How to use airline hubs and alliances to book better award tickets

Airlines around the world rely on the hub and spoke system to efficiently move thousands of passengers around the world.

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

Understanding this system is critical to redeeming points and miles, allowing you to create itineraries even if award space is not available for your entire trip.

Airport hubs and airline alliances


Familiarizing yourself with airport hubs is important as it will help you how to redeem and earn your miles. Airport hubs are one of them, but so are airline alliances. There are three airline alliances: Oneworld, Star Alliance and SkyTeam.

Within an alliance, individual airlines place their main hubs in different regions of a country or continent. Flying to a hub airport has a number of important advantages. First of all, it offers the largest number of flight options compared to airports with smaller operating areas. For example, Delta Air Lines serves just over a dozen destinations from 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 airline’s main hub. From there, you have non-stop flights to more destinations in Europe alone than you can reach with all of Delta’s Orlando operations.

These hubs also offer partner airline flights that may not be available in a small or mid-sized market. A US airline offers partners a powerful incentive to fly to its hub airports with the promise of connecting flights. Finally, British Airways will probably never start non-stop service to Des Moines (DSM). Anyway, it may Fly from its Heathrow hub to Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport (ORD), and from there you can fly seamlessly to Des Moines and dozens of other destinations served by American Airlines, its Oneworld partner.

In addition, itss is often home to some of the best airline amenities and products. A good example of this is the United Polaris Lounges network. Polaris lounges are a premium United offering shared with business class passengers of its Star Alliance partners and with confirmed United Polaris tickets.

But most importantly, you know (and can use) an airline hub to get the most out of your points and miles.

Award place wanted

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

When searching for award seats, many travelers start with their home airport (or airports). In some cases this works wonderfully. However, US airlines can be particularly stingy when it comes to releasing saver-level award inventories on domestic flights. As a result, you could see inflated premium rates.

On the other hand, if you start your search from big hubs, you might be able to find more space for rewards.

Here is an overview of the main hubs for major US airlines.

Oneworld: American

Booking American Airlines awards through the following hubs can be the most effective way to fly in the airline’s top cabins. The airline operates from the following hub airports, each used in a different capacity depending on geographic 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 with other industry-leading premium cabins from the Oneworld alliance. For example, flying Japan Airlines to Tokyo’s Haneda Airport (HND) is a great way to experience an exceptional product. JAL flies from JFK, ORD, DFW and LAX. Once you have reached Tokyo, you can use this airport as a starting point for the surrounding countries.

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

Star Alliance: United

United also operates from a number of major hubs across the United States. You’ll find a large United presence at the following airports in particular.

  • 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).

Just as United operates from these airports, so do its Star Alliance partners. For example, Lufthansa operates flights to Frankfurt Airport (FRA) from many of the above airports, including some using the airline’s Boeing 747-8 and Airbus A380. And as a Lufthansa hub, you can hop from there to numerous smaller destinations across Europe, including with low-cost airlines like TUI Fly.

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

SkyTeam: Delta

Delta also operates its own hub airports in the US, and many also offer services from SkyTeam partners. Here’s an overview 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 LaGuardia Airport (LGA).
  • Salt Lake City International Airport (SLC).
  • Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA).

Delta’s own international flights are not always the best value when redeeming miles. However, you can often find great rewards fares through Flying Blue, the loyalty program of SkyTeam members Air France and KLM. These airlines provide comprehensive service from multiple US gateways to their respective hubs at Paris-Charles de Gaulle Airport (CDG) and Amsterdam Schiphol Airport (AMS).

It’s worth noting that Delta rarely releases award seats to partner airlines within the US. This means that finding a flight from, say, Orlando to Paris on 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.

Put everything together


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

Nick Ewen, Director of Content at TPG, recently embarked on a spring break trip to Egypt. Living in South Florida, he began searching for award tickets to the major alliances in Miami, the state’s largest international gateway. Unfortunately, nothing was available in business class for his family of three.

He then turned to his knowledge of airline hubs.

(Tip: If you’re new to this topic, is a fantastic way to quickly view planned routes for a specific airline, or even an entire alliance.)

Nick knew his final destination was Luxor International Airport (LXR), which almost certainly meant he would have to be routed through Cairo International Airport (CAI). As CAI is Egyptair’s hub, he knew he could use a variety of Star Alliance currencies for this trip. So he worked backwards to plan an itinerary from the US because he could fly out of one of three North American airports: New York-JFK, Dulles, or Toronto Pearson Airport (YYZ).

Luckily, three business class seats were available on the JFK-CAI flight exactly on the requested date, with a relatively easy connection to Luxor. He used some Avianca LifeMiles that were due to expire, and for just 78,000 miles per person, his family was confirmed on a bucket list trip.

From there, it only took a short, low-cost positioning flight from Florida to New York – although it’s worth noting that Nick allowed about 24 hours between itineraries to prevent a repeat of his 2022 debacle to Crete, Greece.

The power of transferrable points

Of course, it’s important to be flexible with your rewards – that’s why transferrable points are so valuable. If you’re focused on earning rewards in programs like Chase Ultimate Rewards and American Express Membership Rewards, you have currencies available that can be transferred to multiple partner airlines (and hotel partners). This allows you to choose the hub airport and route that is most convenient And available with rewards.

What if you’re sitting on hundreds of thousands of American AAdvantage miles but the only award availability is on Star Alliance airlines ex a United hub? Points earned with cards like this Chase Sapphire Preferred Card And American Express┬« Gold card can be quickly converted into currencies that can be used to 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 premium class travel. The use of 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 take advantage of those redemption options when they become available, regardless of the airline.

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