How to avoid fuel surcharges on award travel
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Fuel surcharges are an important issue for award travel enthusiasts, as they can make your award flight cost hundreds (if not thousands) of dollars in addition to your miles redeemed.
In some cases, fuel surcharges, often termed “carrier-imposed surcharges” by the airlines, are so high that they can match or even exceed the price of an economy-class ticket, eliminating much of the benefit of redeeming miles in the first place.
With oil prices going up again, airlines like ANA and Emirates have increased fuel surcharges. It’s important to remember that fuel surcharges these days have often have nothing to do with the cost of fuel. This is especially true when awards have massively different fuel surcharges for flying in opposite directions or when you pay more fuel surcharges with one loyalty program over another on the same flight.
This guide will look at which loyalty programs do and don’t add fuel surcharges to award tickets. Then, I’ll dive into strategies you can use to avoid fuel surcharges the next time you redeem your hard-earned points and miles.
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Frequent flyer programs that don’t impose surcharges
There are just a handful of programs that currently don’t impose fuel charges on any awards, including flights on their own planes and those operated by partners. Here are the programs that check this box.
Frontier, JetBlue, Southwest and Spirit
At least for the moment, you can use your points and miles on these airlines without carrier-imposed surcharges (though you’re still on the hook for other mandatory taxes and fees). Of course, most of these airlines don’t offer many premium redemptions, so you have minimal opportunities to maximize their respective loyalty currencies.
Aside from JetBlue, these airlines also lack partner redemption options. With JetBlue, you can redeem your TrueBlue points on flights with Hawaiian Airlines, and “coming soon,” you’ll be able to redeem on American Airlines. You can also redeem American AAdvantage miles for JetBlue flights without fuel surcharges.
Air Canada Aeroplan
When Air Canada revamped the Aeroplan program, the airline eliminated fuel surcharges on partner award tickets. This includes flights on Star Alliance partners that often add high surcharges, like Austrian, Lufthansa and Swiss. That said, you’re still on the hook for paying a partner booking fee of 39 Canadian dollars ($29) when flying with airlines other than Air Canada.
You can transfer American Express Membership Rewards, Bilt Rewards and Chase Ultimate Rewards points to Air Canada Aeroplan at a 1:1 transfer ratio. Additionally, you can transfer Marriott Bonvoy points to Aeroplan at a 3:1 transfer ratio, with 60,000-point transfers getting a bonus of 5,000 Aeroplan points. This means 60,000 Marriott Bonvoy points are worth 25,000 Aeroplan points.
Star Alliance member Avianca runs the LifeMiles award program. This program doesn’t add fuel surcharges to its award bookings, which is part of why it’s so popular.
With LifeMiles, you’ll frequently see lucrative promotions on buying miles, and the program is a transfer partner of American Express Membership Rewards, Capital One miles, Marriott Bonvoy and Citi ThankYou Rewards. Better yet, the program offers frequent transfer bonuses that can make awards even cheaper.
Be aware that the program’s website isn’t nearly as user-friendly as United’s. Still, Avianca offers lower award rates than United on many Star Alliance premium-cabin awards, so if you’re looking to book a ticket in Lufthansa first class, this may be your best bet. Note that LifeMiles does add a $25 booking fee to partner awards.
United Airlines doesn’t add fuel surcharges to any award ticket. Any ticket you book with your United MileagePlus miles, including tickets on its Star Alliance and non-alliance partners, will only include mandatory government-imposed taxes and fees.
Airlines that add fuel surcharges to some of their awards
Next, here’s a list of major airlines that impose fuel surcharges on some award flights and an explanation of when you can expect those extra charges to be added.
Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan
Alaska Mileage Plan doesn’t pass on fuel surcharges for many of its most popular partners, including Cathay Pacific and JAL. Unfortunately, the program does add fuel surcharges on award flights operated by British Airways.
Depending on which flight you book, fees (or lack thereof) can be wildly different.
Compare your out-of-pocket costs for flying from New York to London in economy. Nonstop routes with British Airways will see $200-plus fuel surcharges, while American tickets add just $19 in taxes and fees. Likewise, one-stop tickets with Aer Lingus have minimal taxes and fees.
ANA Mileage Cub
This Japan-based carrier imposes fuel surcharges on award flights on its own flights and those operated by some partner carriers.
There are no surcharges on short-haul flights operated by Air New Zealand, Avianca, Ethiopian, LOT, SAS, Singapore Airlines and United. You will, however, pay high surcharges on flights operated by Austrian, Lufthansa and others.
ANA is a transfer partner of American Express Membership Rewards and Marriott Bonvoy.
The American Airlines AAdvantage program adds fuel surcharges to partner award flights operated by British Airways and, to a lesser extent, Iberia. You won’t pay fuel surcharges when redeeming miles on American flights or on other partners like Cathay Pacific, Finnair and JetBlue.
AAdvantage is a transfer partner of Marriott Bonvoy and Bilt Rewards. There are also multiple American Airlines cobranded credit cards you can use to earn miles quickly.
British Airways Executive Club
British Airways Executive Club has some of the highest and most egregious fuel surcharges of any airline. You can avoid them by booking award flights operated by some of its partners, including Aer Lingus. In addition, American Airlines flights within the Americas do not incur fuel surcharges.
British Airways is a transfer partner of American Express Membership Rewards, Capital One miles, Chase Ultimate Rewards and Marriott Bonvoy.
The Delta SkyMiles program is probably best known for its lack of award charts. You will pay award surcharges when flying on Delta, Air France, KLM, ITA and Virgin Atlantic flights that originate in Europe. However, if your award ticket starts in the U.S., you are not liable for paying fuel surcharges.
Additionally, you are will pay fuel surcharges on most flights operated by Air Europa, China Eastern, China Southern, Czech Airlines, Middle East Airlines, Air Tahiti Nui, China Airlines and TAROM.
You won’t pay surcharges on SkyMiles award bookings when the operating carrier doesn’t add fuel surcharges, plus flights on Aerolineas Argentinas, Garuda Indonesia, Kenya Airways, Korean Air, Saudia and Vietnam Airlines.
SkyMiles is a transfer partner of American Express Membership Rewards and Marriott Bonvoy. There are also numerous Delta credit cards that can help build up your SkyMiles stash.
Flying Blue (Air France, KLM and others)
Flying Blue adds fuel surcharges to most award flights. Delta- and Aeromexico-operated flights have little (if any) fuel surcharges. In contrast, Air France and KLM flights have small fuel surcharges for economy-class tickets and much larger ones for business class.
Flying Blue is a transfer partner of American Express Membership Rewards, Bilt Rewards, Capital One miles, Chase Ultimate Rewards, Citi ThankYou Rewards and Marriott Bonvoy.
Singapore KrisFlyer does not impose fuel surcharges on its own flights, nor does it impose them on the following partner awards: Air New Zealand, Avianca, Copa and United. You will pay fuel surcharges on other partner flights.
KrisFlyer is a transfer partner of American Express Membership Rewards, Capital One miles, Chase Ultimate Rewards, Citi ThankYou Rewards and Marriott Bonvoy.
Virgin Atlantic Flying Club
U.K.-based Virgin Atlantic Flying Club does not add fuel surcharges to Delta and Hawaiian award tickets. Likewise, it doesn’t add surcharges to domestic tickets operated by ANA, Virgin Australia and South African.
Unfortunately, fuel surcharges are high on the airline’s own award tickets. And since all of these flights are to or from the U.K., you’ll pay $800-plus on a one-way business-class award ticket on many Virgin Atlantic-operated flights.
Flying Club is a transfer partner of American Express Membership Rewards, Bilt Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards, Citi ThankYou Rewards and Marriott Bonvoy.
Tips to avoid fuel surcharges
Given the above information, are there any ways to avoid these hefty charges the next time you book an award ticket? While there’s no foolproof plan for doing so, there are some simple strategies you can use. Here are my favorites:
Move Avios from British Airways to Iberia
The Avios currency is shared by multiple carriers’ loyalty programs: British Airways Executive Club, Iberia Plus, Aer Lingus Aer Club and now Qatar Airways Privilege Club.
While Iberia does impose fuel surcharges, they’re far less than what you’ll find on British Airways — a carrier that is infamous for its horrendous added fees.
We’ve covered how to transfer Avios between British Airways and Iberia at no cost. TPG senior editor Nick Ewen has written about how much this can save you, so be sure to read those posts for additional details.
Earn rewards with transferable points programs
Five major rewards programs allow lucrative transfers of points to airline programs: American Express Membership Rewards, Capital One miles, Chase Ultimate Rewards, Citi ThankYou Rewards and Marriott Bonvoy.
The best thing about these programs is the flexibility; if you have points in one of these programs, you can transfer them to a frequent flyer program that imposes lower or no fuel surcharges. The same applies to smaller, newer programs like Bilt and Brex which have their own unique arrays of transfer partners.
These programs currently offer options to redeem points directly for paid tickets, which will incur no fuel surcharges and earn you miles. While these redemptions don’t always offer the best value per point, they’re good options if you’re trying to minimize the cash cost of your award travel, especially if your travel plans “force” you to take an airline that imposes fuel surcharges.
Choose a destination (or departure city) without fuel surcharges
There are many destinations where awards don’t incur fuel surcharges within North America (including Hawaii) and South America. You could avoid these entirely by starting from the right airport, as many flights originating from Hong Kong, Japan, Australia and New Zealand carry low or no fuel surcharges.
Ultimately, you should go where you really want to go (within reason), but if you’re trying to decide between two otherwise equal options, pick the one that won’t force you to cough up extra for surcharges.
Travel on a carrier with low or no fuel surcharges
Even when a program does impose fuel surcharges, the cost can vary dramatically depending on which carrier operates the flights.
For example, award flights on Cathay Pacific and TAP Air Portugal will have fuel surcharges when booked through many frequent flyer programs, but they can be significantly less when booked through the right partner.
In addition, international award flights on Air New Zealand, Aeromexico, LATAM and Saudia generally have no fuel surcharges, regardless of which carrier issues the award.
Use a credit card that reimburses you for travel expenses
Some credit cards, including the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card, allow you to redeem miles for any travel expense. If you’re stuck paying fuel surcharges on an award ticket, you can use the miles earned from these cards to cover the cost. This reduces your out-of-pocket expenses. Other cards, like the Chase Sapphire Reserve, offer an annual credit for airfare or other travel purchases.
Use reward points to pay for the airfare directly
A final option would be to redeem points directly for the flights in question, removing both the fuel surcharges and the cash portion. For example, the Chase Sapphire Reserve offers you 1.5 cents per point when booking travel through the Chase Ultimate Rewards travel portal, while the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card offers a rate of 1.25 cents per point.
I purchased several discounted, short-haul flights with minimal taxes on a trip to Europe. In contrast, an award booked through a program would have set me back even more miles, and I also would’ve incurred quite a bit of taxes, fees and fuel surcharges. And as a bonus, you’ll even earn miles from the trip!
As the saying goes, “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.” Fuel surcharges tacked onto award tickets are proof of this exact economic theory. Fortunately, you can use simple strategies to avoid these extra fees or minimize their impact on your wallet. Hopefully, this post will help you plan your next award trip without breaking the bank!
Ethan Steinberg, Ryan Smith and Andrew Kunesh contributed to this post.
Featured photo of Lufthansa A340 first class by Zach Honig/The Points Guy.
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