The cost of a 'free' ticket

While planning a trip to Poland using my frequent flier miles, I was reminded of how much a "free" trip can cost.

It is no surprise that using frequent flier miles isn’t completely free. Taxes must be paid, of course, lest we deprive any government of what it considers its due. Likewise, there is often a modest surcharge or processing fee. But there are often other charges that vary dramatically from one airline to another and from one political jurisdiction to another. Depending on where and which airlines you fly, those additional costs can be significant.

For my trip, I first considered using AAdvantage miles accrued with American Airlines (NYSE:AAL), which would have put me on flights operated by partner airline British Airways.

According to the AAdvantage website, my reservation would have included $161.10 for taxes and $516 for "Carrier-Imposed Fees," which an American Airlines representative told TheTravelPro was British Airways’ fuel surcharge that carrier assesses for all awards claimed for travel on British Airways - the "carrier charge" referred to on British Airways' website. Another representative said that flights to and through London Heathrow Airport (LHR) were among the most expensive in terms of taxes and fees.

Another unpleasant surprise was yet to come. British Airways has adopted the annoying, though increasingly common, practice of charging passengers who wish to reserve seats more than 24 hours in advance of their flight. Unwilling to risk being stuck in a middle seat for the 9-1/2 hour flight to London (LHR), I would have to pay $45 each way to reserve aisle seats in the center section of the Boeing (NYSE:BA) 777 I'd be riding.

For the short(er) flights to and from Warsaw (WAW), I would have rolled the dice and waited until the day before the flight. Had I decided to book those seats too, I would have paid at least $23 each way.

Adding it all up, it would have cost $767.10 for my "free" ticket, not counting the $20 in travel insurance I opted to purchase. Fortunately, checked-bag fees were not a factor as this was overseas travel (as if I will actually check a bag in any case).

Not all award travel is that expensive, of course. My decision to use my accrued United Airlines (NYSE:UAL) MileagePlus miles for the round-trip ticket from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA) to Warsaw’s Frederic Chopin Airport (WAW) showed how much more economical certain routes and carriers can be. Traveling on Lufthansa via Frankfurt, Germany (FRA), it cost $119.20 in addition to the accrued miles -- a savings of almost $650, which is not insignificant.

According to my receipt, the $119.20 I was charged comprised $23.10 for the U.S. Customs, Immigration and APHIS user fees and the September 11th security fee; $80 for Germany Airport security and passenger service charges; and $16.10 for the Poland passenger service charge and airport tax.

As an added bonus, I was able to reserve my seats without charge; all it took was a quick call to Lufthansa and a chat with a helpful customer service agent. As is my standard practice, I consulted prior to the call to be sure I knew which seats were considered poor. Armed with that information, I was able to be specific about which seats I preferred.

The take-aways here are that, even when using frequent flier miles for a free ticket, shop around and, unless the U.K. is your chosen destination or stop-over point, you’ll save money by flying directly to the European continent.

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