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Why Does a British Airways Award Ticket Cost $500?

Dear Tim—

I am a regular reader of your emails and have benefited much from your advice. Now I have a concern regarding fees or taxes imposed when flying through London on British Airways and using frequent flyer miles. I have sufficient miles to fly from Texas to South Africa and was told this morning by a less than communicative BA customer representative (and after an extremely long hold) that I may incur charges as high as $600-700 for such a trip. It required a number of questions before he volunteered that the amount changes daily and that it is contingent upon the destination.

If this is indeed the case, then it is hardly worth my while traveling on miles and possibly subjecting myself to less than desirable schedules and connections.

I’d greatly appreciate if you can find out if the information given to me is correct.


Dear Ingrid—

While it may be no consolation, yours is a common complaint.

In stark contrast to the great majority of U.S. carriers, British Airways imposes fuel surcharges for award tickets, which, as you’ve discovered, can amount to hundreds of dollars and seriously undermine the value of frequent flyer miles earned in the Executive Club program.

British Airways’ current fees chart (which you’ll have to log in to with your Executive Club credentials to view) shows fuel surcharges from the western U.S., including Dallas, to London ranging from $156 for coach to $220 for first class, each way. Those numbers could change at any time, according to the website, to “reflect the fluctuating price of worldwide oil.”

Fuel Surcharge Shock and Awe

I can’t speak for citizens of Great Britain, but I’ve heard from many Americans who were not only incensed by the fees, but blindsided by them as well. No wonder.

In the U.S., fuel surcharges haven’t been a significant factor in airline pricing since oil prices backed off their high of $147.27 a barrel on July 11, 2008. So British Airways’ policy is likely to come as a shock.

Exacerbating the problem, British Airways has done a decidedly halfhearted job of making customers aware of the fees.

Case in point: Even though I was well aware of their fuel surcharges, it took me almost 30 minutes of searching British Airways’ website to find the page where the fees are published.

Where Do You Go From Here?

Having confirmed that award flights on British Airways flights would indeed require significant cash co-payments, mostly for fuel surcharges, the next step was to look for less pricey alternatives.

Since the British Airways website is notably unhelpful in explaining which fees apply to award flights on partner airlines, I called the U.S. Executive Club service center. The agent verified that the fees for an award flight to Johannesburg would be between $400 and $500, mostly fuel surcharges.

When I expressed surprise that the cash cost would be so high, she explained that the fees were tantamount to a “luxury tax” because the miles were “a gift, and taxed as a bonus.” One hopes that she’s not expressing British Airways’ official position on the issue, as the travel consumers I know would argue that their frequent flyer miles were bought and paid for—not an entitlement, but hardly a gift.

When pressed for more cost-effective options for redeeming Executive Club miles, the agent rather reluctantly suggested domestic flights on American or Alaska Airlines, which could be had without fuel surcharges.

The irony of earning miles on a self-proclaimed global airline only to find oneself forced to redeem them for domestic flights was not, I suspect, lost on her.

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