Avoid fuel surcharges to save money when you book award tickets
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Some airlines add repugnant fees to their award flights known as fuel surcharges. These extra charges can add hundreds of dollars to your “free” award seat. It’s never a good surprise.
However, not all programs charge these extra fees — you really can get to Europe and Asia for ~$6 each way. Many airlines have zero (or very low) fuel surcharges. Let’s take a look at the programs that save you money.
Fuel surcharges listed by airline
The best use of Air Canada miles is actually not on Air Canada. Here are the airlines that don’t have fuel surcharges when booking award seats through Air Canada Aeroplan:
- Adria Airways (part of Aegean Airlines)
- Air China
- Brussels Airlines
- Ethiopian Airlines
- EVA Air
- Singapore Airlines
- Turkish Airlines
- United Airlines
Your biggest surcharges will be on flights with Air Canada, Lufthansa and Austrian Airlines.
Alaska Airlines has several fantastic travel partners (you can read about them in our Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan review). You can earn Alaska Airlines miles by opening and earning the bonuses on credit cards like:
You can also transfer Marriott points to Alaska Airlines at a ratio of 3:1. Plus, when you transfer in increments of 60,000 points, you’ll receive an extra 5,000 miles (in other words, 60,000 Marriott points = 25,000 Alaska Airlines miles).
Alaska Airlines does’t usually add fuel surcharges to award tickets on any partner airline but there are a couple of exceptions — British Airways and Icelandair. In the booking example below, they are the only Alaska partners charging three-digit surcharges.
You will have to pay some taxes and fees, no matter what airline you’re flying. For the above example between Chicago and Paris, American Airlines will charge $19 each way, Finnair will charge $25 and Aer Lingus will charge $31. Read our post about best ways to redeem Alaska Airlines miles for more details.
You can book all of Alaska Airlines’ partner awards on their website, except for Cathay Pacific and LAN. Call 800-252-7522 to book award seats on those airlines.
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You can book award flights on all of American Airlines’ partners without any fuel surcharges, with a couple of exceptions. The main offender is British Airways, which can charge $1,200+ for a round-trip flight. The amount you’ll pay in taxes and fees depends on which class of cabin you fly. In the example below of a flight from New York to Tel Aviv, you’ll be charged $482 one-way for business class, and $669 one-way for first class. Ouch.
American Airlines also passes on fuel surcharges when you use AA miles to fly Iberia.
No fuel surcharges are one reason we love booking award flights on most airlines with American Airlines miles. Read about how to use American Airlines miles for more details.
Avianca is a South American airline with lots of Star Alliance partners. Booking with Avianca miles often beats the tar out of booking with the actual airline you want to fly, because they don’t pass on fuel surcharges. Let’s look at an example.
Booking a round-trip business-class flight between the U.S. and Frankfurt will cost ~$1,100 in fuel surcharges with Lufthansa Miles & More. But when you book with Avianca miles, you only pay ~$120 in fees.
Avianca is an excellent way to book Star Alliance awards for cheap. Even the number of miles you need are often less when booking through Avianca instead of directly with the airline. You can earn Avianca miles through cards like:
You should also watch Avianca’s special promotions, which they release often. Subscribe to our newsletter and we’ll alert you when something good pops up.
You can book most partner airlines on the website. If you can’t, you’ll have to call to book. But be aware that Avianca’s telephone customer service isn’t very good, so you may have to hang up and call again until you find a representative who can help you.
Delta has fuel surcharges for many award flights on its airline partners in the SkyTeam alliance, such as Air France and Virgin Atlantic. However, Delta has very low fuel surcharges on its own flights all over the world. For example, it costs 80,000 Delta miles and $6 to fly from Cincinnati to Paris in a stunning lie-flat Delta One seat.
Flights to South America, even on Delta travel partners Aerolineas Argentinas and AeroMexico, tend to have low fuel surcharges. Search for award seats on these airlines on the Flying Blue website instead of Delta’s website:
- Air Europa
- Air Tahiti Nui
- Czech Airlines
- Kenya Airways
- Xiamen Air
Then call Delta to book at 800-323-2323. Ask them to waive the award booking fee because these flights cannot be booked online. If you need more Delta miles, you can transfer Amex Membership Rewards points and Marriott points — or open up the best Delta credit cards for big welcome bonuses.
Flying Blue is the frequent flyer program for Air France and KLM. Flying Blue is a transfer partner with Chase Ultimate Rewards, Amex Membership Rewards, Citi ThankYou, Capital One miles and Marriott points. This makes Flying Blue miles the easiest to accrue of nearly any airline currency. Unfortunately, Flying Blue assesses fuel surcharges for all Air France and KLM flights. These extra charges can add up to $300 to your award ticket.
You can use the Flying Blue Award calculator to check how many miles you’ll need on any award flight. The best use of Flying Blue miles is for monthly promo awards. Sometimes they have discounts of up to 50% fewer miles required for award flights. Just be sure that the discount is worth paying the extra fees on your award ticket.
You can book some Flying Blue award flights directly on the website. If the airline has a computer symbol next to it, you can book online. But the ones with a phone symbol require you to call 800-375-8723 to book. There’s no extra charge to book over the phone.
Singapore Airlines doesn’t add fuel surcharges to its own flights. However, with the exception of United Airlines, it adds fuel surcharges to all its other airline partners.
You’re supposed to be able to book partner awards online, though it’s not always the easiest experience.
Southwest flies to lots of fun locations, like Hawaii, Cancun, Aruba and Costa Rica. Every country has different taxes and fees and it can be an unpleasant surprise when they pop up. They’re not “fuel surcharges,” but these extra fees can add a lot to your final price, especially if you want to use your Southwest Companion Pass.
For example, flights from Chicago to Liberia, Costa Rica, will show $80 round-trip in taxes and fees. Even If you use your Southwest Companion Pass, that’s an extra $160 for two award itineraries.
As you can see, these extra costs are not fuel surcharges. Typically, they’re airport or departure taxes but they are something to be aware of if you fly Southwest internationally. You can still save a lot of money when you use your Southwest Companion Pass, but be sure to budget the extra fees into your tropical getaway.
United Airlines never adds fuel surcharges to any of its award flights. It’s a fantastic way to book Star Alliance flights on airlines that often charge expensive taxes and fees, like Air Canada and Lufthansa. Some partner award flights still have added fees but they’re much less than with other airline miles. Below is an example of flights operated by Air Canada and Scandinavian Airlines: A round-trip from Toronto to Munich comes with $157 in taxes and fees. Just enough to be annoying.
Another nice aspect of using United Airlines miles is that you won’t pay more in taxes to fly business or first class. You can book the vast majority of United Airlines partner awards online. Be sure to read our United MileagePlus review to learn how to use United Airlines miles.
Programs to avoid
British Airways is the only airline on the list that has a distance-based award chart, which means the number of points required for an award flight depends on the length of each flight in your itinerary.
Most folks avoid using British Airways Avios points for award flights on British Airways. That’s because British Airways adds high fees to most of their own award tickets (sometimes hundreds of dollars), as well as those of many partner airlines. This even includes American Airlines on transatlantic flights. Below is a round-trip coach flight between the U.S. and Europe on British Airways.
The best use of British Airways Avios points is to fly with their partner airlines outside the U.K. British Airways Avios points are useful for short flights in the U.S., but they’re particularly useful internationally, like within Europe, Asia and Australia.
Booking fees to fly on partners American Airlines and Alaska Airlines are very low for domestic U.S. flights, usually only ~$11 for round-trip flights in any class of service.
The best use of Lufthansa miles is not for flights on Lufthansa. You’ll pay no (or low) fuel surcharges when you book flights on a few partners, including:
- Air New Zealand – Flights to New Zealand, Australia and Oceania
- Avianca – Flights to South America, Central America and the Caribbean
- United Airlines – Flights within North and South America, or United transoceanic routes
To see if you can book an award online, enter your starting point and destination into the Lufthansa award calculator. It will tell you exactly which awards can and cannot be booked online.
I put Virgin Atlantic here reluctantly and only because it has a niche market. They bill you for high fuel surcharges and they do it often.
If you’re flying Virgin Atlantic, you’re paying hundreds of dollars on top of the award price. But Virgin Atlantic miles can still be useful if you’re flying:
- Delta (from the U.S.)
- Hawaiian Airlines
- Virgin Australia (for domestic flights)
There are a couple of other anecdotal exceptions, but ANA flights are the real Virgin Atlantic sweet spot. You can fly round-trip in business class to Japan on ANA for as little as 90,000 Virgin Atlantic miles and round-trip in first class for as little as 110,000 Virgin Atlantic miles. That’s bananas.
Other than that, you won’t find too many barn-burner deals. Use this airline with caution. If you want to actually fly Virgin Atlantic, better to book with Hawaiian Airlines miles.
Which card should you pay with?
When booking airfare, you should be using the best credit cards for travel, such as:
- Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
- Chase Sapphire Reserve®
- Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card
- The Platinum Card® from American Express
- Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card
Many of these cards have great benefits if you lose your bag or your flight gets canceled. You can also earn lots of points and save quite a bit of money for future trips.
Lower your tax burden by returning from a low-tax country
If your travel plans are flexible, you can save money on taxes and fees by routing yoursef home through a low-tax country, like Ireland or Poland. Some countries, like Germany and the U.K., charge high taxes and fees to use their airports.
Keep in mind that arrival and departure taxes can be different too. That means it might be cheaper to fly into certain countries (like Germany) than to fly out. If your plans are flexible, run the numbers to make sure you’re paying as little in taxes and fees as possible.
The best airline for avoiding fuel surcharges is United Airlines. They don’t add fuel surcharges to any of their flights or to any partner flights you book with United Airlines miles.
The next best are Avianca, Alaska Airlines and American Airlines. They don’t add fuel charges to their flights or to their partners except British Airways flights. American Airlines also adds fuel surcharges for flights on Iberia.
Certain countries are cheaper to fly through, like Ireland and Poland. And others, like Germany and especially the U.K., should be avoided if you have flexible travel plans. Always run the numbers to make sure you’re getting a good deal.
Let me know your favorite way to avoid fuel surcharges — feel free to add your tips in the comments. And subscribe to our newsletter for more information on how to travel for cheap with miles and points.
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