How Much Does a ‘Free’ Rewards Flight Really Cost?

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REUTERS/Toby Melville

U.S. air travelers take notice: things aren’t as bad as they are across the pond. A recent British Airways promotion awarded holders of the airline’s Visa card 100,000 frequent flier miles (equivalent to two round trip tickets from London to New York) after $2,000 worth of purchases. But not before adding taxes, fees and a $350 fuel surcharge per ticket.

The New York Times reports that although most airlines charge taxes and fees for award tickets, more and more foreign airlines are adding fuel surcharges as well, something that air passengers flying on U.S. airlines don’t have to worry about — yet.

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While U.S. airlines don’t generally impose fuel surcharges on award flights, they do, of course, charge fees for various other amenities including checking bags, in-flight meals and snacks and in-flight entertainment. Delta Airlines experimented with fuel surcharges on frequent-flier tickets in 2007, but dropped the fee a year later when other airlines did not adopt the practice and oil prices fell. Still, using frequent flier miles in the U.S. isn’t technically free, considering fees and taxes on award flights can range between $150 and $200 for a New York to London flight. But that seems like a deal in comparison to the surcharges incurred on award tickets on airlines like British Airways, Air Canada, Lufthansa, Virgin Atlantic and All Nippon Airways.

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Some passengers try to get around the foreign surcharges by using frequent flier miles to purchase tickets with partner carriers. Rick Ingersoll, a retired mortgage banker who offers advice on traveling for free at FrugalTravelGuy.com, told the New York Times, “I used my 100,000 British Airways miles for four domestic round-trip tickets on American Airlines at 25,000 miles each.”

The moral is, to get more bang for your buck in the air, find any loophole you can — because airlines do it too.

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