key hubs.

Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL).
Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport (DTW).
Los Angeles International Airport (LAX).
Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport (MSP).
New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK).
New York’s LaGuardia Airport (LGA).
Salt Lake City International Airport (SLC).
Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA).

Delta’s own international flights aren’t always the best value when redeeming miles. However, you can often find affordable award rates through Flying Blue, the loyalty program of SkyTeam members Air France and KLM. These carriers offer extensive service from multiple U.S. gateways to their respective hubs at Paris-Charles de Gaulle Airport (CDG) and Amsterdam Airport Schiphol (AMS).

It’s worth noting here that Delta rarely releases award seats to partner airlines within the U.S. This means that searching for a flight from, say, Orlando to Paris with a combination of Delta and Air France could be challenging — especially in premium cabins. However, you may be able to book a cheap flight from Orlando to Atlanta, followed by an Air France departure to Paris on a separate ticket.

Putting it all together

ANTON PETRUS/GETTY IMAGES

So, how exactly does this work in practice? It’s probably easiest to illustrate with an example.

TPG director of content Nick Ewen recently took off on a spring break trip to Egypt. As he’s based in South Florida, he started by searching for award tickets on the major alliances out of Miami, the largest international gateway in the state. Unfortunately, nothing was available in business class for his family of three.

Then, he turned to his knowledge of airline hubs.

(Tip: If you’re not already familiar with this topic, FlightConnections.com is a fantastic way to quickly see scheduled routes for a specific airline or even across an entire alliance.)

Nick knew his ultimate destination was Luxor International Airport (LXR), which almost certainly meant routing through Cairo International Airport (CAI). Since CAI is Egyptair’s hub, he knew he could leverage a variety of Star Alliance currencies for this trip. So, he worked backward to map out an itinerary from the U.S. because he could depart from one of three North American airports: New York-JFK, Dulles or Toronto Pearson Airport (YYZ).

Thankfully, there were three business-class seats available on the JFK-CAI flight on the exact date he wanted, with a relatively convenient connection to Luxor. He used some Avianca LifeMiles that were set to expire and, for just 78,000 miles per person, his family was confirmed on a bucket list trip.

From there, it took just a short, inexpensive positioning flight from Florida to New York — though it’s worth noting that Nick allowed roughly 24 hours between the itineraries to prevent a repeat of his 2022 debacle getting to Crete, Greece.

The power of transferable points

Of course, it’s key to be flexible with your rewards — which is why transferable points are so valuable. If you focus your efforts on earning rewards in programs like Chase Ultimate Rewards and American Express Membership Rewards, you’ll have currencies that can transfer to multiple airline (and hotel) partners. This allows you to pick the hub airport and routing that’s the most convenient and available using rewards.

What if you’re sitting on hundreds of thousands of American AAdvantage miles, but the only award availability is on Star Alliance airlines out of a United hub? Points earned from cards like the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card and American Express® Gold Card can quickly be converted into currencies that can book Star Alliance award flights.

Related: The best travel credit cards of 2023

Bottom line

Hub airports and airline alliances play an important role in how you redeem your points and take advantage of the amenities that come with premium-class travel. Using airport hubs as regional bases for travel within a continent is also advantageous. And by focusing on earning transferable points, you can ensure you’re ready to jump on these redemption options when they come up, no matter the airline.

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