April 20, 2024

Where ‘Free’ Costs a Lot

But those “free” tickets actually cost about $530 each, in addition to the 50,000 miles per ticket, because the airline passed along taxes, fees and a $350 fuel surcharge.

Although many carriers charge passengers flying with award tickets some government taxes and fees, foreign airlines are increasingly adding fuel surcharges to the bill, a practice that has not caught on yet in the United States.

“I suppose one way of looking at it is that’s good news for Americans,” said Tim Winship, publisher of FrequentFlier.com. “Our hometown carriers thus far have been leery of going down that road, but that could certainly change.”

Delta Airlines did experiment with a fuel surcharge on award tickets in 2007, but dropped the fee in 2008 when competitors did not follow suit and oil prices declined.

Paul Skrbec, a Delta spokesman, said the airline continued to monitor this policy as oil prices hovered around $100 a barrel, but was not currently assessing a fuel surcharge on domestic or international awards.

That does not mean passengers traveling on frequent flier tickets with American airlines are exempt from other fees, particularly when traveling abroad.

On United, an economy-class award ticket between New York and London costs $174 plus 55,000 miles, mostly because of British and United States government taxes that United passes along. For that same itinerary, American charges $169 and 40,000 miles and Delta charges $172 plus 60,000 miles — though on all three airlines, the fees and the miles required can be higher depending on the date of travel, class of service and whether a connection is involved.

Still, those fees add up to far less than the fuel surcharges collected by some foreign carriers — among them British Airways, Air Canada, Lufthansa, Virgin Atlantic and All Nippon Airways — when passengers redeem miles for flights.

“British Airways is the poster child for assessing what I would consider to be egregious fuel surcharges on award tickets,” Mr. Winship said. “But they’re not alone.”

John Lampl, a spokesman for British Airways, said the airline began imposing a fuel surcharge in 2004 — a $4 per flight fee that had been adjusted (mostly upward) as fuel prices had risen and occasionally declined. It applies to paid tickets as well as frequent flier awards, and is calculated based on the class of travel and the length of the flight.

“We’d be out of business if we didn’t do it,” Mr. Lampl said. “When the cost of fuel escalates we have to pass it on.”

One way travelers have found to dodge this fee is to use their frequent flier miles on a partner carrier that does not impose a fuel surcharge, since miles earned on one carrier can often be redeemed for flights on a partner within the same global alliance.

“I used my 100,000 British Airways miles for four domestic round-trip tickets on American Airlines at 25,000 miles each,” said Rick Ingersoll, a retired mortgage banker who offers advice on traveling for free at FrugalTravelGuy.com.

Besides fuel surcharges and government taxes, other fees associated with redeeming frequent flier tickets have been increasing in recent years, as airlines have relied on à la carte charges to offset higher oil prices.

American, Delta and US Airways charge $150 to change an award ticket, while other carriers typically charge about $75 to $100. It costs roughly the same amount to cancel an itinerary and redeposit the miles back in your account — although these and many other fees are often reduced or waived for elite members of an airline’s frequent flier program.

The fee to book an award ticket by phone instead of online can run as high as $30 on US Airways ($15 to $25 is the norm). US Airways also charges an “award processing fee” of $25 to $50 per ticket, a fee most other carriers do not impose.

But given that Web booking tools for frequent flier tickets do not always display all the available options for award seats, particularly on partner carriers, Mr. Winship said the phone booking fee was sometimes worth challenging.

“I have heard from people who were able to get the phone fee waived by explaining to the agent, ‘Listen you people have forced me to make this phone call because your Web booking application doesn’t include the availability of partner award seats, and I really feel strongly you should waive the phone fee,’ ” he said. “But that’s something you have to take the initiative to bring up — and hope that you get a sympathetic agent.”

Another charge that surprises many frequent fliers is a fee to book an award ticket at the last minute, which airlines generally consider to be within three weeks before the start of a trip. That charge ranges from $50 to $100, but is more inconsistent among airlines. Delta dropped this fee last year, while United will begin charging a $75 fee on June 15 for award tickets booked less than 21 days before departure. (Elite members of its MileagePlus program will get a discount.)

Many airlines have also imposed fees to use frequent flier miles to upgrade a paid ticket, which can be hundreds of dollars for an international flight.

Although there is no publicly available data on how much airlines collect in award fees, Mr. Winship pointed out that it was high enough to make the idea of a “free ticket” obsolete.

“The notion that these tickets ought to be free has persisted long past the time when they actually were free,” he said. “The language hasn’t caught up with the reality yet.”

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=2b2c00bcef75da545d5effbef119bdac

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