5 Ways Your 'Free' Airline Ticket Isn't Really Free

You patiently amass miles or points with your airline’s frequent flyer or loyalty program waiting for the day when you finally claim your free flight. But is it truly free?

Usually, no. One way or the other, you pay a little and sometimes a lot. It’s the gotchas that get you.

Listen as analyst Rick Seaney tells editor Anne McDermott about the high price of free tickets:

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Free Ticket Gotchas

Yes, last year American Airlines gave away more than 5 million one-way awards tickets – but many or even most weren’t totally free due to gotchas. I’m talking about catches (as in, “What’s the catch?”) which can range from fees and surcharges to last-minute redemption costs and even ticket availability.

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5 Ways a Free Ticket is Not Free

1. Mileage Catch

Typically, frequent flyers have to amass 25,000 miles to get a free round-trip domestic flight, and that means spending over $2,000 on airline tickets to earn those miles (or points), and that’s at a rate of about eight cents a mile. No bargain, unless you’re traveling on your company’s tab.

2. Cost of Topping-off Miles

Are you oh-so-close to a free ticket but need a few more miles? No problem since most airlines will let you buy more, but again, this can be costly. On the other hand, letting your miles expire due to inactivity gets you nowhere.

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3. Taxes and Surcharges

Taxes and fees on U.S. domestic flights can range from about $5 to $50 but it can really hurt on international travel where you could pay as much as $1,000 for a “free” British Airways ticket depending how far you fly. Even on a U.S. low-cost carrier such as Frontier, you could pay $100 (or more) on certain “free” trips to the Caribbean and Latin America.

4. Availability Gotcha

Getting a rewards trip when you want to fly is not always easy, especially if your booking the ticket to a popular destination during peak travel season, or during a holiday period. And watch out for holiday blackout dates on rewards tickets, too.

5. Miscellaneous Fees

  • Redemption: Some airlines make you pay if you wait to book your ticket within 14 days of departure – as much as $75.
  • Baggage: Unless your free ticket is for first or business class, you’ll pay the normal bag fees.
  • Phone reservations: If you book your free flight by phone, you will pay a fee (typically, $20 – $25).

Bottom Line: Something for Nothing – To an Extent

Don’t be shocked at the charges attached to your “free” flight, but if you know what’s coming, it’ll be a little easier to bear. Remember, you still get something for nothing – just not as much as you first thought.


Published: February 7, 2013