Martin Millican had been hoarding Aeroplan points from business travel and expenses in order to book a 'boy's trip' to Edinburgh for himself and his son Spencer. But when Millican - a Toronto entrepreneur and co-owner of lead generation and software services company Envoke - checked the Aeroplan site, the tickets were going to cost him 60,000 points each (the equivalent of four trips to New York City), plus $780 in taxes and surcharges per ticket.
That made the tickets only $373 each cheaper than the $1,153 advertised on Air Canada's web site. When Millican looked at the fine print, he found there was a $473 fee per ticket due to the higher cost of fuel.
"They put in this arbitrary fee they call a fuel surcharge," he said. "This is neither fish nor fowl. It's not a tax and it's completely up to their discretion. That's a lot of money for a 'free' ticket."
Millican ended up paying for the tickets to Europe out of his own pocket (KLM offered flights for $1,050). He used some of his Aeroplan points to fly himself, his business partner and six full-time employees to Calgary (for a ski trip in Banff) at a cost of only $1,100 or so for the lot. "For some reason, there seemed to be no fuel surcharge attached to those flights," he said.
Patrick Sojka, chief executive of FrequentFlyerBonuses.com and RewardsCanada.ca, says such surcharges are a fact of life for members of Canada's two best-known travel reward programs - Aeroplan and Air Miles. Other airline programs charge them too, including Lufthansa and British Airways. Most began to levy the fees in 2008 when the fuel price spiked to about US$145 a barrel. Although it has since dropped, the charges remain, at least on some routes.
What really irks people, is when you book a flight through a travel agency or airline, the fuel surcharge is incorporated into the base ticket price. But when you book through a points plan, the surcharge is often charged separately, and you can't use your points to pay for it. "We get lots of complaints about them on our website," Mr. Sojka said.
However, there are ways around paying fuel surcharges. As Millican discovered, some airline routes seem to have dispensed with them or charge minimal fees. "They're more common on European routes or flights to Asia," Mr. Sojka said.
And you can always switch credit cards. If you're not a constant traveller, you may be better off with a card that lets you buy travel from any provider - airline, hotel or travel agency - and then use your points to pay off the charge on your credit card. Most banks now offer a version of such cards, including RBC's Visa Infinite Avion, TD's Visa Infinite First Class, CIBC's Visa Infinite Aventura, Capital One's Aspire World Mastercard and ScotiaBank's American Express Gold card.
"You can usually redeem for the full cost of the trip, including taxes and service fees," Mr. Sojka said, although your points may be calculated at a lower value than for the flights themselves.
You can also opt for a different travel points program; sign up for United MileagePlus and you'll never pay a surcharge. "If you compare an Aeroplan award between Toronto and London, England on Air Canada with the exact same one from United MileagePlus, the flights are the same, the mileage amounts are the same but the United redemption is nearly $500 less," Mr. Sojka noted.
That said, collecting MileagePlus points in Canada isn't easy if you don't travel frequently. "The program doesn't have a credit card in Canada, so the only way you're going to earn points is by flying, staying in hotels or car rentals," he said.
What's more, not everyone wants to change cards or points plans. "People feel locked into their travel rewards programs because they've put a lot of time and energy into them and they've accumulated big balances." In that case, Mr. Sojka suggests booking your flight with an airline that doesn't add a fuel surcharge.
For Air Miles, try redeeming the miles on American Airlines or Alaska Airlines. As for Aeroplan, it has dozens of airline partners you can book with, and some charge low fuel surcharges or nothing at all, including United, Air China, Brussels Airlines, Scandinavian, Singapore, Swiss, EgyptAir, Ehiopian and EVA Air. When Mr. Sojka compared the cost of a direct flight from Vancouver to Taipei via EVA Air and Air Canada, both charged 75,000 Aeroplan points, but EVA Air's taxes and surcharges totalled $57, while Air Canada charged $385.
Of course, Mr. Sojka said, "you have to weigh the money you'll save against the inconvenience. You may have to fly Toronto to Chicago then Paris instead of taking a direct flight." If you've hoarded your business travel miles to fly your family of four to Europe, it might be worth your while, he points out. But when you're travelling on business, the $600 you save on one ticket might not be worth the added hassle.