Fuel surcharges can increase the cash price of an award booking by quite a bit. Most airlines charge these pesky surcharges on their cash tickets, but not all airlines charge them for award bookings, whether on their own flight or a partners' flight. So before booking an award, it can be helpful to know how big of a surcharge is involved to avoid any surprises.
What are fuel surcharges?
Airlines began charging fuel surcharges many years ago following a steep increase in the price of oil, which affected the cost of airline fuel. Sadly, airlines continued to charge this fee even after oil prices declined. But some airlines do have their fuel surcharges fluctuate every so often based on then-prevailing oil prices.
Surcharges come from the carrier itself (the airline on whose plane you'll fly). But not all airline pass those on to customers when redeeming miles for an award flight. So to know whether your award booking will include surcharges, you need to know both whether the carrier charges them, and whether the program through which you're booking passes surcharges along on award bookings.
For example, TAP Air Portugal does not charge fuel surcharges on its award flights, regardless of which program you use to book. So if you're booking a flight with TAP, you don't need to worry whether the loyalty program you're using passes on fuel surcharges, because there aren't any surcharges in the first place.
On the other hand, if Lufthansa charges hefty surcharges on its award flights. So to book an award flight with Lufthansa, you want to use a program that does not pass on fuel surcharges, such as United, Aeroplan, or LifeMiles. And you'll want to avoid those airlines that do pass on surcharges, like ANA.
How to check fuel surcharges on a flight
Our favorite resource for this is the ITA Matrix by Google. This is a powerful search engine that actually serves as the search engine behind Google Flights. But the ITA Matrix a lot more tools and functions than Google Flights, including the ability to view fuel surcharges.
ITA Matrix can help you search by route, aircraft, connecting airports, fare class, etc.
To find out the cost of a fuel surcharge on the ITA Matrix, just search for the flight you want. Let's say you found business class award availability from Chicago (ORD) to Zurich (ZRH) on Swiss. Before booking, you want to check whether the award will have any fuel surcharges.
To check on ITA Matrix, just search for the flight you want on their homepage. When you find the flight, it'll show you a breakdown of the taxes, fees, and surcharges included in that ticket. For this one-way business class flight from ORD to ZRH, you'll see that the actual fare is around $3,000, with almost $1,000 in additional fees, including fuel surcharges (codes YQ and YR).
Here, the fuel surcharges add up to $868.50 for this flight. So if we were to book this award through an airline that passes on fuel surcharges on award tickets, like ANA, we can expect to pay at least $868.50 in cash along with the redemption. Let's see if this hypothesis holds true.
Searching on ANA, we find this exact same flight on Swiss. Since ANA only allows round-trip award bookings, we tacked on a return flight on the same route. Here is how ANA priced this round-trip award: 88,000 miles roundtrip + JPY 262,730 ($1,781). That's very few miles, but a lot of cash for an award booking.
Assuming the surcharges are roughly equal for each way, we can estimate that a one-way award would incur about $890.50 in fees/surcharges.
Meanwhile, let's see what Aeroplan would charge for this same flight:
Aeroplan charges a lot more miles (70,000 one-way), but only $47 in cash. This is because Aeroplan, like United and LifeMiles, does not pass on fuel surcharges.
Would you spend $890 to save 26,000 miles on an award? Most of us probably wouldn't.
It's important to know what you're getting into with an award booking. The ITA Matrix is an easy tool to show the amount of surcharges involved in your award booking. Learning which airlines pass on fuel surcharges and which do not can also save you a lot of time and cash when booking you're next award flight.
Do you use the ITA Matrix to check fuel surcharges? Come join the discussion in our Facebook group!