Frequent-flier miles have taken me around the world. African safaris, a snorkeling trip on the Great Barrier Reef, a Baltic Sea cruise and treks in the Himalayas have all been possible thanks to airfare paid with miles.
So it was a shock when a group of fellow elite-mileage travelers and I recently went to book flights for a cruise and found that that the “taxes and carrier fees” on the flights we wanted were as costly as the co-pay on an out-of-network medical claim.
The good news: Mileage tickets to Rome via American’s One World partnership were available for the mid-summer cruise we’d planned. Bad news: The “taxes and fee” tariff was $700. Buying the ticket outright was only a few hundred dollars more.
American Express miles — which can be applied to Delta’s SkyMiles program and SkyTeam members — wouldn’t help us either. Seats were available there as well — for a whopping 110,000 miles.
What was happening? Were my days of globetrotting over?
Not exactly, said Tim Winship, who runs the website FrequentFlier.com. The basic strategy I’ve used throughout the years does still work, he confirmed. I book as far head as possible, call the airline instead of relying on the Internet alone, and keep trying until I can snag something that works. I’m flexible about dates and don’t cringe at paying for a night in an airport hotel — a worthwhile trade for an air ticket worth thousands.
But in recent years, many mileage programs have introduced rule changes, tiered award charts and a la carte fees that have shifted the options. Among the wrinkles:
• Taxes and fees: Government-imposed taxes and fees are unavoidable and can be steep, reaching as much as $200 per economy ticket on flights leaving from London’s Heathrow Airport.
Other fees vary by airline. For instance, though I was using American’s website to book my Rome award tickets, the available flights I was seeing were on British Airways. It and some other foreign carriers have levied “fuel surcharges” — which accounted for the whopping $700 fee on those tickets to Rome.
Countermeasures: Book early enough (330 days in advance typically is your first opportunity) to snag tickets on an airline that doesn’t levy the surcharge. Call the airline booking desk directly and often; they can sometimes come up with options you won’t see online. And if at first you don’t find what you want, keep checking back.
• Upgrades: If you’ve been flying long enough, you remember the years when you could buy an economy seat and use miles to upgrade to business or first class. Now many programs will charge you those miles PLUS a “co-pay” that can run into hundreds of dollars for an international flight.
The exception: Some airline programs will let you upgrade for free if you’ve purchased a “full-fare” economy class ticket. United Airlines, part of the Star Alliance, has shifted its upgrade policy to allow miles-only upgrades to a wider range of economy-class tickets and reduced the mileage required when you do have a co-pay.
On American, elite fliers may qualify for free upgrades, but that works only in the continental United States, and passengers with a higher status than you have claim first rights on those seats.