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On the Spot: What you should know about travel rewards programs

Thinking about using hotel points for an airline ticket? You could be hit with high surcharges, as one Long Beach couple discovered with an international flight.

August 28, 2011|By Catharine Hamm, Los Angeles Times Travel editor
(Reuben Munoz / Los Angeles…)

Question: My wife and I and another couple plan to meet this winter in Santiago, Chile. Our friends used credit card points to book their airfare with American Airlines, departing from Portland, Ore. They were charged $55 per ticket for taxes and fees. We used Marriott points for two tickets from Los Angeles to Santiago, booking through Aeromexico. I was stunned to be charged $672 per ticket for taxes and fees. Last year, we used Marriott points for a flight to Sydney, Australia, on Qantas and were charged about $70 per ticket for taxes and fees.

John Rogers

Long Beach

Answer: Two things to know immediately: Taxes and fees can add a lot to a ticket, but usually not that much; and don't blame Marriott.

When I booked a sample flight from LAX to Santiago, for an arbitrary date, the taxes and fees amounted to less than $90, so I asked Aeromexico what the charge was about. Through its representative, the airline refused to tell me, citing "legal reasons" and saying only that it would contact Rogers to see if it could make the trip "more affordable" for him.

Absent any intelligent information from the airline, I turned to a frequent-flier expert for help. "Many international carriers charge a fuel surcharge on award tickets," said Darcie Mankell, associate editor of InsiderFlyer, which focuses on the frequent traveler. "The fuel surcharge can easily be hundreds of dollars, so the majority of the $672 can most likely be attributed to that."

To know for sure, check out the receipt for your ticket, which sometimes breaks down the charges. "The 'YQ' code is often used to designate a fuel surcharge," Mankell said.

Indeed, a couple of respondents on InsideFlyer forums say they have paid more than $500 in fuel surcharges for their awards tickets on Aeromexico.

Don't count on a rewards program to alert you to such issues. It boils down to control — as in who has it. And it's not generally the program whose specialty (hotel rooms) isn't what you're buying (airline seats). "When the member redeems points for miles, Marriott Rewards basically buys the miles for the member from the airlines," said Laurie Goldstein of Marriott Rewards. "Then the member redeems the points for the airline tickets. Any fees and taxes are up to the airline.

"It is up to the member to ask about any fees and other expenses before they book with the airlines."

The issue of awards travel can be and often is fraught with frustration: Still, you are getting something for nothing — or, in Rogers' case, half-price. (When I checked the fare, it was about $1,370 for that LAX-Santiago ticket, about double what Rogers was paying.)

Hotel rewards programs were developed along the lines of airline programs, but they aren't exactly the same, said Tim Winship, publisher of FrequentFlier.com.

For example, American Airlines "owns the planes and the seats on the plane," he said. "They can make a unilateral decision from a corporate standpoint to make seats available on this flight or that flight." Not so with hotels.

"The general rule," Winship said, "is that you get better value for your miles or points if you are redeeming for airline flights in an airline program and for hotel rooms in a hotel program, just because that's their own 'loyalty currency'.... If you redeem your hotel points for an airline ticket, then you should … [ask] yourself whether that's the best value that you can possibly get from those points."

Have a travel dilemma? Write to travel@latimes.com. We regret we cannot answer every inquiry.

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