Why Does a ‘Free’ Flight Cost $527?

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That’s the question an irate traveler posed to the New York Times’ “Haggler” column regarding a credit card promotion run by British Airways. Currently, BA is running a promotion for its branded Visa card of 50,000 bonus miles if the cardholder charges $3,500 within the first 90 days after being approved for the card. The promotional landing page for the card, which is issued by Chase, says this 50,000 miles equals one transatlantic reward flight.

BA has run similar, larger promo offers in the past of up to 100,000 bonus miles for new cardholders, which seems to be the deal the traveler writing to the Times is referencing. She describes how she applies, charges the correct amount and then goes to cash in her miles for a London vacation. So far, so good. But then…

I learned that these tickets cost $527 in taxes and fees. Each. When I contacted customer service, they informed me that the promotion had stated that taxes and fees would be additional. I knew that, but $527? Come on. If the fees had been $100, I would have been annoyed. Two hundred and I would have been very annoyed. But would you agree, Mr. Haggler, that it is nervy of this company to advertise as “free” a pair of tickets that cost more than $1,000?

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We’re not Mr. Haggler, but we’ll take this one. “Nervy” is a pretty nice way to put it. Of course, taxes are a fact of life, but the big hit to the traveler’s wallet in this case came from a $362 charge per ticket for a BA-levied “fuel and security” surcharge. British Airways media relations didn’t respond to our query asking if this was typical, but some poking around on the airline’s website yielded the same number: $362 in surcharges, $346 of which was for a fuel surcharge.

That fuel surcharge isn’t considered part of the fare, so any promotions, rewards or “freebies” aren’t really free by the time you factor in the add-ons. The total amount of charges and fees levied on a round-trip U.S.-to-U.K. ticket come to $560.16 according to the link above, but that’s not a link you’ll find on the British Airways Visa landing page.

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What’s annoying is that there’s no specific information about this on the landing page for the British Airways Visa. It does say that the traveler is responsible for those various ancillary costs but it doesn’t spell out that those costs could easily add up to double or even triple the cost of the actual fare. We ran a mock itinerary for the sake of comparison; the price of the fare that $560.16 was attached to was a relatively paltry $150.

Most major airlines now charge a fuel surcharge in addition to other taxes, fees and add-on costs. So if you’re considering a mileage-based reward card, make sure you get a breakdown of the cost of a flight. You might be surprised to find out that your mileage redemption rate isn’t as great as the promotions make it sound once you consider that the value of the reward is only the cost of the fare itself.