Frequent flyer expect to pay a little in taxes and fees to get an awards seat. But the price tag for free seats has been steadily climbing. Last year, United upped its maximum fees for booking award tickets from $500 to $600 each way on international routes, and earlier this year, Spirit added fees of $15 to $100 for booking award seats close to the date of departure—by their definition, that extends as far as six months out.
Rising taxes and fuel surcharges can add hundreds more to the cost. In April, the United Kingdom increased its minimum air passenger duty for flights of more than 6,000 miles from roughly $134 to $146. Passengers in premium classes might pay as much as $291. “The old notion of a free ticket is pretty much long gone,” said Tim Winship, contributing editor for SmarterTravel.com.
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The only upside to these pricier free seats is that there are more of them. Reward seat availability rose 7% compared with last year, report e-commerce platform Switchfly and consulting firm IdeaWorks. Award seats were available 93.5% of the time on six low-fare carriers, and on 62.9% of requests for the other 17 surveyed.
Having more seats keeps loyal flyers happy and reduces the carriers’ tally of miles earned but not redeemed, which shows up as a liability on their balance sheets, experts say. And they’re also one more way to tack on fee revenue, said Brian Kelly, founder of deal site ThePointsGuy.com. “Airlines have been aggressively monetizing frequent flyer programs,” he said.