Frequent flyers pack plenty of plastic in their well-worn wallets, but when we're asked which is the best card to aim for – the single shiny card which trumps the rest – it's any airline loyalty card which equates to the Emerald tier of the Oneworld alliance.
This covers the top rungs of the ladder in the Qantas Frequent Flyer scheme – such as Platinum and Platinum One – and equivalents in the likes of Cathay Pacific (Marco Polo Club Diamond), Malaysia Airlines (Enrich Platinum), Qatar Airways (Privilege Club Platinum) and British Airways (Executive Club Gold), to name a few of Oneworld's 14 members.
To unify all those different status tiers, Oneworld has three alliance tiers of its own, each represented by a gemstone: from top to bottom they're Emerald, Sapphire and Ruby.
Qantas Platinum, Platinum One and Chairman’s Lounge members are all part of the Oneworld Emerald club, noted by the presence of a green, emerald-like gemstone on the face of their membership cards, found underneath the Oneworld logo:
[You can click or tap on the image above for a closer look.]
Sapphire represents the more common Gold-grade frequent flyer status of most airlines (including Qantas, Cathay Pacific, Malaysia Airlines and Qatar) and there's no doubt it's great to have when you’re stuck in economy class.
But for high-flying corporates jetting about in business class, the typical Gold card offers very few benefits that aren’t already included with their business class ticket.
This applies to the competing Star Alliance Gold and SkyTeam Elite Plus tiers, too. You'll typically have access to the same airport lounges and priority queues at check-in and boarding as business class passengers: so when flying up the front, the experience isn’t much different with or without status.
Why Oneworld Emerald has the edge
Oneworld Emerald elevates the experience to a new level, primarily by opening the doors to the flagship first class lounge of most member airlines even if you're not flying in first class.
The airline you’re travelling with doesn’t need to be the airline operating the lounge, either: so Oneworld Emerald passengers flying from Australia with the likes of American Airlines, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Japan Airlines, LATAM, Malaysia Airlines, Qatar Airways and SriLankan Airlines all enjoy access to the Qantas First Lounge.
Another example: if you're in Hong Kong and flying with Qantas, Cathay Pacific or any other Oneworld airline, a Oneworld Emerald card gets you through the doors at Cathay Pacific’s The Pier First Class and The Wing First Class lounges.
(Even if you're a Qantas Platinum member flying Qantas from Hong Kong to Australia, your Oneworld Emerald status means you don't have to use the Qantas Hong Kong Lounge: you can visit one of the Cathay Pacific lounges instead!)
Naturally, also included as part of the parcel is the use of first class check-in counters and priority boarding lanes, where available.
By comparison, neither Star Alliance nor SkyTeam offer an alliance-wide, better-than-gold frequent flyer tier, which makes Oneworld Emerald – which sits a step above the Gold-grade Oneworld Sapphire level – a winner in our books.
Which status equals Oneworld Emerald?
The following airline frequent flyer tiers correspond to Oneworld Emerald, which unlock the same alliance-wide first class treatment as you’d get with a Qantas Platinum card:
- Airberlin Topbonus: Platinum*
- American Airlines AAdvantage: Executive Platinum and ConciergeKey
- British Airways Executive Club: Gold and Premier
- Cathay Pacific Marco Polo Club: Diamond, Diamond Plus and Diamond Invitation
- Finnair Plus: Platinum
- Iberia Plus: Platinum
- Japan Airlines: JGC Premier, JGC Diamond, JMB Diamond
- LATAM Pass & Fidelidade: Black and Black Signature
- Malaysia Airlines Enrich: Platinum
- Qatar Airways Privilege Club: Platinum
- Royal Jordanian Royal Plus: Platinum
- S7 Airlines Priority: Platinum
- SriLankan Airlines FlySmiLes: Platinum
* The Airberlin Topbonus program is currently suspended as part of the company's insolvency proceedings, but Oneworld assures us that Topbonus Platinum members continue to enjoy all of their normal privileges during this time when travelling across the Oneworld alliance.
Exceptions to the Emerald rules
As great as the first class perks of Oneworld Emerald can be, there are a couple of exceptions which high flyers should be aware of.
For instance, at London Heathrow and New York JFK airports, only passengers flying with British Airways in first class enjoy access to The Concorde Room lounges.
Oneworld Emerald cardholders in all other classes (with the exception of BA's own Concorde Room and Premier members) are instead given access to the Galleries First or first class lounges. Despite their names, these are mainly for Emerald-grade frequent flyers who aren’t flying first class.
BA's first class lounges are still positioned as being better than business class, of course – so your Oneworld Emerald card is still delivering perks over and above those of a normal business class ticket – just not quite the same pre-flight experience as you’d get as a true first class flyer.
Oneworld Emerald status also lacks punch at the Doha hub of Oneworld alliance member Qatar Airways, where the ‘first class lounge’ isn't intended for actual first class passengers (who instead visit the exclusive Al Safwa Lounge): only for Oneworld Emerald frequent flyers booked in economy.
Flying business class? You’ll want to disregard your frequent flyer status and wander over to the far superior Al Mourjan Lounge instead – which welcomes only business class passengers, but not Oneworld Emerald travellers booked in economy.
(In other airports with first class lounges operated by airlines other than Qatar Airways, such as Sydney and Melbourne where Qantas first class lounges exist, Oneworld Emerald frequent flyers traveling with Qatar Airways can access first class lounges as normal.)
Some exceptions work in your favour, though: such as in Helsinki when travelling with Oneworld airline Finnair.
Here, the Nordic carrier runs two ‘non-Schengen’ international lounges: one for business class passengers (known as the Finnair Lounge), and the other for top-level frequent flyers, including Oneworld Emerald (being the Finnair Premium Lounge).
Even though Finnair doesn’t have first class on any of its flights, the Premium Lounge is significantly better than the Finnair Lounge next door: which is all your business class ticket will provide access to, unless paired with a top-level Oneworld Emerald frequent flyer card for Premium Lounge perks.
Some Oneworld Sapphire members also receive access to the Finnair Premium Lounge, but Finnair tells us that access for Sapphire members can be restricted during peak times – which is when it pays to be a Oneworld Emerald frequent flyer.
Despite those few bothersome inconsistencies, we still rate Oneworld Emerald as a pretty powerful piece of plastic and the one which frequent flyers should aim for, if they have the chance.