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On the Spot: The cost of frequent flier miles

Some tips on how to minimize the high fees that can come with frequent flier miles.

December 25, 2011|By Catharine Hamm, Los Angeles Times
  • When you book an award ticket, you almost always have to pay something.
When you book an award ticket, you almost always have to pay something. (Reuben Munoz / Los Angeles…)

Question: When are airline tickets that are paid for with frequent flier miles not free?

Answer: Almost never, but some tickets, booked on certain carriers, are almost as expensive as a trip to the North Pole.

This question, a composite of three recent letters, including one in today's Letters column, highlights a growing concern among travelers who pay for tickets with awards points: They do the work to accumulate enough for a ticket, and when they book it, they discover some amazingly high fees, sometimes under the label of a fuel surcharge. In recent months, we've received complaints about those charges on British Airways, Air France, Air Canada and AeroMexico, which gets its own update at the end of this column.

When you book an award ticket, you almost always have to pay something — often a ticketing service charge, plus taxes. But now certain foreign carriers are tacking on fuel surcharges, suggesting again there is no such thing as a free airline lunch. "British Airways probably leads the pack in terms of fees," said Brian Kelly, who turned his frequent-flier miles expertise into a business and a website known as ThePointsGuy.com. "I once helped people book Toronto to Nairobi [Kenya] via London, and taxes and fees were $1,250 per ticket…. That was for a first-class seat, but oftentimes the fuel surcharges can cost as much as if you just bought the ticket with cash."

What is a budget traveler to do? "Generally, if you book with an American carrier, you will avoid huge fuel surcharges," Kelly said. And he, added, "If you have British Airways miles, you can avoid these fees by using them on Oneworld partners like American Airlines and LAN on non-European routes." (Oneworld is an airline alliance; to see the partners, go to http://www.oneworld.com.)

Kelly also recommends that "people accrue transferable points [through] Chase Ultimate Rewards, American Express Membership Rewards or even Starwood Preferred Guest. These programs give you the option to transfer to multiple different partners so you always have the flexibility of using a partner that charges less [in] fees for the trip you want to take."

Which brings me to the final update on a trip that reader J.A. Rogers of Long Beach wanted to take. We first wrote about Rogers' woes with AeroMexico on Aug. 28. Using Marriott Reward points, he booked two round-trip tickets from LAX to Santiago, Chile, and was dinged $672 for each ticket. When I asked AeroMexico why, airline reps said they couldn't respond for "legal reasons" but that the airline would work with him to make his trip "more affordable." After much back and forth, he received a reply in early December upgrading him to business class for his trouble, which he said was an acceptable outcome.

But I was still curious about the machinations behind this, so I again contacted AeroMexico with copies of Rogers' emails and On the Spot columns and received a reply from executive customer service that said, "In order to provide you a better service and in relation to any doubt you have referring to our department, I will kindly ask you to send them t[h]ru email so we will be able to offer you a better and precise answer. Thank you for your time and have a nice day."

I wasn't sure what that meant, so I contacted the company that does public relations for AeroMexico and asked, among other things, if there was a better way to work with the airline on matters of customer service. Here was the response: "AeroMexico complies to and is consistent with airline industry policies. Mr. Rogers was assisted in accordance to these policies through our Customer Service Department which searched for all options available to respond to this matter."

If all the options involved delays and obfuscation, I'd say that was a job well done.

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

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