[UPDATE: I've actually written a whole series on fuel surcharges that is also more up to date. Head to the first part by clicking here]
You’ve finally done it!
You followed all my advice in the Beginner’s Guide to Frequent Flying, earned your points, found the flights you want, and are now set to take that special someone on your “always dreamed about, never before realized” trip to Paris.
One last step. You call up the customer service representative, they confirm the tickets are available, and a waive of delirium sweeps over you…visions of pan au chocolat, Mona Lisa, and berets dance through your head.
The voice on the other end cuts through the fog:
“Sir, sir, are you still there? The total cost for taxes and fees is $1,045. What credit card would you like to use to pay that?”
SCCCCCRREEEECCCHHHHH….End daydream, begin nightmare!
Wait, what? I thought using frequent flyer miles was supposed to be basically free?
Well, yes and no.
Yes, they can be basically free (outside of a few miscellaneous fees and taxes that are unavoidable and usually are run around $10-50 a ticket) if you avoid having to pay the often-overlooked but incredibly important fuel surcharge.
If you don’t, then you’ll be in for a huge surprise, just like the example above.
Ok, so what is a fuel surcharge?
Basically, it is the fee that airlines tack on to deceptively fool the consumer in to thinking they have a cheap ticket (when buying them outright) or free tickets (when using miles). This way, the “fare” for the ticket seems low, but will jump up later when they add the on the “fees”, which is what the “fuel surcharge” falls under.
Incredibly, this has nothing at all to do with the cost of the fuel that you will actually use to fly. If that were the case, all flights that flew the same route would have roughly the same fuel surcharge, and this is nowhere close to being true.
Without getting too much in to it, it is a way to screw over regular customers (both paying ones and those using miles) who don’t know any better. Long story short, fuel surcharges are bad. Avoid them like the plague.
So what’s my secret for never having to pay a fuel surcharge? Lean in close…
I never fly on airlines that charge one!
The part that is not as obvious (and in fact, pretty convoluted) is figuring out which airlines charge fuel surcharges and when. If you want to avoid them, you have to know first where to find them!
Because I’ve had a lot of experience booking award flights, I have begun to memorize rules and regulations for each airline. Instead of having you sift through airline website after airline website, squinting at the fine print and getting a brain cramp trying to decipher all the “geek speak”, I’ve decided to make it easy and share them with you here.
This way, you’ll never be stuck getting ripped off by fuel surcharges again!
First, I’ll present the airlines that readers are most likely to have mileage balances with, ranked from best (hello United!) to worst (I’m looking at you, BA).
At the bottom of the post you can also find a roundup of all other international airline programs, as well as some helpful resources.
Having frequent flyer miles with United is awesome because you never will pay a fuel surcharge, no matter what carrier you are flying. Since United is part of Star Alliance, you have tons of partner airlines to choose from and many routes available. I value United miles very highly because of the lack of a fuel surcharge and collect them at every opportunity!
Just like United, if you use USAirways miles will never pay a fuel surcharge no matter what carrier you are flying. The only reason I value these miles slightly less than United is because you are not allowed to book one-way tickets. Still a great airline to collect miles with, as you’ll never get dinged with fuel surcharges.
In most cases, American Airlines miles are very good for having no fuel surcharges. The major exception is if you fly British Airways, which will tack on a HUGE fuel surcharge, or Iberia, which charges a very minimal one.
Other than that, you are in the clear with AA miles.
A fuel surcharge WILL NOT be charged when using AA miles if:
- You fly on any carrier other than British Airways or Iberia.
A fuel surcharge WILL be charged when using AA miles if:
- You fly on a British Airway flight. This fuel surcharge is substantial, usually between $400-600 on a trip to Europe. AVOID AT ALL COSTS!
- You fly on an Iberia flight. This is a new development. This is a small fuel surcharge, somewhere between $10-40. Iberia is still a much better option than BA to get to Europe using AA miles, but its sad to see another airline getting having fuel surcharges with AA miles.
Even though Alaska Airlines is not part of an alliance, they do have partnerships with many important airlines, such as AA, Qantas, Delta, Cathay Pacific, Emirates, LAN, and British Airways.
Without looking below, take a quick guess which partner screws you over with fuel surcharges…
That’s right, British Airways!
If you use your Alaskan Airlines miles to fly on any partner other than BA, you’re fine, as you’ll pay no fuel surcharge.
If for some deluded reason you decided to use your Alaskan Airlines miles on BA, be ready to fork over a massive amount of 100 dollar bills!
A fuel surcharge WILL NOT be charged when using Alaskan Airlines miles if:
- You fly on any carrier other than British Airways. A full list of partners can be found here.
A fuel surcharge WILL be charged when using Alaskan Airlines miles if:
- You fly on British Airways. I’m imploring you, don’t do it!
Delta miles are very hard to redeem and often have bad rates, but that’s a story for another post. Regarding fuel surcharges, their rules are pretty straightforward.
If your flight starts in the United States, you won’t pay one. If it doesn’t, you will pay one. The only exception is if you fly on Malaysia Air and Virgin Australia, which you’ll always pay a fuel surcharge on, regardless of where your flight originates.
A fuel surcharge WILL NOT be charged when using Delta miles if:
- Your flight originates in the United States for all carriers except Virgin Australia and Malaysian Air.
A fuel surcharge WILL be charged when using Delta miles if:
- Your flight originates OUTSIDE of the United States.
- You are flying on Virgin Australia or Malaysian Air.
Even though they are seen as the undisputed king of screwing over the customer with fuel surcharges (and rightfully so), you can use BA frequent flyer miles (called Avios points) and avoid fuel surcharges in very specific circumstances.
This would include flying LAN or AA to South America or using your BA miles to fly on AA inside of the North America.
Basically, if you start in North America and don’t cross an ocean, you’re safe!
There is also one more instance in which you can use BA miles and not get hit with a fuel surcharge, although it is very random.
If you are somehow able to book an American Airlines ticket to Europe on British Airways website, you will not be charged for a fuel surcharge (read proof of it here). However, if you have to call in to book the ticket through the phone, BA will charge you a fuel surcharge.
This is basically a loophole that sometimes pops up due to a computer glitch of some sort. Don’t count on being able to do it, but if you’re somehow able to find one, take advantage of it!
Otherwise, you want to stay away from British Airways at all costs, as they will gouge you with exorbitant fuel surcharges ($400-600 or more) that are usually only a couple hundred dollars less than actually buying a ticket. As mentioned above, this even includes when you use AA miles to fly on British Airways, a complete screw job!
A fuel surcharge WILL NOT charged when using BA miles if:
- You fly LAN or AA to South America
- You fly on American Airlines domestically within the United States or from the US to Canada, Mexico, or the Caribbean.
- You are able to book an American Airlines ticket completely through the BA website.
A fuel surcharge WILL be charged when using BA miles if:
- You fly anything other than LAN or AA to South America or AA within North America or the Caribbean.
Here is a round-up of other less common airlines and their rules regarding fuel surcharges:
A fuel surcharge WILL NOT be charged when using ANA miles if:
- You fly on USAirways
A fuel surcharge WILL be charged when using ANA if:
- You fly on ANA or any other partner except USAirways.
No Fuel Surcharges
LAN, South African Air, EuroBonus (SAS), and TAM never charge a fuel surcharge if you are using miles you have in those programs.
Always Fuel Surcharges
All other international airlines will always charge a fuel surcharge on award tickets when using their miles.
Dan’s Deals Color Coded Fuel Surcharge Thread- updated fairly regularly.
Online Travel Review’s Chart- Easy to read but not kept up to date, and therefore can contain inaccuracies.