Using frequent flyer miles doesn’t mean it’s free

My hometown of Nashville recently gained a non-stop flight to London Heathrow on British Airways which is nice in so many ways and many folks may think that’s a great way to redeem their frequent flyer miles…but is it really?

Let’s say you have 60,000 American AAdvantage miles and are ready to splurge on a trip to London. You log into your AAdvantage account on, plug in dates that will work for you, check the Redeem miles box and hit Search.

The website returns the full week of results.

Since we only want to deal with days that have the non-stop available, change both of the drop-down boxes to Non-stop only. Select the days you’re interested in and click Continue.

The results are displayed with the non-stop at the top of the list. You select the non-stop both for the outbound and the return, then click on Continue at the bottom of the page.

The shock comes when you get to this next page:

No, it’s not that they’re trying to get you to sign up for their credit card, it’s that your “free” plane ticket is going to cost you $530!!! What’s going on?

Taxes and Fees

If you’ve ever used frequent flyer miles for award seats on a domestic flight you’ve been charged some nominal amount labeled a September 11th fee and it’s usually $5.60 per segment with a maximum amount of $11.20, no matter how many segments you fly. So you might expect to have to pay a nominal amount for an international flight but $500 is likely more than you expected.

Let’s look at the cost of this flight if you’d paid cash for it. The site is the pre-cursor to Google Flights and it has some very cool features. Enter the same flight information and you see that this flight costs $947.31 but even better, it shows you what charges make up that fare:

As you can see, the actual charge for the airfare is only $417 ($208.50 each way). The rest of the charges are for various taxes and fees. The two big charges are the Fuel Surcharge (YQ) of $300 and the UK Air Passenger Duty APD (GB) of $106.  (If you’re looking at other airlines, the fuel surcharges might be coded as YR instead.)

By listing the cost of fuel as a “surcharge” rather than part of the fare, British Airways is allowed to pass on that cost to award tickets. Same for the APD, which is a charge at Heathrow Airport that is calculated based on the distance a plane is flies after leaving Heathrow before it touches down. So flights to Ireland and mainland Europe will have cheaper APD charges.

If you add together everything but the two fare lines of $208.50 each, you’ll get $530.31. So BA is passing all of those to you when you want to use your miles, whether using American AAdvantage miles or BA’s own Avios.

What about Business Class?

So now you may be thinking: yes, $530 + 60K miles is a lot to pay for an economy flight, but $530 + 115K miles might not be too bad for a business class flight. Hold your horses. Not only are those fuel surcharge and APD fees still imposed, but if you’re flying in a premium cabin, those fees and surcharges are increased.

You’ll be charged nearly $1300 for the pleasure of burning your 115K AAdvantage miles. $956 of that is the fuel surcharge and $211.90 is the APD fee.

This is one reason folks who are experienced about booking flights with miles avoid British Airways for long haul flights.  So if you were planning to use your AA miles for this purpose, I’d suggest it’s a better deal NOT to do that.

Got questions? Let me know in the comments below.

Categories: Advice, American Airlines, British Airways, OneWorld | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

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