Avoid These High Fees When Traveling to Europe

Earlier this week I’ve discussed how to find the best days to travel to Europe and a few methods for saving money with open jaws and stopovers. But even so you can be hit with a lot of fees, for both award travel and paid tickets.

Previous Installments:

  • Coach Getting Too Pricey? Check out Business Class to Europe
  • Pick the Best Days to Fly to Europe This Summer
  • Cheaper Flights to Europe with Open Jaws and Stopovers

As mentioned in the last article, one-way award redemptions are great for flexibility, but typically if you are seeing the taxes and fees of an award above $200 per ticket, you’re probably getting assessed a very high, but quite avoidable fee.

Here are the four main things to remember from this post:

  1. Avoid the UK Departure Tax (and pay attention to “expensive vs. cheap” countries)
  2. Delta charges a Foreign Origination Fee
  3. Avoid British Airways flights and other airlines/programs with high fuel surcharges
  4. Plan in advance to avoid close-in award booking fees

I’ll talk about these four in depth and give you examples on how to structure your ticket to avoid them.

UK Departure Tax for Premium Cabins

The United Kingdom assesses an onerous and expensive tax on passengers departing a UK airport, often close to $200 on both paid and award tickets. Here are the main ways to avoid that tax:

The rule is simple. Make sure you spend less than 24 hours on the island of Great Britain and you won’t incur the departure duty.

Fly through London but Spend Less Than 24 Hours

Despite what I told you in an earlier post about the value of stopovers, be aware that stopping for more than 24 hours in the UK will result in an air passenger duty. Many people fly through London on their way to other destinations in Europe, so it’s easy to understand why a stopover there can be appealing. One solution is to spend less than 24 hours. For example, you could land at 6 PM on one day, spend the night, and leave any time up to 5:59pm the following day without incurring the APD.

Originate Outside the UK

Even if you fly through London, you could book an open jaw, taking a flight home that originates from elsewhere in Europe to avoid the APD, which is assessed on departing flights. Paris, Brussels, and Amsterdam are all fairly accessible by train, though you will have to pay the train fare and also pay a different set of taxes from France, Belgium, or the Netherlands (none of which are particularly low). This strategy doesn’t save a ton of money, but it would allow you to see an additional city for roughly the same price.

  • Places like Spain, Portugal, and Ireland are the sweet spot. Close to the UK, they are easily reached with an Avios ticket out of London or a cheap easyJet or Ryanair fare. Just leave enough time to make sure you don’t misconnect in the event of a delay.
  • Islands like Jersey and Guernsey don’t count as “part of the UK,” so if you can find a way to get there (it’s not as hard as you think), you could book tickets that won’t be subject to the APD.
  • Belfast, even though it is part of the UK, has lower fees due to a concession by the local government to spur economic growth. Point is, we’re really talking about the island of Great Britain here, not Northern Ireland.
  • Ireland is NOT part of the UK It’s a different country, so learn your geography. :)

While most airports charge a departure fee, the further south and east you start from, the lower the fees will be. Germany, France, and Scandinavia are not terribly cheap, but Spain, Portugal, and the Baltic and Balkan countries are pretty reasonable.

Delta’s Foreign Origination Fee

Delta tacks on an unjustified “Foreign Origination Fee” to keep European flyers from defecting from KLM/Air France and other skyteam partners. Unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be a way around this yet (and I really played with the search tool to look at short one-way US domestic flights, even exploring the use of Alaska Airlines and Virgin Atlantic miles).

Book a Round-Trip Flight

If you fly Delta or a partner to Europe, this fee is waived on the return.

Or remember that Delta is only a competitive program on the outbound or for a roundtrip. It’s partner, Virgin Atlantic, is a great way to get to the UK and you can hop a short flight to Paris on Air France or Amsterdam on KLM and connect to anywhere in Europe from those cities.

Use a Partner Like Virgin Atlantic to Save Miles

Look at all those tasty partners. VS will still charge you a foreign origination fee, but at least they charge fewer miles

Look at all those tasty partners. VS will still charge you a foreign origination fee, but at least they charge fewer miles

Ironically, if you do find space on Delta itself at the low level, remember that you can also book it with a different program’s miles. Virgin Atlantic is the most cost-effective way to book it since they waive fuel surcharges (only on US-Europe-US), and charge fewer miles than Delta does on its own flights (90k return vs. Delta’s 125k). But you have to call in and can only book round trips. The fee is still assessed if you originate in Europe, but the fewer miles required can offset it.

Virgin Atlantic points are also easy to accumulate due to their credit card offered through Bank of America and that you can transfer in from all four meta-point programs, Starwood Preferred Guest, AMEX Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards, and Citi Thank You Points.

British Airways and Other Carriers with High Fuel Surcharges

Flights operated by British Airways include outrageous (literally the highest of any carrier) fuel surcharges, no matter which mileage program you use to book. These are a particular issue for travel in premium cabins. It also makes their award flights uncompetitive. One of the best uses of Avios is for flights within Europe or on partners that don’t have fuel surcharges.

Here are some workarounds if you still need to fly internationally:

Fly Iberia or Air Berlin

Most people in the US know of American Airlines and that they partner with British Airways, but American doesn’t usually have great availability to Europe so you’ll get stuck with British Airways, which charges a pound of flesh.

Finnair is also a partner, but they rarely have award availability to the US, serve few destinations and don’t actually fly to that many destinations in Europe, either. It’s not a real improvement.

If you do have a lot of American miles and need to get to Europe, consider Iberia and Air Berlin. These carriers have flights to well-connected hubs and are slowly increasing the number of cities they serve directly from North America. Furthermore, they have much more modest fuel surcharges and have halfway decent award availability. I’ve only flown these carriers intra-Europe, but I was impressed with their staff and Iberia’s food.

Openskies, a British Airways subsidiary, flies from New York and Newark to Paris-Orly. Few think of this route when planning a trip, and it may not show up in search results, but they are definitely bookable with American miles. They have lower fuel surcharges, as well. [Update:] My knowledge was out of date there. There was a time where booking with US Air miles seemed to generate lower surcharges, so I thought they were materially lower in all cases, but this is no longer the reality. The fees are now as high as BA, though competition is lower and the quality is generally nicer than Club World.

Fly Aer Lingus Using Avios, Then Intra-Europe Using More Avios

If you are truly flush with Avios, consider flying on Aer Lingus to Dublin and then onward to Europe (or to London and connecting again on British Airways). This way you can avoid some of the surcharges and still fly a good product. Intra-Europe, British Airways charges much more reasonable fees and has a “cash and points” option that can actually be pretty useful to minimize spending on expensive routes.

Make a Triangle Trip to Brazil

You could book a triangle trip to Brazil and back from somewhere in Europe that isn’t Great Britain. Or try flying BA originating in Brazil to avoid fuel surcharges. Map generated by the Great Circle Mapper – © Karl L. Swartz

Brazil is the land of no fuel surcharges, and any ticket purchased that originates from a Brazilian city cannot charge them. So if you’re really itching to fly British Airways first class (or are faced paying double miles to fly on the day your want), flights from Sao Paulo to London to Paris, for example, and then Paris to London back to the US are your best bet (assuming American Airlines or British Airways will even price it as a single ticket, which may take a lot of work). Be aware you may need a Brazilian visa to make this work.

Close-in Booking and Phone Reservation Fees

Both American and United charge an onerous “close-in” booking fee on award tickets, which is pretty ridiculous given that the computers don’t work any harder to book your ticket online on whether its 100 days or 10 days out.

Change Your Flights within 24 Hours of Booking

This only works for UA, but one way to get around the close-in booking fee is to ticket an award on the website for much further out and then go back within the first 24 hours (before fees apply) to change it to a flight within 21 days. Keeping it at that, Milevalue has a more detailed walkthrough.

Use Programs that Don’t Charge Close-in Fees

Say what you will about Delta, but they don’t charge close-in fees. Alaska Airlines, British Airways, and Singapore Airlines don’t either, and they have generous cancellation policies (60 days out on Alaska without a fee; 24 hours out on BA; Singapore’s fees are cheap enough at ~$22 USD that booking speculatively can be worth it). If you really can’t pin down dates, or are booking to leave soon, these programs are your best bet.

Ask the Call Center Agents to Waive Phone Ticketing Fees

Many award tickets, especially complicated ones, can’t be booked online using the airline’s search tool. This is usually because the computer can’t calculate the taxes correctly, or certain partners aren’t visible in the system and require a call to an agent.

When I politely make the case that the ticket wasn’t bookable online and request that the phone ticketing fee should be waived, it has always been granted. This doesn’t mean you should throw a fit if the answer’s “no.” But if you don’t ask, you won’t receive.


Don’t be discouraged by all the rampant, bogus fees floating out there. Know the rules and structure your ticket for success. By not originating in London or originating in Europe using Delta miles, you can avoid a lot of pain and expense — and still get to the continent in style! Many of the tricks here can provide useful context when deciding which loyalty program deserves your business. If you’re not going to Europe this year but might be thinking about it for 2016, take a look now at some of the programs that make it easier to book with lower fees.

I’ll be adding a few new articles on “structuring your ticket for success” in the next few days. Stay tuned! Have other tips? Comment below!

6 Responses to “Avoid These High Fees When Traveling to Europe”

  1. I thought the Openskies comment was an interesting option, so went to take a look. ITA shows $516 of YQ on a round trip JFK-ORY in Y, and the award seats I was able to find on AA.com seem to agree with $258 of YQ each way. That is for a BA coded Openskies operated flight (BA8006). Is there a way around this YQ? by calling AA and booking Openskies directly rather than the BA codeshare perhaps?

    • eponymous coward June 5, 2023 at 8:12 am Reply

      ” Is there a way around this YQ?”


      That being said, Openskies can sometimes have quite reasonable premium economy pricing (and the seats are recliners with lots of legroom that are perfectly fine for a daytime flight, much better than BA’s premium economy).

  2. Good stuff. I just did a ton of research on flights to Europe for early 2016. I actually found better award availability to some areas on Finnair through the AA website. Interesting I know. Also it’s a common trick for those in the UK to take a discount flight on Ryan air to Dublin to start a journey back through LHR to avoid some of those origination fees in the UK. As you mention Ireland is a separate EU country and is on the Euro where as Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK is on the Pound (which is also good to know).

    I also looked at the Openskies option that @Ian mentioned and there doesn’t seem to be away around the YQ even on Avios award flights and even with companion pass. In business seats I was seeing around $500 each RT. I also looked as the London City BA routes through Dublin and the YQ was still a killer. I always wondered if it’s possible to book the 001 RT just to Dublin as they do a stop there anyway. I’ve never found it available.

    • Yes, apparently they weren’t charging it for a bit last year when US joined oneworld, and I thought that pertained to all award tickets. Needless to say, head office called and the YQ is back at astronomical British Airways prices, so I updated the post. Thanks for testing it though!


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