Getting Hacked And Ripped Off By Airlines & Rewards Points

There’s No Such Thing As A Free Ride

Travel hacking. Maybe it should be #travelhacking. Google it. There are more websites penned by would-be travelers aimed at gaming the system. That is, gaming the travel rewards, perks, mileage, points, upgrades—well, you get the idea. Supposed free stuff.

Do you remember when you truly could get a free airline ticket in exchange for miles you earned through your loyalty of a particular airline? There was a time free meant free.

Free isn’t free anymore.

While the authors of endless travel hacking sites and blogs drone on an on about the best credit cards for earning travel points, there are less sites exposing the relentless requirements and frivolous fees that airlines impose on anyone wishing to actually use the points they’ve earned–or, in many cases, bought.

credit-card-fanRewards, miles, and points have all become ubiquitous and utterly confusing in the modern TSA-age of flying. While travel reward credit cards all espouse the ability to earn points—sometimes double points or more. Use your credit card, earn points that, they convince you, can be transferred to participating airlines for miles. Thus, you can then use those airline miles (points) for free travel or upgrades.

The reality is that often participating airlines go everywhere you don’t need to go and or that the itinerary you’re hoping to lock in isn’t available for “reward travel” or if it is, it will cost you 100,000 miles (points).

Along with the proliferation of travel hacking websites has come the proliferation of airline restrictions and the rapidly disappearing of flights available for reward travel.

I get it. Airlines don’t make money on reward travel. Credit card companies do.

american-airport-airline-hacked[Conspiracy Alert]

Whether it’s circumstance, collusion or conspiracy, it doesn’t matter. But where the credit cards rope you into often expensive travel rewards card (often charing you), the airline companies have a unique knack for assessing fees that will even make banks (watch it Wells Fargo) jealous.

I discovered I was about 4,000 miles short to book an American Airlines ticket from San Diego to Washington DC. I explored the option to just buy the miles I needed to book the ticket, but the cost would be over $100. For a brief moment I considered just buying the $400 ticket, earning more miles that I could use for my next trip across country.

Instead, I asked my brother (who I’d be visiting on the DC trip) if he had an extra miles on American he wouldn’t mind transferring to me. American offers a program “Share Miles“. Jon said no problem.

The single good thing about booking reward travel reservations is that if you are short in miles, the airline will hold your reservation for several days—giving you enough time to either buy, borrow, or transfer miles.

American Airlines, as with most other airlines, will charge you a fee to transfer those miles. Personally I think this is offensive and petty. For the 4,000 miles Jonathan would transfer to me, American Airlines would charge him $50. Nonsense.

But wait, it gets better.

Just as he’s processing the transfer, American Airlines alerts that there will a $15 processing fee. What? Isn’t that what the $50 should cover? Processing.

No, I guess not.

Once the points show up in my account, in order to complete the reservation I now must pay $75 plus taxes and carrier-imposed fees (who is the carrier? American?) for a total of $86.20.

The total cost of my “free” reward ticket now clocks in at $151.20. In retrospect, considering the time that both I and Jonathan invested in this measly 4000 point exchange, I probably would’ve been better off just buying the ticket—and earning more miles that would be useless or too expensive to use in the future.

Don’t get me wrong. I understand that there are certain fees associated with transfer and administration of reward points and travel. I think $150 for this ticket is excessive—especially the adding on of processing fees—salt in the wound.

There are no free rides—especially on airlines when you’re trying to use miles and/or points.

While I’m still irked about the transfer fee and the stupid processing fee, I’d like to compare and contrast American Express Membership Rewards policy.

2000px-American_Express_logoI’ve got quite a stockpile of Membership Rewards points that I could easily transfer to my Delta SkyMiles account. To be sure, American Express will also assess fees for such a transfer. However, they merely pass on fees—or, in this case, excise taxes that the airline imposes onto the customer.

For a 4,000 miles transfer the fees (excise tax) American Express would charge the customer amount to $2.40 or .0006 cents per mile. Okay, I can swallow that and pass on the coffee I’d buy and swallow at the airport before boarding my flight.

So while the travel hacking industry indulges itself in finding the best deals, credit cards, and other scams to earn points and miles—let’s be sure to note that there are no free rides and any trip you take on an airline is going to cost you hard-earned cash, tons of time, and enough headaches to warrant additional cost in analgesics and the time to vent this craziness through a blog post.

What about you? What airlines or credit card companies fail to keep promises or at least charge you exorbitantly for the privilege to let them honor such promises? Please share in the comments below.