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The Best Airline Mileage Programs to Avoid Hefty Cash Fees

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Redeeming frequent flyer miles sounds like your ticket to free flights. That's not quite the case: You'll always have to pay a bit (or maybe even a lot) in cash in addition to your hard-earned miles when booking an award ticket.

Out-of-pocket costs range wildly from a flat $5.60 tax bill on a one-way domestic flight to nearly $2,000 or more in cash for some international business and first class award tickets – yes, even after forking over hundreds of thousands of miles. That final cash cost when booking with points and miles can depend on what airline frequent flyer program you're using, which airline you're flying, where you're departing, and your final destination.

Some airlines tack on fuel surcharges when you're redeeming miles, which can drastically inflate your cash costs. Yet some airline mileage programs shield you from these high cash costs entirely, leaving you only to pay the mandatory government taxes.

So if you want to keep your cash costs as low as possible, here are some of the best airline frequent flyer programs to redeem miles that'll save you from paying huge taxes or surcharges.


Air Canada Aeroplan

Leaning on our friendly neighbors to the north is a great way to avoid fees when using airline miles – and the redemption rates are pretty solid as well.

After a major overhaul in 2020, Air Canada's Aeroplan mileage program doesn't pass along any fuel surcharges when redeeming points. That makes it one of the best ways to fly Star Alliance carriers using points and miles – especially when booking some airlines notorious for typically tacking on big surcharges like Lufthansa or Swiss.

A few examples of what you can book include:

  • Lie-flat seats to Europe flying Austrian Airlines, Brussels Airlines, Lufthansa business class, or SWISS business class from 60,000 points & ~$40 in taxes and fees one-way.
  • Flights to Istanbul flying Turkish Airlines business class from 70,000 points & ~$140 in taxes and fees one-way.
  • Business class to India or South Africa flying Lufthansa, Swiss, or Turkish from 85,000 points & ~$90 in taxes and fees one-way.

For instance, a Lufthansa business class route from Boston (BOS) to Munich (MUC) would only cost 60,000 points plus under $60 in fees one-way. With 90,000 Air Canada points, you could actually book Lufthansa first class for the same fees.

Air Canada Lufthansa BOS to MUC 

Booking those exact same flights using other mileage programs such as ANA Mileage Club or Turkish Airlines Miles & Smiles, your out-of-pocket fees could easily add up to around $800 one-way or $1,700 roundtrip. Air Canada shields you from those big cash costs.

For example, you could book roundtrip flights to Europe through ANA for 88,000 miles total – seemingly a steal, considering it's not much more than a one-way flight booked via Aeroplan. However, you'll be shocked to find out that you would have to pay over $2,000 in addition to all those points.

ANA Lufthansa BOS to MUC Biz 

Aeroplan also gives you the flexibility to use even fewer points and pay a bit more in fees – or vice versa. That makes it an incredibly useful program when you are short on points.

Air Canada Lufthansa BOS to FRA biz class 

Sure, you may spend fewer miles with other airline mileage programs, but no one wants to spend that much cash when they're already cashing in plenty of points. Instead, you can use Aeroplan and save your money.

Read more: How to Book Award Tickets Through Air Canada Aeroplan


How to Earn Aeroplan Points

You can currently earn 60,000 points after spending $3,000 in the first three months of card membership with the *aeroplan credit card*.

*aeroplan credit card*

Learn more about the *aeroplan credit card*

But there's a better way. You can also transfer American Express Membership Rewards, Bilt Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards, or Capital One Venture miles instantly to your Aeroplan account. That means points from cards like the *chase sapphire preferred*, the *amex gold*, and the *venture x* can get you all the Aeroplan points you may need.

Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan Miles

Despite some big changes in the Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan award chart, the program is still loaded with many valuable sweet spots. Best of all, you won't get stuck with a high cash bill on top of your miles when redeeming Alaska miles for flights on most airlines.

One great example is using Alaska miles to book lie-flat, business class seats on Aer Lingus to Ireland and beyond to other destinations in Europe. The award rates are low and so are the cash costs: It starts at just 45,000 Alaska miles plus $19 in taxes and fees each way.

Alaska Airlines EWR to DUB Aer Lingus Biz 

Many other airline mileage programs airlines charge $130 or more for those exact same flights – and more miles, too. The savings go beyond Aer Lingus and Ireland, too.

Alaska generally never passes on cash surcharges, whether you're booking a flight to Tokyo with Japan Airlines, flying to Hong Kong on Cathay Pacific, hopping on Qantas down to Australia, and more. In almost every case, you'll pay just $19 or so each way and a bit more for the return flight, based upon international taxes.

But there's one big exception: British Airways.

Flying British Airways into London-Heathrow (LHR), you'll pay at least 45,000 Alaska miles … plus almost $1,000 in taxes and fees. Ouch!

Alaska Airlines EWR to LHR British Airways Biz 

Read more: The Big Wins & Worst Hits of Alaska’s Award Chart Changes

How to Earn Alaska Miles

If you're looking for more Alaska miles, you can sometimes get a decent sign-up bonus when opening up an Alaska Airlines Visa Signature® Card.

alaska visa card

Learn more about the Alaska Airlines Visa Signature® Card (for full disclosure: this is not an affiliate link).

Better yet, you can also now transfer Bilt Rewards points to Alaska's frequent flyer program! So if you're racking up points by paying rent or swiping a *Bilt Mastercard*, this is a great place to send them.

Otherwise, flying Alaska Airlines is a great way to build up some miles since it's one of the few airlines that still awards miles based on the distance flown – not the price you paid.


American AAdvantage Miles

AAdvantage miles are great for much more than just American Airlines flights.

They can take you all over the world flying some of the world's best airlines that partner with American. Plus, they're easy to redeem since American's website is the go-to website for finding award availability on Oneworld airlines.

Sure, you'll still need to avoid flying British Airways if you don't want to pay a small fortune in taxes and fees. But you can fly nearly any other American partner airline with low cash costs when redeeming American miles.

Using American miles is still the best way to book Qatar Qsuites business class thanks to a combination of low redemption rates and low cash fees. Here's a snapshot of what you can book with AA miles.

  • Qatar Qsuites to the Middle East for 70,000 miles + $7 in taxes and fees one-way
  • Qatar Qsuites to South Africa for 75,000 miles + $15 in taxes and fees one-way
  • Japan Airlines business class nonstop to Japan for 60,000 miles + $6 in taxes and fees one-way


American Airlines Q-Suite SEA to DOH 

Using British Airways or Qatar Avios to book the same Qatar flights would require paying about $100 in taxes and fees on nonstop Qatar flights to Doha (DOH) – and north of $200 in fees each way for connecting flights beyond Qatar's main hub.

British Airways Q-Suite SEA to DOH 

Read more: How to Find & Book the Best American AAdvantage Miles Deals


How to Earn American Miles

A handful of credit cards will let you book these cheaper flights and also pad your AAdvantage miles stash. In fact, you can quickly earn up to 145,000 American miles by opening just two cards.

Your best bet is the Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite Mastercard®, which comes with a $99 annual fee, though that’s waived in the first year.

Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select Card

Learn more about the Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite Mastercard®. (for full disclosure: this is not an affiliate link).

Another solid option is the AAdvantage® Aviator® Red World Elite Mastercard®, which currently offers up to a 70,000-mile bonus after making just two purchases (of any dollar amount) within three months and paying the $99 annual fee.

Best Starter Credit Cards

Learn More about the AAdvantage Aviator Red World Elite Mastercard. (For full disclosure, this is our personal referral link).

Another unique way to earn AA miles is to earn points on rent with Bilt Rewards and transfer points from Bilt to American Airlines. This redemption option is unfortunately going away come June 2024.


Avianca LifeMiles

Not only does Avianca LifeMiles have some of the lowest redemption rates for business class flights on Star Alliance airlines, the quirky mileage program also doesn't pass along any fuel surcharges, period. And that means you'll always keep your cash costs low when redeeming LifeMiles.

If you want to fly Lufthansa First Class or Swiss business class, redeeming Avianca LifeMiles is often the best way to do it. You can find lower redemption rates with other airlines and a lower tax bill with some others, too … but Avianca LifeMiles almost always strikes the best balance of the two.

Here are some examples of what you can book:

  • Business class to Europe flying Austrian Airlines, Brussels Airlines, Lufthansa, or Swiss from 63,000 miles & about $25 in taxes and fees one-way.
  • Lufthansa First Class to Europe from 87,000 miles & about $25 in taxes and fees one-way.
  • Business class to Japan flying ANA from 75,000 miles & about $25 in taxes and fees one-way.

Taxes and fees will vary. For example, flying from New York City to Zurich (ZRH) would cost you 63,000 LifeMiles but around $53 in taxes one-way.

LifeMiles Swiss JFK to ZRH 

In comparison, booking that same flight using Turkish Airlines miles would cost you 90,000 miles … and you would also have to hand over almost $1,000 to cover taxes and fees!

Turkish Swiss EWR to ZRH biz

How to Earn Avianca LifeMiles

Odds are you've got an easy way to earn Avianca LifeMiles, even if you never fly the airline.

LifeMiles is a transfer partner of Amex, Capital One, Citi, Bilt, and even Wells Fargo. You can send points from any of those cards to LifeMiles on a 1:1 basis – and sometimes, even better. Many of those programs regularly offer transfer bonuses of 10%, 15%, 20%, or more to LifeMiles.

Finally, Avianca frequently has promotions to buy miles at a steep discount. It's no slam dunk, but it's one of the few airline programs where it could make sense to buy miles.


Delta SkyMiles

Delta SkyMiles are almost never a smart bet to book business class awards, but they can help keep your out-of-pocket cash expenses to a minimum when booking award travel.

Whether you're booking a Delta SkyMiles flash sale to fly Delta or using your SkyMiles to book Air France, KLM, Virgin Atlantic, or any of Delta's other partner airlines, you'll never pay high fees when redeeming SkyMiles.

You can't say the same for Delta's close partner, Virgin Atlantic. That U.K. airline charges an arm and leg in fees when redeeming Virgin Atlantic Flying Club points for business class flights flying Virgin Atlantic itself: just shy of $1,000 for a one-way to London.

Sure, Virgin charges fewer miles than Delta, but the difference doesn't justify Virgin's sky-high carrier-imposed fuel surcharges. Looking to fly Virgin Atlantic Upper Class Suite on the A350 from New York City to London (LHR)?

Here's what you'll generally pay in miles and cash fees with each program during peak season:

  • Virgin points: 57,500 miles + $998 in taxes and fees one-way.
  • Delta SkyMiles: 170,000 miles + $6 in taxes and fees one-way.

During the off-peak season, you could find Virgin's lie-flat, Upper Class flights for 155,000 Delta SkyMiles and pay about $6 in taxes.

Delta Virgin Upper Class JFK to LHR 

If you book through Virgin directly, you'll pay less in points, especially during the off-peak season, but you'll have to cough up almost $1,000 in taxes and fees for a one-way, business class flight with the airline.

For example, look at this Virgin flight booked directly on Virgin's website for 47,500 points but coming with $997 in additional fees.

Virgin JFK to LHR Upper Class Flight 

These rates to fly Virgin Atlantic flights will vary when booking with Virgin depending on where you're flying from and when – but Delta's fees should always be cheaper for Virgin Atlantic flights to London, regardless of your departure city, compared to booking directly on Virgin's website.

If you value saving cash over saving miles, Delta SkyMiles may be the way to go.


How to Earn Delta SkyMiles

If you need SkyMiles, Delta and American Express frequently offer up to 100,000 SkyMiles on their suite of co-branded Delta credit cards. And you can also transfer American Express Membership Rewards points from cards like *amex platinum* or *amex gold* instantly to your Delta account.


Southwest Rapid Rewards

We couldn't write a story about avoiding fees without including Southwest Airlines. The airline pretty much wrote the book on not charging extra fees.

While you'll still need to pay taxes and fees (starting from $5.60 one-way for domestic flights) when booking flights with Southwest Rapid Rewards points, there will never be anything else on top of that. No fuel surcharges, no nasty hidden fees.

And if you have the Southwest Companion Pass, you'll only pay the taxes and fees for your companion – even when booking award travel.


How to Earn Southwest Points

You can earn a ton of Southwest points with a bonus on a Southwest credit card, but Southwest is also a Chase transfer partner. That means you can instantly transfer points earned from either the *chase sapphire preferred* or *chase sapphire reserve* to Southwest.

Southwest Airlines: Why You Should Care and Always Compare


United MileagePlus Miles

Last but not least, United MileagePlus is one of the best frequent flyer programs out there if you're looking to avoid high cash fees on award travel.

Similar to Aeroplan and Avianca LifeMiles, using United miles is a good way to book Austrian Airlines, Brussels Airlines, Lufthansa, Swiss, or Turkish Airlines when redeeming miles since you won't get hit with those high fuel surcharges. In many cases, however, United will charge you more miles for the same redemptions than those other options.

Where United shines here is if you'd like to make connections either domestically on United – or on other United partner flights abroad. Complicated itineraries can sometimes be very difficult to book with Aeroplan or LifeMiles, but United's booking engine typically lets you easily pull up those flights.

For a one-way business class flight to Europe, for example, you'll typically pay rates starting around 88,000 miles. And if you're booking roundtrip, you can expect to pay fewer in taxes and fees to fly any of those carriers mentioned above.

These business class flights to Frankfurt (FRA) and back costs almost 180,000 United miles roundtrip, but you'll only be on the hook for under $150 in taxes.

United Lufthansa Biz IAD to FRA 

If you book through many other Star Alliance frequent flyer programs, you'll pay much, much more. A program like ANA Mileage Club, for example, will charge you only 88,000 miles … but require over $2,000 in taxes.

ANA Lufthansa Biz IAD to FRA


How to Earn United Miles

You can transfer Chase Ultimate Rewards instantly to United and book directly through the airline. And if you're earning points on rent with Bilt Rewards, you can also transfer those points to United, too.

Plus, United has a whole slew of co-branded credit cards that occasionally roll out bigger bonuses like the *united explorer*.


Other Tips to Keep Your Cash Costs Low

The best way to avoid big taxes and fees when redeeming miles is to use the right airline program. But that's not the whole battle. Depending on where you're going, you could be on the hook for a lot more than you'd like.

Here are a few more things to keep in mind:

  • Avoid flying out of London! The U.K. capital is notorious for the biggest taxes in the world – and they get even bigger if you're flying up front. You can easily pay more than $300 in taxes on a one-way ticket from London to the U.S. … and that doesn't even count additional fuel surcharges. Instead, fly out of another European airport like Amsterdam (AMS), Madrid (MAD), or even Dublin (DUB).
  • Dead set on flying Virgin's business class to London? You'll always be on the hook for at least a few hundred dollars in additional fees flying Virgin's Upper Class suite. But rather than paying close to $900 by booking a one-way flight from the U.S. to London, you can book a similar flight with the airline using Air France/KLM Flying Blue miles and pay just $200 or so in fees one-way.
  • Heading to Mexico or the Caribbean? The government taxes aren't quite as bad, but expect to pay anywhere from $85 to $150 roundtrip to many destination when using your miles – even if you're flying economy. If you're set on keeping your cash costs low, check out the U.S. Virgin Islands or Puerto Rico – it's just $11.20 or so roundtrip.
  • Prepare to pay up if you're hoping to fly Emirates. After a series of fee hikes earlier this year, you can now expect to pay almost $450 in taxes and fees on a roundtrip from the U.S. to Dubai (DXB) – and close to $2,000 total if you're trying to fly Emirates First Class. But you can escape those massive surcharges by flying Emirates' fun fifth-freedom routes between the U.S. and Europe, where even a roundtrip in first class will cost you just $250 or so in fees.


Bottom Line

If you want to avoid high fees when booking award travel, you'll want to choose which airline miles you use wisely.

Keep these mileage programs in mind if you prefer to save some cash. Even if it requires redeeming a few (or even a lot) more miles, you still could come out way ahead.


Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser’s responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

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