Minimizing Fees & Taxes on Awards
If you've spent any time searching for frequent-flyer reward flights, you've probably wondered why a "free" ticket costs so much? In this section, you'll learn how fees and taxes apply to award tickets, and how to keep them as low as possible.
Taxes and Airport Fees
There's nothing more frustrating than paying for something that's supposed to be free, but many airline programs believe that a "free award ticket" means the airfare is the only part that's free. As a result, virtually any airport you pass through will levy at least some combination of airport fees, local taxes etc..
This is determined by the countries and/or the individual airports involved, rather than by the airline, and even the highest airport fees rarely exceed $20-30, but once national taxes get into the mix, it's often worth planning your route to avoid the worst of these.
Among the worst examples are France and the United Kingdom, both of whom charge considerable taxes, particularly on passengers departing in premium cabins, regularly running well into hundreds of dollars per passenger, up to $382 CAD per person for a first-class departure from London.
For example, on a holiday from Canada to Europe, flying *into* London doesn't add much tax, but on that First-class example above, departure taxes from the United Kingdom are so high that you'd save about $250 per person by taking a 2-hour high-speed train from King's Cross Station to Brussels and flying home from there, rather than taking even public transport to Heathrow and flying home from there.
Simply by being smart about departure taxes, you're effectively earning $250 per person, per hour! That's obviously an extreme example, but it shows the value of watching this closely.
Please note that this article is focused on Aeroplan, long known for its bafflingly inconsistent fuel surcharges. As of November 8, 2020, new awards should have all fuel surcharges removed, though tickets booked under the old rules will still apply. I'm leaving that portion of the article in place until the majority of passengers booked under the old rules have finished those trips.
Each airline program around the globe decides whether or not to add a "fuel surcharge" to award tickets. This idea started back when oil was over $100 a barrel, but when fuel prices went down, some airlines just decided to keep the fees in place and pocket the money. Gross. Since then, a few governments around the world have set limits on these fees, but those are few and far between. The good news is, a little information can help you avoid - or at least minimize - the airlines' fees. For example, I'm writing this article while on an award trip from Chicago to Bali. By choosing to fly United and EVA instead of Air Canada and Thai Airways, my trip took four hours longer door to door, but I brought the taxes and fees on a one-way business-class ticket from $593 down to $44. Who Charges Which Fees: The Good, The Bad and The Greedy The main trick to minimizing fees is to choose your airlines carefully. Some charge no fees at all, while others are so exorbitant as to make your miles essentially worthless when booking an economy-class ticket! For example, on an Economy round-trip from Toronto to Paris, Air Canada wants $646 in fees. Or, you could save the 60,000 miles and buy the same seat. on the same flight, for $805 cash. If you instead fly United, Toronto-Newark-Paris, the fees come down to about $200 round trip, adding about three hours to your trip. It's a drag, but on the other hand you're effectively making $150/hr to sit on a plane and watch movies. The Good: Low/No Fees: - Aegean Airlines - Air India - Air New Zealand - Avianca - Brussels Airlines - COPA - Croatia Airlines - EVA Air - Egyptair - Ethiopian Airline - Juneyao Airlines - SAS - Shenzhen Airlines - Singapore Airlines - South African Airlines - Swiss Air - Turkish Airlines - United The Bad: Medium Fees, But Still Worth A Look - Air Canada flights to/from Asia - Air Canada flights within North/South America - Air China - All Nippon Airways (ANA) - Asiana - LOT Polish Airlines - TAP Air Portugal - Thai Airways The Greedy: So Bad It's Ridiculous - Air Canada to/from Europe, Africa, Australia - Austrian Airlines - Lufthansa
Where this gets *really* bizarre is that if you book a trip from Montreal to Zurich to Paris on Air Canada and Swiss Air, using Aeroplan points, Aeroplan will levy a fuel surcharge on the Air Canada flight, but not the Swiss flight.
If you book the exact same flights using ANA miles instead of Aeroplan, then ANA will levy a fuel surcharge on the Swiss flight, but not the Air Canada flight. When Searching For Flights... This is another reason I recommend avoiding the Aeroplan website when searching for flights. It's programmed to always show you as many Air Canada options as possible, but often won't show many (or any) lower-fee options, even if those flights have tons of space.
Instead, search one leg at a time on the United website. Anything that shows up as a "saver award" in economy, business or first class, can be booked by calling an Aeroplan agent. Tips And Tricks When it comes down to actually booking a trip like Calgary-Zurich, the hard part is that the only Aeroplan flights from Calgary to Europe are on Air Canada and Lufthansa, both of which have huge fees. This gets better if you fly Calgary to Montreal, where your low-fee options to Europe include Turkish and Swiss, but once you're looking at connecting through the East Coast, I find it useful to check connections through Newark and Chicago, both of which have a wide range of low-fee options to Europe on Swiss, Turkish and United. It's a bit of a drag to fly out of your way like this, but it can save you hundreds of dollars per ticket, so you're effectively paying yourself $50-100 per hour to do a little extra flying.