(Video) Sunday Reader Question: Which Airlines Have The Highest Fuel Surcharges?

by on March 4, 2012 · 30 comments

in Aeroplan, Air France, American, British Airways, Delta, skyteam, Sunday Reader Questions, United, Video Blog Post

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TPG reader Andrew asks a question about fuel surcharges, a topic that’s a top priority for budget-minded miles users:

“I am going to transfer  Starwood points to an airline (or a couple airlines) within a year. I’d like to transfer them to frequent flyer plans that do not charge fuel surcharges, or at least ones that are reasonable. Do you have any recommendations?”

It’s good you bring up the subject of fuel surcharges, because Starwood points are generally very valuable, but if you mistakenly transfer them to a frequent flyer program with huge fuel surcharges, you could be in for a rude awakening when you go to book your award flight.

In this video, I talk about the pros and cons of various frequent flyer programs to help you better understand where the landmines so you can redeem for awards that actually have value and don’t cost you hundreds (or thousands) of dollars in fees. There are a lot of factors that will go into your decision, but basically your best bet would be transfer to American or US Airways if avoiding fuel surcharges is your main concern. I’d recommend United, but their Starwood transfer ratio is an abysmal 2 Starpoints per 1 United mile. In general though, the beauty of transferable points is the ability to transfer them when you need a specific award, so don’t needlessly transfer them until you are sure you’ll need them.

In case you can’t see the video:
In general, US frequent flyer programs tend not to levy high fuel surcharges. However, there are exceptions, which I’ll get to below. European and Asian programs do, however, so beware!

That being said, even with large fuel surcharges, it can still make sense to redeem your miles. For instance, if a particular program charges less miles for flight redemptions, or if the route you want to take is very expensive in business and first class and miles are the only way to get you there.

As with all things points and miles related, do the math before you decide to go in a certain direction. Also, airlines change the amount of fuel charges levied frequently so if you have a recent experience that differs from the information included below, please comment and we’ll update our list.

Domestic Carriers
The good news is, if you wouldn’t pay fuel fees on a paid ticket, you won’t pay them on an award ticket. One of the key things to keep in mind is that if you book your award on your own airline’s metal, you will probably avoid getting hit with unforeseen large fuel surcharges.

American Airlines charges big fees on British Airways flights to Europe as well as on the newly added Iberia flights, so don’t be surprised to find some in the $500 range and up.

Delta doesn’t charge fuel fees on its flights originating in the US or Asia, but it does on all awards originating elsewhere; its so-called “foreign origination fee” of $250, so if you’re flying roundtrip from Europe, look out for that. Plus, on their partner V Australia, they levy charges in the $500 range for trans-Pacific flights. Air Europa flights have a ~$250 fuel surcharge. Malaysia flights as well.

United has historically been pretty good across the board with low fees and flexibility—that’s why I think they’re some of the most valuable miles out there. I’d just caution you to wait and see what happens with the current merging of MileagePlus with OnePass and whether that changes their fee structure.

US Airways is reasonable as well (though they have lots of other add-on fees, like a fee for simply booking award travel at all!).

Alaska also doesn’t include fuel surcharges on award tickets on its own flight, but like American, the surcharges on award redemptions on British Airways can be downright enormous.

Another positive point is that discount carriers including JetBlue, Southwest and Air Tran have so far avoided these fees.

Foreign Carriers
Here is where US flyers tend to run into problems as they encounter huge surprise fuel surcharges on tickets they thought would be free.

As you probably know, the main culprit is British Airways, on which fees can be exorbitant. For flights to Europe, you should expect at least $500 in fees for coach awards, and up to $1100 for business/first depending on the route! Generally speaking, the more flying you do (i.e. the more segments), the more you have to pay. However, BA doesn’t charge fuel fees on American and LAN flights that don’t go through Europe, so use your Avios to fly to South America, or use them on short-haul flights, where the fuel fees are minimal.

Aeroplan levies fuel surcharges on Air Canada flights, as well as Star Alliance partner Lufthansa, ANA, Adria, Asiana Airlines, Austrian Airlines, bmi, LOT Polish Airlines, TAP and THAI.

In SkyTeam, Air France is just plain expensive across the board—charging almost as much as British Airways. The only way to pull real value from award redemptions is by capitalizing upon the Flying Blue 50% off promo awards that have lower mileage requirements. However, you’re still looking at surcharges and fees of around $600 in coach and up to around $900 in business. The one good thing is that the airline doesn’t generally charge fees on Delta awards, while I just heard from one TPG reader that its SkyTeam partner Korean Air charged around $700 for a roundtrip award redemption from the US to Asia.

This is just an anecdotal glimpse at fuel surcharges I’ve heard about recently. Have a story of your own where the fuel fees were shocking? Tell me about it in the comments below.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

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  • Mitch

    You’ve got it a bit wrong with Delta. You’re only guaranteed to get smacked with fuel surcharges on Delta if booking a ticket originating in Europe. The other guarantee is itineraries originating in the Middle East that include flights on Air France or KLM. Delta award itineraries originating in Africa, South America, Asia, North America, or the Southwest Pacific will not automatically incur fuel surcharges. You note two of the worst fuel surcharge culprits with Delta miles (V Australia and Malaysia), but the Chinese partners have been known to trigger fuel surcharges as well. The worst part is that Delta’s algorithm for determining the fuel surcharge seems defective and might charge the full surcharge for Asia-US even if only taking one short segment on China Eastern or China Southern and the rest of the trip is on Delta and/or Korean Air.

  • MJLouise

    Thanks for writing down your tips as well as the video. Sometimes the video is hard to see on a slow connection like mine.

  • Mike

    Anybody have any comments on award tickets with AA?

  • Chip

    This is a timely post. I have been curious with the price of fuel rising so rapidly. I booked AA travel to China using BA points last summer for flights this April. Am I still on the hook potentially for additional charges, or would the charges have been assessed at the time of booking?

  • thepointsguy

    You don’t have to worry unless you were to change the award, sometimes they reassess fees

  • PJ

    wouldn’t it be nice if I can take your starwood points for exchange of airlines points I can trasnfer out of my Chase Ultimate Rewards say 1.5 UR= 1 SPG

    I also mean to say you are undervalueing your SPG points when getting only 5K bonus on 20K

  • Dharm Guruswamy

    TPG, great analysis of the fuel surcharge issue. One point, I’d like to make is that US Airways while charging somewhat higher fees than Mileage Plus on the downside also has some big pluses. First, US Airways always hs miles on sale and when they go on sale they seem to be 50% off list price. United doesn’t put miles on sale that often and a sale for them is 20% off the list price. Second, Dividend miles while it lacks the one way awards of United allows for one stopover. Finally, the US Airways award chart for North Asia is almost a downright giveway. A business class award is from North America to Japan/China/Korea is only 90k round trip. My wife and I flying this summer from Washington DC to Tokoy (stopver) and then on to Hong Kong (destination) before flying back to Washington DC for only 180k for both of us in business class. In any other US based frequent flyer program this award would require considerably more miles.

  • ss

    did BA charge fuel surcharges on Cathy YVR-HKG or not?

  • MIF

    Is there a way to use Avios points on Amercian flying from the US to Europe to avoid the fuel surcharges. I can’t seem to do that on the BA website. Will they let you do that if BA flies the route?

  • Carol

    Appreciate you putting in text what was covered by video. I’m not a video fan, and text is much easier to keep as reference.

    Fuel surcharges are certainly an unpleasant topic. I love my UA miles with the low fees for redemption. However, there is something to be said for the ease of redeeeming BA miles in premium cabins versus the low availability I’ve found this year for Star carriers between the US and Europe.

  • pcg

    AF seems to be a pretty good tool, but the trick appears to be (as you mention) to fly Delta. Even then, it’s REALLY hit-or-miss.

    DTW-FCO-DTW with a layover in LHR there and BOS back: 50k + $390. But change the return layover from BOS to AMS and it’s 50k + $124, even though the dates and carriers are exactly the same (AZ on the FCO-BOS/AMS leg, DL on the BOS/AMS-DTW leg). Best price on that itin (w/ AMS) was $1,472 on, so 50k + $124 saves 2.7 cpm. Best price on ANY one-stop itin that day is $1,333, so 50k + $124 there still saves 2.4 cpm. Seems decent enough.

  • pcg

    P.S. I should mention: 1) I’m still learning all of this, so I don’t know if 2.4/2.7 cpm really IS decent or not, and 2) I don’t know what portion of the $124 and $390 fees are fuel surcharges versus some other charge. Feel free to say if I’m missing the mark and/or the point.

  • ed_the_red

    I am planning my annual, two month long journey through Asia. This time I am focusing on Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Myanmar. To that end, I booked two one ways in first class from JFK to HKG (stop over in YVR) and a return trip from BKK back to JFK. One of these is on BA through AA redemption, the other is on Thai through United redemption.
    While in Asia, I decided to book an open jaw, round trip with a stop over on Malaysia Airlines (a Delta partner), in business . The itinerary is HKG-KUL-CMB and then CMB-stopover in KUL-RGN. Roundtrip in business class for this itinerary prices at $2,200. I am swimming in Skymiles so I decided to spend 70,000 on this award. The taxes and surcharges amounted to $426. Turns out Malaysia charges crazy surcharges. It doesn’t make sense at all to spend 70,000 Skymiles and $426 for something that only costs $2,200.
    I’ve flown Malaysia on an award itinerary before, and never paid such surcharges. Beware, Malaysia is convenient in Southeast Asia, but the surcharges mean that flying the budget AirAsia career is a much better deal.

  • K.

    I recently booked a RT economy award on Korean Air (JFK->Seoul), about $330 in fees (not $700 as someone else mentioned). Just fyi as another data point.

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  • JOHN

    Hi Dharm, if you still remember the fees and taxes your paid for those two tickets, may I know them?

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  • Stuffandthings

    TPG, as I understand from what Aeroplan has written, fuel surcharges are assessed by the ticketing airline, and not by the awarding airline with whom one has points. Therefore, its just a pass-through. I think presenting it in this way would make the whole scheme less complicated. I think of it in layers:

    Bottom Layer: ticketing airline – calculates fuel charges, if any – provides flights to alliances and partners

    Middle Layer: awarding airline – manages the award calculations, stopover and open jaw policies, etc.

    Top Layer: transfer partners – this AmEx, Starwood, or other airlines that transfer points to the middle layer, which in turn govern much of your ability to book a flight, for which the bottom layer determines fuel prices.

    Aerooplan fuel surcharge quote here:

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