How to avoid fuel surcharges on award travel
Fuel surcharges — also known as carrier-imposed surcharges or YQ surcharges — are an important issue for award travel enthusiasts. After all, these extra fees can make your award flight cost hundreds (if not thousands) of dollars in addition to your miles redeemed.
In many cases, fuel surcharges aren't necessarily related to fuel costs. Instead, fuel surcharges often include various additional fees that airlines add to their tickets.
Fuel surcharges vary based on your route, direction of travel, operating carrier and the loyalty program through which you book. This guide will look at which loyalty programs add and don't add fuel surcharges to award tickets and a few strategies you can use to avoid paying fuel surcharges.
Programs that don't impose surcharges
A handful of programs don't impose fuel surcharges on any awards, including flights on their own planes and those operated by partners. Here are some of the programs that check this box.
JetBlue TrueBlue, Southwest Rapid Rewards and Free Spirit
You can use your points and miles on JetBlue, Southwest and Spirit without fuel surcharges. However, you're still on the hook for mandatory taxes and fees, such as the $5.60 Sept. 11 Security Fee for all flights departing from U.S. airports. Additionally, Spirit charges a $50 fee if you book an award ticket within 28 days of departure.
Most of these airlines don't have widespread premium products, so you have minimal opportunities to maximize their respective loyalty currencies for outsized value.
Aside from JetBlue, these airlines lack partner redemption options. With JetBlue, you can redeem your TrueBlue points on flights with Hawaiian Airlines. Eventually, you should also be able to redeem TrueBlue points for American Airlines flights.
Air Canada Aeroplan
When Air Canada revamped the Aeroplan program, the airline eliminated fuel surcharges on partner award tickets. This includes flights on Star Alliance partners that often add high surcharges, like Austrian, Lufthansa and Swiss. That said, you're still on the hook for paying a partner booking fee of 39 Canadian dollars ($29) when flying with airlines other than Air Canada.
You can transfer American Express Membership Rewards points, Bilt Rewards points, Capital One miles and Chase Ultimate Rewards points to Air Canada Aeroplan at a 1:1 transfer ratio. Additionally, you can transfer Marriott Bonvoy points to Aeroplan at a 3:1 transfer ratio, with 60,000-point transfers getting a bonus of 5,000 Aeroplan points. This means 60,000 Marriott Bonvoy points are worth 25,000 Aeroplan points.
With LifeMiles, you'll frequently see lucrative promotions on buying miles. The program is a transfer partner of American Express Membership Rewards (1:1 transfer ratio), Capital One (1:1 transfer ratio), Marriott Bonvoy (3:1 transfer ratio) and Citi ThankYou Rewards (1:1 transfer ratio).
The program offers frequent transfer bonuses that can make awards even cheaper. However, LifeMiles adds a $10 to $25 booking fee to all awards.
United MileagePlus doesn't add fuel surcharges to award tickets. When you redeem United miles, including tickets on Star Alliance and non-alliance partners, you'll only need to pay mandatory government-imposed taxes and fees.
United is a transfer partner of Marriott Bonvoy (3:1 transfer ratio with a 5,000-mile bonus for every 60,000 points transferred), Bilt Rewards (1:1 transfer ratio) and Chase Ultimate Rewards (1:1 transfer ratio).
Programs that add fuel surcharges to some awards
Next, here's a list of major airlines that impose fuel surcharges on some award flights.
Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan
The Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan doesn't pass on fuel surcharges for most of its partners. However, the program does add fuel surcharges on award flights operated by British Airways.
Depending on which flight you book, fees (or lack thereof) can differ wildly. For example, compare your out-of-pocket costs when redeeming Alaska miles for a one-way economy flight from New York to London.
In the above example, nonstop economy awards operated by British Airways see $280 in taxes and fees while similar flights operated by American Airlines incur just $19 in taxes and fees. Meanwhile, one-stop awards on flights operated by Aer Lingus, Iberia and Royal Air Maroc all carry minimal taxes and fees.
ANA Mileage Cub
ANA Mileage Club imposes fuel surcharges on award flights it operates and on some partner-operated award flights. The airline even publishes a chart of fuel surcharges for ANA-operated flights on its website.
There are no carrier-imposed surcharges on select partner-operated flights, including at least some Air New Zealand, Avianca, SAS, Singapore Airlines and United flights.
You will, however, pay high surcharges on flights operated by Austrian, Lufthansa, EgyptAir and others.
ANA Mileage Club is a transfer partner of American Express Membership Rewards (1:1 transfer ratio) and Marriott Bonvoy (3:1 transfer ratio with a 5,000-mile bonus for every 60,000 points transferred).
American Airlines AAdvantage
The American Airlines AAdvantage program passes along fuel surcharges for partner award flights operated by several airlines, including British Airways and Iberia.
However, you won't pay fuel surcharges when redeeming American miles for flights operated by American Airlines or partners like Cathay Pacific and Finnair.
American AAdvantage is a transfer partner of Marriott Bonvoy (3:1 transfer ratio) and Bilt Rewards (1:1 transfer ratio). You can also use American Airlines credit cards to earn American miles quickly.
British Airways Executive Club
British Airways flights carry some of the highest and most egregious fuel surcharges of any airline. Fortunately, there's now a new reward option that offers lower fuel surcharges: Reward Flight Saver. This option is available on all British Airways-operated flights (and in every cabin except first class).
Of course, $200 of taxes and fees is still a lot to pay on a round-trip transatlantic economy-class award. So, consider all of your options before booking.
British Airways is a transfer partner of American Express Membership Rewards (1:1 transfer ratio), Bilt Rewards (1:1 transfer ratio), Capital One (1:1 transfer ratio), Chase Ultimate Rewards (1:1 transfer ratio) and Marriott Bonvoy (3:1 transfer ratio with a 5,000-mile bonus for every 60,000 points transferred). You can also earn British Airways Avios with the British Airways Visa Signature® Card.
The Delta SkyMiles program is probably best known for its lack of award charts. To make matters worse, you'll need to pay a carrier-imposed international surcharge for some awards that originate outside the U.S. For example, this award originating in Amsterdam carries a 120 euro (about $131) international surcharge.
Additionally, this award originating in Dubai carries a 50 United Arab Emirates dirham (about $14) international surcharge.
This award from Beirut, Lebanon, to Paris also carries a $45 carrier-imposed international surcharge.
These international surcharges may encourage you to book awards originating in the U.S. when redeeming Delta miles to avoid paying extra fees.
Know, though, that this carrier-imposed international surcharge doesn't appear on all Delta awards originating outside the U.S. For example, here's a TAROM-operated award that doesn't carry the surcharge:
There are likely many awards you can book with Delta miles that originate abroad and don't carry a carrier-imposed international surcharge. So, keep an eye out for these fees when redeeming Delta miles.
Delta SkyMiles is a transfer partner of American Express Membership Rewards (1:1 transfer ratio) and Marriott Bonvoy (3:1 transfer ratio). There are also numerous Delta credit cards that you can use to earn Delta SkyMiles.
Delta- and Aeromexico-operated flights have little (if any) fuel surcharges. However, Air France and KLM flights have modest fuel surcharges for economy-class tickets and much larger ones for business class.
Flying Blue is a transfer partner of American Express Membership Rewards (1:1 transfer ratio), Bilt Rewards (1:1 transfer ratio), Capital One (1:1 transfer ratio), Chase Ultimate Rewards (1:1 transfer ratio), Citi ThankYou Rewards (1:1 transfer ratio) and Marriott Bonvoy (3:1 transfer ratio with a 5,000-mile bonus for every 60,000 points transferred).
Singapore KrisFlyer does not impose fuel surcharges on its own flights. Likewise, it doesn't impose fuel surcharges on select partner awards, including those operated by Air New Zealand, Avianca and United.
However, Singapore KrisFlyer passes along fuel charges from most other partners, including Copa, ANA, Thai Airways and Lufthansa.
Singapore KrisFlyer is a transfer partner of American Express Membership Rewards (1:1 transfer ratio), Capital One (1:1 transfer ratio), Chase Ultimate Rewards (1:1 transfer ratio), Citi ThankYou Rewards (1:1 transfer ratio) and Marriott Bonvoy (3:1 transfer ratio with a 5,000-mile bonus for every 60,000 points transferred).
Virgin Atlantic Flying Club
Virgin Atlantic Flying Club does not add fuel surcharges to Delta award tickets.
That said, fuel surcharges are high on flights operated by Virgin Atlantic. For example, you'll pay more than $800 in taxes and fees on a transatlantic one-way business-class award ticket operated by Virgin Atlantic.
Virgin Atlantic Flying Club is a transfer partner of American Express Membership Rewards (1:1 transfer ratio), Bilt Rewards (1:1 transfer ratio), Chase Ultimate Rewards (1:1 transfer ratio), Citi ThankYou Rewards (1:1 transfer ratio) and Marriott Bonvoy (3:1 transfer ratio with a 5,000-point bonus for every 60,000 points transferred). You can also transfer Capital One miles to Virgin Red (1:1 transfer ratio).
Tips to avoid fuel surcharges
Whether you must pay a fuel surcharge depends on various factors, including the airline you fly, the loyalty program you book through and your routing. Luckily, there are several ways to avoid hefty carrier-imposed surcharges when booking an award ticket. Here are some simple strategies to use.
Consider all the different types of Avios
Earn rewards with transferable points programs
Several major rewards programs allow lucrative transfers of points to airline programs. These programs include:
- American Express Membership Rewards.
- Bilt Rewards.
- Capital One miles.
- Chase Ultimate Rewards.
- Citi ThankYou Rewards.
- Marriott Bonvoy.
The best thing about these programs is the flexibility. In particular, you can transfer rewards from these programs to a loyalty program that lets you book awards with minimal or no fuel surcharges.
Seek out destinations, origins and transit points with lower surcharges
There are many destinations where awards don't incur fuel surcharges. Additionally, some departure, destination and transit airports may unlock lower fees.
Ultimately, you should go where you want to go. However, it sometimes makes sense to position to a nearby country or transit through a different airport to minimize the fees you must pay on an award. In short, pick the one with lower fees if you're trying to decide between two otherwise equal options.
Travel on a carrier with low or no fuel surcharges
Even when a program does impose fuel surcharges, the cost can vary dramatically depending on which carrier operates the flights.
So, if the flight you want has high fuel surcharges through one loyalty program, check how much the fees would be through partner airlines. Especially if you have transferrable rewards that you can transfer to multiple partner airlines, it makes sense to price out your reward through each program before transferring any rewards.
Use a credit card that reimburses you for travel expenses
If you're stuck paying fuel surcharges on an award ticket, you can use the miles earned from these cards to cover the cost. This reduces your out-of-pocket expenses.
Other cards, like the Chase Sapphire Reserve, offer an annual credit for airfare or other travel purchases.
If you're flying British Airways, you can use the British Airways Visa Signature® Card to get up to $600 in surcharge rebates every year. Pay your award ticket taxes and fees with the card and you'll get a $100 statement credit for economy tickets or a $200 statement credit on business- and first-class tickets, up to 3 times per year, on flights to London.
Use reward points to pay for the airfare directly
Many transferrable currencies also offer the ability to redeem rewards directly for paid tickets through their travel portals. By doing so, you can book flights that don't have fuel surcharges (or already include the surcharge in the price) and earn frequent flyer rewards on your flights.
Redeeming rewards to book flights through a transferrable currency's travel portal usually won't offer the best redemption value. But doing so can help if you're trying to minimize the cash cost of your award travel — especially if your travel plans "force" you to take an airline that imposes fuel surcharges.
High fuel surcharges can significantly decrease your value when redeeming points and miles for airfare. But, as discussed in this article, avoiding or minimizing pesky fuel surcharges is usually possible.
Additional reporting by Ethan Steinberg, Ryan Smith, Katie Genter and Andrew Kunesh.
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