How to avoid fuel surcharges to save money on award tickets

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With every award flight, you’ll have to pay some taxes and fees. Even if it’s just $5.60 for airport taxes, award flights aren’t actually totally free.

However, some airlines add repugnantly high fees to their award flights, commonly known as fuel surcharges. These extra charges can add hundreds of dollars to your “free” award seat. It’s never a good surprise.

Not all programs charge these extra fees, though — you really can get to Europe and Asia for just a few bucks. Many airlines have zero (or very low) fuel surcharges. Let’s take a look at how to easily find fuel surcharges – and examine the airline loyalty programs that will save you money.

If you don’t watch out for fuel surcharges, your “free” business-class ticket to Europe may cost more than $1,000 round-trip. (Image courtesy of United Airlines)

How to find fuel surcharges

The term “fuel surcharges” is actually out-of-date. These fees are now known as “carrier-imposed surcharges,” and they’re entirely arbitrary. It’s like they’re designed to deter you from booking an award flight.

Finding the amount you’ll pay for award flights is easy with a tool called ITA Matrix. I’ll show you how to do it in a few easy steps.

Step 1. Enter your travel info

Head to ITA Matrix and enter your origin and destination, as well as your loose travel dates. You can search for flexible dates, as well. You can also choose the class of service you’re planning to book with miles.

For this example, we’ll look for a one-way business class flight from New York to London.

Step 2. Choose the airline you’ll be flying

You’ll now see a list of airlines through which you can purchase flights for your desired route. If you’ll be crossing the ocean on British Airways, prepare to pay exorbitant “carrier-imposed surcharges.” That’s a good one to choose for this example, so we’ll click British Airways.

Step 3. Choose a flight

You now have a lengthy list of British Airways itineraries to choose from. Select one of them to see a breakdown of the taxes and fees associated with the flight.

Step 4. Find “YQ” and/or “YR”

YQ and YR are the surcharges you can expect to pay on a ticket. Below, you’ll see a whopping $700 in carrier-imposed surcharges. That list of taxes and fees represent the cash you’ll pay on top of whatever airline miles you pay. That’s nowhere near “free travel,” is it?

Book through these airlines to avoid fuel surcharges

Air Canada

Aeroplan is the loyalty program of Air Canada, a member of the Star Alliance. That means you can book award seats on 25+ partner airlines. Air Canada Aeroplan is a transfer partner of:

In mid-2020, Air Canada Aeroplan stopped incurring (or passing along) fuel surcharges – though its award prices did increase. This is huge because Aeroplan is insanely valuable if you know how to use it. It’s got very generous routing rules, allowing multiple stopovers and open-jaws.

Lufthansa, touted for its ridiculously fabulous first class cabin, is now hundreds and hundreds (and hundreds) of dollars cheaper than before, thanks to this change from Air Canada.

Alaska 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:

The information for the Alaska Airlines Visa Signature and Alaska Airlines Visa Business card has been collected independently by Million Mile Secrets. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.

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 doesn’t usually add fuel surcharges to award tickets on any partner airline, but there are a couple exceptions — British Airways and Icelandair. In the booking example below, they are the only Alaska partners charging three-digit surcharges.

Again, you’ll have to pay some taxes and fees, no matter what airline you’re flying. For the above example between Chicago and Paris, you may pay around $32 one-way. Read our post about the 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 LATAM. Call 800-252-7522 to book award seats on those airlines.

American Airlines

American Airlines is a member of the Oneworld alliance. It’s got several other airline partners. You can earn AA miles with a credit card like:

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 — as we covered in our example with ITA Matrix. 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.

Don’t spend your miles this way.

American Airlines also passes on fuel surcharges when you use AA miles to fly Iberia, though they’re much more modest.

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

Avianca is a South American airline with lots of Star Alliance partners — just like United. 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.

This is a one-way transatlantic award flight on Lufthansa via Avianca.

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 by transferring:

Read our post on which points transfer to each airline for more details.

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

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.

Delta’s loyalty program is trash. Many of us don’t even bother collecting them anymore because Delta has continually devalued their program. From many cities, you’ll have a hard time finding business class seats to Europe for less than 300,000 miles. They clearly don’t want our business, and we don’t give it to them.

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
  • Tarom
  • 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:

You can also open any of the best Delta credit cards and earn their welcome bonuses, but again – Delta miles aren’t worth much to an inflexible traveler. You can get outsized value for them through Delta’s flash sales, but that’s about it these days.

Flying Blue

Flying Blue is the frequent flyer program for Air France and KLM. Flying Blue is a transfer partner with:

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.

Use your Flying Blue miles to lie under the shade of the Eiffel Tower. (Image by Alexander Kirch/Shutterstock)

You can book some Flying Blue award flights directly on the website. If your desired flight doesn’t appear, you’ll have to call 800-375-8723 to book. There’s no extra charge to book over the phone.

Singapore Airlines

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.

Singapore Airlines miles are easy to get. You can transfer:

Similar to Flying Blue, All major transferable points convert to Singapore miles. That makes them effortless to earn.

You’re supposed to be able to book partner awards online, though it’s not always the easiest experience.

Southwest

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

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 Lufthansa). Some partner award flights still have added fees, but they’re much less than with other airline miles.

Another nice aspect of using United Airlines miles is that you won’t pay more in taxes to fly business or first class. And you can book the vast majority of United Airlines partner awards online. Read our post on how to use United Airlines miles for some inspiration – or check out our guide to United stopovers and open-jaws to learn the hidden power of United miles.

Programs to avoid

British Airways

British Airways 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 of us avoid using British Airways Avios points for award flights on British Airways, because British Airways adds high fees to most of their own award tickets (sometimes $1,000+), as well as to 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. Avios points are useful for short flights in the U.S., but they’re particularly useful internationally, such as 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.

Lufthansa

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 make test bookings online, you’ll need to have at least 7,000 Lufthansa miles in your account. This is infuriating, as most of us don’t actually collect Lufthansa miles – we just transfer miles into the account if we’ve got an immediate use for them.

To price out an award properly, you’ll have to call.

Virgin Atlantic

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)
  • ANA

Remember that 300,000 price tag to get from the U.S. to Europe in Delta One? Book the Delta flight through Virgin Atlantic and you’ll pay just 50,000 points each way – with no fuel surcharges!

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. And ANA has recently stopped incurring fuel surcharges, so it’s by far the best Virgin Atlantic airline partner!

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:

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 yourself 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.

Bottom line

The best airlines for avoiding fuel surcharges are Air Canada and United Airlines. They don’t add fuel surcharges to any of their flights or to any partner flights you book with their miles.

The next best are Avianca, Alaska Airlines, and American Airlines. You’ll find a few partners that will incur the YQ fees, but it’s rare.

Let me know your favorite way to avoid fuel surcharges — and feel free to add your tips in the comments!

Drew founded the points and miles site Travelisfree.com in 2011 and has also worked with The Points Guy. He and his wife spent years traveling nomadically until they sold Travel is Free in 2019.

Editorial Note: We're the Million Mile Secrets team. And we're proud of our content, opinions and analysis, and of our reader's comments. These haven’t been reviewed, approved or endorsed by any of the airlines, hotels, or credit card issuers which we often write about. And that’s just how we like it! :)

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