Don’t make the mistake of an expensive "free" ticket!

expensive free

I had a friend who wanted to start collecting and using miles, but then almost immediately got turned off from the idea when her ticket to Europe ended up costing nearly as much as a revenue ticket would have.  Huge disappointment.

This exact problem is why I think the complex world of fuel surcharges is the first thing a budget traveler should learn about if they are interested in using miles and points to save on travel.

Because the reality is you could have the same miles as someone else and spend $500 on your “free ticket” instead of $0 just because you didn’t know about booking intentionally to avoid fuel surcharges.  You see, some mileage programs include these fuel surcharge fees on award tickets and some do not.

If you use United miles to redeem a Lufthansa ticket, you’re fine, but if you use Lufthansa miles to redeem a United ticket (outside of the Americas)…that will have fuel surcharges.

Confusing, right?

To navigate through the challenge of fuel surcharges, you have to start with this basic question.

Does the mileage program you’re using pass on fuel surcharges?

If not…

…then you pretty much have nothing to worry about and this is the best case scenario.  United Airlines for instance does not pass on fuel surcharges to their award tickets.  American Airlines also is practically in this category, (though for whatever reason they do pass on fuel surcharges for flights redeemed with British Airways/Iberia).

If yes…

… then you have to do some research as to which partners in the alliance of that mileage program do not have significant fuel surcharges to pass on in the first place.


You must also know that most of the airlines with worth-while mileage programs are part of an alliance.  This basically means that the airlines in an alliance help sell flights for one another but also offer a broad range of redemptions too.  If you collect United Airlines miles, you can redeem those miles for flights with anyone in the Star Alliance (like Lufthansa, THAI, Singapore, etc.)

So really, we have to know three things.

Whose miles are we using, what alliance is that mileage program a part of, and with what partner airline will we be redeeming those miles?


Star Alliance

If you are collecting miles with United, Avianca, TACA, or US Airways (soon to be part of One World Alliance), you don’t need to worry about it because they don’t pass on fuel surcharges to award tickets.

But if you are collecting miles with Air Canada and Lufthansa, mileage programs that DO pass on fuel surcharges, you will want to book tickets on these low-to-no fuel surcharge partner airlines:

1.) Air NewZealand

2.) Avianca

3.) TACA

4.) TAM

5.) US Airways

6.) United (within the Americas)

One World

If you are collecting miles with American Airlines, you pretty much don’t have to worry about it, except when redeeming on British Airways.

But if you are collecting miles with Air Berlin or British Airways, you’ll want to redeem on one of the low-to-no fuel surcharge partner airlines:

1.) Air Berlin

2.) American Airlines (within the Americas)

3.) Iberia

4.) LAN

Sky Team

If you are collecting miles with Alitalia, Delta, KLM, or Korean Air, try to book on one of the low-to–no fuel surcharge partner airlines:

1.) AeroMexico

2.) Saudia


While this post can serve as a bit of a reference for you, you will also find an even more extensive post about airline alliances, fuel surcharges, and frequent flyer miles on Drew’s site.

Really though all of this talk about fuel surcharges just reiterates my affinity for American Airline miles and United Miles.  It’s all well and good to educate yourself on where to redeem your miles to avoid the fuel surcharges, but what do you do when the partner with the low fuel surcharge doesn’t have any availability for your desired destination?  AA and United earn major brownie points in my mind simply for making a free ticket so much more likely.  An actually free ticket.  Not a free ticket that suddenly has a steep fee tacked on.



8 Comments on “Don’t make the mistake of an expensive "free" ticket!

  1. Grrr. Pet peeve. No such thing as a “free” award ticket. There are almost always costs involved – from annual fees, fees from manufactured spend, taxes etc etc.

    Best way to accurately describe these tickets is as “award” tickets. Some are lower cost than others. Damn few, if any, are “free”.

    As such, you do a disservice to everyone by using “free” in front of any type of award ticket/award night. And you know better.

    • 1.) We don’t often pay for annual fees as most cards can be downgraded
      2.) We never book flights with fuel surcharges
      3.) We don’t pay for manufactured spending
      And even if we did, there are people actually making a PROFIT on manufactured spending. So there are people on the other spectrum who are saying we’re doing a disservice to imply that these things AREN’T not only free but profitable.

      So that leaves airport fees, but if someone was worried about that, they could use the Barclay World Arrival Card to get such fees reimbursed.

      Now, one thing I will agree with you on though is that travel will always cost you SOMETHING, even if not money. As I always say, “If you can spare a minute, you can’t spare a dime, cause you can’t have both money and time.” If you truly want a free ticket, I do honestly believe it’s possible though I will never lie to someone about the hard work and tedious time it requires. If it’s free, it’s not easy. If it’s easy, it’s not free. 🙂

      Thanks for your comment and I’d love to hear from others if they feel similarly as I’m sure it’s something other readers are thinking.

  2. I often get overwhelmed by the choices that are available and how to figure out what miles to use when. It is frustrating to know that perfect vacations can be planned especially because it seems so easy reading trip reports but as a hobbyist I lack the knowledge to make the *best* decision. Something I am struggling with right now: I live in Boston but have family in London. AA has a great off peak award that I can use but I can only go for a long weekend so I don’t have time to travel to another country to beat the departure taxes. Plus, if I want to get a free one way to Hawaii in Nov., the only routing AA seems to offer is on direct BA flights to Boston along with the attendant fuel surcharges. So it works out to 80k miles in economy along with 997 in fees for BOS-LHR-BOS-KOA. Is that a good deal? Raises more questions for me about miles valuation, should I save the miles for a better redemption later as AA miles are hard to come by, should I give up the free one way and save about $500 etc etc. I love travel and this game but sometimes It feels like I am just chasing my tail so I can easily imagine how people might get frustrated very easily.

    P.S. Is there some way to subscribe to a post when new comments are posted?

    • First of all thank you very much for your comment and sorry it took me a few days to get to my comments!

      Here are a few ideas to try to ditch that BA fuel surcharge by adding some connections that will increase your travel time but don’t need to lengthen your trip all that much. I think there is a BOS to Paris flight on American Airlines and then you could connect to LHR on a BA flight (which would lessen your fees) or fly from Boston on Iberia through Madrid which would also have cheaper fees.

      That would be something to try and always feel free to ask an agent to help you if you know the partners you’re aiming to fly with (or avoid).

      I definitely understand the feeling that you’re chasing your tail. There is something to be said for the difference in approach one might have if they have more time than they do money vs. a person who may have some margin for flexibility with money rather than time. I can spare time more than I can money, so I will tend to choose a complex route that saves me money over a direct route that saves me time. But I realize that a person with a different situation may approach the decision differently, and rightly so.

      Having said that, it’s always worth a little bit of investigation to see if you can save time AND/OR money, but ultimately there is a learning curve and if you’re using your miles, hey, you’ve gotten some travel out of it. It’s ok to make decisions that aren’t the most miles-frugal or the most money-frugal as it’s all relative to what you’re able to invest, be it time or money.

      Perhaps one of the suggestions above will work for lessening that BA surcharge, but if not, then it’s just a matter of whether or not that Hawaii flight is worth the extra money for you or not. I would probably shake it and assume I’d find a different trick for Hawaii later, but that’s just me.

      Also I’m not real sure how my rss works, but I think it sends an email every time the comments are updated….not sure but I think so.

      Thanks again for your comment and don’t hesitate to say so if I’ve misunderstood the question in any way.

  3. Great post Carrie! I’ve been reading Drew’s blog for the past few months and some of the posts are way to advance. This one is clear and to the point, perfect for a beginner.

    • Thanks so much! I speak beginner because in many ways I am a beginner. 🙂

  4. I enjoyed reading your blogs and many others. How else we can fly for free and do all the research. Keep up the good work. I love this cat and mouse game with the airlines and hotels.

    • Great to hear you’re enjoying the hobby as well as the blogs! Thank you so much!

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