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The Secret to Never Paying Fuel Charges on Award Tickets

[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!

Obvious, right?

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.

United

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!

USAirways

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.

American Airlines

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.

Alaska Airlines

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

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.

British Airways

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:

ANA

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.

Helpful Resources

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.

 

Images courtesy of Gordon M Robertson, ConvenienceStoreGourmet


Comments

  1. This is an AWESOME post!!! It is super helpful and clears up so many questions I had about fuel surcharges. I will definitely be bookmarking this page. Thank you so much for the fantastic content!

    • @Jenny- Thanks! Fuel surcharges are one of those “super important but super aggravating” things to figure out when using frequent flyer miles. I figured that after I had spent so much time delving in to it for myself and some of my clients, I might as well try to share the info with the masses and make it easier to figure out for others. Also, it provides me with a place to check in the future, should I forget what’s what!

  2. Great post, keep it up

  3. Hi, I’m trying to use some of my ANA points for an awards booking. I did a sample booking for a trip to DUB on US Airways but it said that it couldn’t total my taxes/surcharge. If i call an agent [as it says I need to do], do you think I will still be able to get away “fuel surcharge free” on my US Airways flight? this is great information…all my unused points have been stressing me out!

    • @jenjenk- I have been hearing conflicting information regarding the fuel surcharge on US Airways flights when using ANA miles. I would suggest calling the agent and asking them directly. I’m not sure if the conflicting reports are due to ANA switching over to the fact that they will charge fuel surcharges on US Airways (I sure hope this isn’t the case) or if they are just having computer glitches. Unfortunately, I don’t know the answer to that. I’d call them up and ask them:

      1. Are fuel surcharges charged on USAirways flights if you are using ANA points.
      2. If the answer is no, does this apply to if you book online only or does it also apply to phone bookings.

      If you could, I’d love if you reported back so that I could be more clear to all readers, as this situation seems to be a little hazy at the moment.

  4. I just looked at using Avios points on ba.com to go from DFW to CZM on an AA flight and, when available, it wants to add $117 or so as a fee/surcharge. Is this a fuel surcharge? Any way, can’t seem to do it for just points.

    • @Walker- I just looked and there are no fuel surcharges put on the ticket. However, every time you book tickets with miles or points, you will be required to pay airport taxes and certain governmental fees. Usually, these are pretty low, but can differ based on where you are flying in and out of. Here is the breakdown for the fees for a roundtrip ticket from DFW-CZM. You’ll notice that there is no fuel surcharge (the code for that is YQ) listed.

      US September 11th Security Fee (AY) $2.50
      US Passenger Facility Charge (XF) $4.50
      US International Departure Tax (US) $16.70
      US International Arrival Tax (US) $16.70
      Mexican Tourist Tax (UK) $22.57
      Mexican Airport Departure Tax (XD) $37.52
      US Customs Fee (YC) $5.50
      US Immigration Fee (XY) $7.00
      USDA APHIS Fee (XA) $5.00

  5. Fantastic post as always, Travis! This is the first time I heard that BA doesn’t charge fuel charges to Mexico. Great news. Thanks for your incredible research, and making all this potentially head-splitting info fun & digestible. We’re still gathering info and taking the first steps, and planning to hire you to get our whole strategy in place & possibly buy our first tickets!

    • @Laila- Thanks! Fuel surcharges are one of the most confusing aspects of redeeming frequent flyer miles so I’m glad you found it useful. I’m sure once we all get these rules down, they’ll change again, but for now, use this post as a guide for any time you need to figure out if an airline will charge you a fuel surcharge.

  6. Erica Duncan says:

    Super useful information. Thank you!

    • @Erica Duncan- No problem. It’s a confusing topic and one that isn’t talked about enough so I thought I’d dig deep and try to get some answers. Thanks for the tweet, by the way!

  7. If your flight originates outside europe then delta wont charge you any fuel surcharge except for some partners such as virgin australia and malaysia airlines

  8. just came across this.
    im busy trying to book a flight with SAA miles on star alliance. (using swissair flights)
    interestingly, there is a massive tax and surcharge fee, which works out to 40% higher than the surcharges and taxes on the same paid flight. SAA is unable to explain why, other than mentioning something about YR codes.

    • @Daniel- I’m not sure what YR stands for. Do you mean YQ? If so, that is the code for the fuel surcharge, which shouldn’t be any different between the paid flight and the award flight.

      • Nicola Lester says:

        The following is from an ATPCo (Airline Tariff Publishing Company) bulletin issued in April 2012: -

        The Carrier-Imposed (YQ/YR) Fees product will support the following types of fees:
        YQ-F = Fuel Fees
        YQ-I = Insurance Fees
        YR-F = Fuel Fees
        YR-I = Carrier-Imposed Miscellaneous Fees

  9. @Travis

    First time reading this blog but this post covered exactly what I was looking for in regards to Delta’s YQ policy. Any plans to publish a post on best uses for Delta SkyMiles? I am in the process of racking up hundreds of thousands of skypesos but have literally never redeemed for a Delta award ticket so I have a lot to learn.

    I’m pretty good on UA/AA (Flew IAD-LAX-SFO-HNL-KIX-NRT-MNL-HKG-HAN-HKG-JFK-LHR-ATH-LHR-IAD earlier this year on AA ticket) but I don’t even know the basics for delta such as which partners tend to release space, how far in advance seats open up, best deals on their award chart, etc. Would be interested to hear your thoughts!

    • @HoKo- A Delta post may be in the works, but to be honest, I’m not near the expert on Delta as I am on the other airlines (USAir, UA, AA). I also find them pretty confusing and pretty convoluted. That doesn’t mean they don’t have good value (at times) but just means that while I can navigate the basics, I’m certainly not the go to guy on them. But just like you, I’d like to learn more, so I’m thinking about doing a post on them, to teach myself as well as others!

      You might want to check out Rene’s blog Delta Points. He’s basically the Delta master, and pretty much my go-to source when I want to figure Delta stuff out!

      Glad you got what you needed from the post. Come back and read more anytime, and thanks for commenting!

  10. @Daniel
    @Trav

    I believe YR is just another code for YQ. Some airlines use them interchangeably. This issue came up recently with DL redemptions on KE.

  11. Hi,
    Can somebody clarify for me – this tax charged by airlines or by reward program. In other words is it possible to pay and not pay tax on the same airline booked through different reward programs?

    • @VLAD- It’s dependent on the rewards program. Those are the ones that make the rules about whether it is charged or not.

      So, for example, if you use BA Avios points and fly on American Airlines, you WILL pay a fuel surcharge, because BA Avios program charges it.

      However, if you use AA miles to fly on American Airlines, you WON’T pay a fuel surcharge, because the AA program doesn’t charge it.

      That’s why it’s super important to earn miles with programs that don’t charge fuel surcharges.

      • That is actually not accurate Trav. It depends on a combination of the airline with which you have miles, the operating carrier, and the route. For example, if you use BA points to book AA domestic flights (DFW-LAX for example) there will never be YQ assessed. BUT, if you used avios to book AA TATL then there WILL be YQ assessed. Also, while AA almost never charges YQ for partner flights they DO for BA flights. In short it can be pretty confusing and there are lots of exceptions to the rules so it may not be worth the hassle unless you’re really into miles.

        • @Hoko- Yes, it depends on the carrier and the route, but the idea is that you are following the rules of what airline’s miles you using.

          So, for example, I consider AA’s rules to be “no fuel surcharges on any airline except BA and Iberia”. So I know that when I use AA miles, I follow those rules. Basically, it’s a question of semantics. Other factors play in, but if you know what the rules are for AA, then you know what to follow.

          I break it all down in this new updated series on fuel surcharges, and even include a chart.

    • Thank you so much! It was really helpful!

  12. Really cool post – pretty nice job of clarifying the maze of options.

    • @Mark P- Thanks. Fuel surcharges are one of the most confusing, but most important, things to understand in the frequent flyer game.

  13. Great post ! I have lots of BA Avios and just found out about this horrible fuel surcharge. So, for what you’re saying in the comment area, if you have Avios issued by BA it doesn’t matter whether you travel on AA or Iberia–you will pay BA fuel surcharge? Is that the case if I use my BA Avios to get an Iberia ticket from the US to Spain? Terrible, terrible. I like BA better than other airlines but had no clue about this when I started flying exclusively BA. Thank you!

Trackbacks

  1. [...] United is a great program to earn and redeem frequent flyer miles in for a variety of reasons;  they are part of the world’s largest alliance, they allow one way tickets, and you’ll never get charged fuel surcharges when redeeming United miles. [...]

  2. […] tacks huge fuel surcharges on most of their award tickets, making economy award travel pointless to most […]

  3. […] surcharges are added to award tickets by some programs and some carriers.  Knowing who charges fuel surcharges on award tickets can make a huge difference in the cash portion of your award ticket.  Take for […]

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