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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.
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.
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.