How much is your “free” award ticket costing you?

It can be fun to dream about cashing in all those frequent flyer miles that you have been saving. That’s the day that your dedication to your favored airline will finally pay off in a free flight to somewhere fabulous.

But will your ticket really be free? No.

Unfortunately, the reality of redeeming frequent flyer miles is often much less of a dream and much more like a traveler’s nightmare.

Trying to find available dates to your desired location for your family can often prove impossible. Add to that the sticker shock of the final cost of these “free” tickets, and you will quickly understand why most travelers don’t easily win this airline vs. consumer game.

Jane Wade recently contacted us because her husband found out the hard way that these award tickets aren’t free.

“My husband booked a United flight online from Fort Lauderdale to Cleveland,” she told us. “When he went to purchase the ticket on the payment screen using the mileage from my account, he was charged a $75 ‘close-in fee’ along with the expected taxes. This appears to be one more way that the airlines are ripping off their customers with ridiculous fees. Why?”

And her desired resolution presented to our advocacy team was: “To eliminate the practice of charging ridiculous fees for transactions where no human beings are involved.”

I thought that might be a tall order and a little too far-reaching for us today, but Wade asks an interesting question. Are all these fees really necessary?

When I reviewed the terms of usage for the MileagePlus Program I noted that this $75 fee is tacked on to any award ticket if the member does not have special status and the flight is within 21 days.

Unfortunately for Wade’s husband, he booked his ticket 19 days before the flight. Those two days past United’s arbitrary cutoff cost him $75.

This fee is by no means the only fee that could be attached to your “free” ticket. On its website United includes a chart that will help you understand some of the costs involved when redeeming those miles.

Wade’s husband did save himself an additional fee by booking online without any of that human involvement that she had mentioned. Complicated reservations that require a United representative will incur a $25 fee on top of any other charges.

And there are other fees as well. Expect to pay heftier fees if your plans change and you need to cancel, redeposit your miles or modify your plans. A quick look at their fee chart shows that United will charge a passenger $75 to $125 to redeposit their miles.

So this type of program that was set up ostensibly to reward loyal customers appears to be a thriving source of financial gain for the airline. This seems to be the best answer to Wade’s original question of “why?”

But beyond these types of airline-imposed fees, there are other costs involved in redeeming your miles that you should know about: the taxes and airport fees. These are non-negotiable, vary by destination and cabin class, and can add hundreds of dollars to the final cost of your award ticket.

Some award.

The United Kingdom, for example, is notorious for its high airport fees, which must be paid in dollars and not miles. So if you choose to redeem your miles and fly off to Merrie Olde England, your ticket will be even less free.

In fact, the U.K. imposes two types of taxes on your flight from the U.S. to England: Air Passenger Duty, which is around $100 per economy ticket ($200 for a premium ticket), and a passenger surcharge, which will add another $53 to your ticket regardless of cabin.

By comparison, a roundtrip flight to England’s neighbor, Ireland, will only incur a fraction of those mandatory taxes (approximately $50).

If you are trying to get the best value out of your frequent flyer miles with your preferred airline, the best way to do so is to book early and choose your destination carefully. Make sure to check the airport fees for your desired location. You may want to consider getting a little creative with your trip planning and avoid highly taxed destinations.

Don’t forget, if your destination is international, the U.S. also imposes a departure tax on your outgoing flight and another tax when you return.

Regrettably, we could not resolve Wade’s global concern about some of the frivolous charges that are attached to these award tickets. But we hope that, with a little pre-planning and awareness of these fees, you can take full advantage of your frequent flyer program and avoid some of the “gotcha charges” when redeeming your miles.

Should award tickets be completely free?

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