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Taxes and Fees on Flights: What You Need to Know

I was recently poring over the breakdown of taxes and fees on an Aeroplan booking that I had made for a client.

I began to wonder about what, exactly, all the fees were for. Since it’s not possible to avoid paying them, I thought it might be interesting to dig a bit deeper into finding out where my hard earned money goes when paying for air travel.

The taxes and fees that you pay when booking a flight vary wildly and are dependent on the airline you fly with, the class of service you’re in, and the airport, province, territory, or country you fly to.

While this leaves a very broad scope for this article, I’ll highlight a few of the most common surcharges in the discussion below.

Government-Imposed Charges

Many of the fees imposed on tickets come from governments around the world.

Taxes

From a Canadian perspective, the most obvious culprit here is the Goods and Services Tax (GST) and Harmonized Sales Tax (HST). While this doesn’t have much of an impact on award bookings, depending on the cost of the base fare of your paid ticket, it could become sizeable.

The GST or HST rate is determined by the city of origin on your booking. For example, a booking from Vancouver to Toronto will incur a 5% GST cost, while a booking from Toronto to Vancouver will incur a 13% HST cost. 

Booking two one-way paid flights between Toronto and Vancouver would incur a total of $20.12 paid in HST and GST, whereas booking the same flights round-trip out of Toronto would incur a total of $26.76.

While this particular example was done with the lowest available fare, as the cost of the ticket increases, so would the amount of taxes charged on the booking. Depending on your province of origin, it may be worthwhile to consider booking two one-ways instead of a round-trip.

For example, the total sales tax for business class flights on a random date between Halifax and Vancouver would cost $375 if booked as a round-trip or $252 if booked as two one-ways. I can think of many better ways to spend $123 on a trip than forking it over in taxes.

Security Charges

Another charge common to bookings around the world is some form of security charge.

In Canada, the Air Travellers Security Charge (ATSC) was introduced after the 9/11 attacks in New York City. This fee is meant to offset the additional security expenditures in airports that keep the travelling public safe.

The charge depends on your origin and destination:

  • $7.12 per direction within Canada
  • $12.10 for flights between Canada and the continental United States
  • $25.91 for travel outside of “the continental zone.”

In the United States, the similar September 11 Security Fee is currently US$5.60 per one-way trip that originates in the United States.

Personally, I don’t mind taking a bit of extra time at the airport to ensure my safety and that of everyone else. I consider the extra fees as payment for peace of mind. So, next time you’re standing in an endless line waiting to unpack your bags and have your body scanned, remember that you’ve paid for this privilege and try to make the most out of it. 

Arrival & Departure Fees

Some countries also impose fees on passengers during either their departure or arrival, or in some cases, for both. The amount you pay is sometimes also tied to your class of travel. 

One of the most well-known examples is the so-called “luxury tax” for passengers departing from the UK. Known as the UK Air Passenger Duty, the amount paid depends on how far you’re travelling and the class of service you’re travelling in. 

(As a side note, the breakdown of the duty is a fairly interesting read.)

For example, a passenger flying in economy from London to Toronto would pay a total of $141.37 for the UK Air Passenger Duty, while a passenger on the same flight in business class would pay $310.32.

Planes that weigh more than 20 tonnes equipped to carry fewer than 19 passengers would have to pay around $955 per passenger. I wonder if that would apply to Drake’s 767…

Similarly, when flying to or from countries that generate a lot of revenue from tourism, you may notice a host of extra fees added to your booking. In some cases, they can add up to fairly significant amounts.

For example, many countries in the Caribbean are notorious for adding on extra fees for air passengers.

Using ITA Matrix, I selected round-trip direct flights between Toronto and Kingston, Jamaica for a random date in the winter of 2021. I was intrigued by the sheer amount of additional taxes that were added onto this ticket, which are clearly broken down in the search results. 

Of the 11 additional surcharges on this ticket that total $288.17, those from Jamaica add up to $174.40, 22% of the total cost of the ticket. Each charge is listed in Canadian dollars.

On one hand, I can appreciate the justification of the fees, as those who can afford to travel to Jamaica for a holiday are likely coming from countries with significantly higher average salaries than those in Jamaica.

On the other hand, I can see how some people become frustrated that these additional fees can add up so quickly.

I encourage you to read a detailed list of charges the next time you book a vacation to get a better idea of how much you are paying to tour operators, hotels, and airlines and how much you are paying in taxes. 

Airport Improvement Fees

I recall flying from YXS (Prince George) to Edmonton via Vancouver in the early 2000s. As I went to walk into security, a person standing at a booth stopped me and asked me for $10. I was taken by surprise, never having encountered this before, and felt offended that he was asking me for cash. 

The angst-filled teenager in me challenged him and tried to avoid paying it. But, he wouldn’t let me pass before I gave him the $10 I had to buy some snacks on my layover in Vancouver. Since then, I’ve held a grudge against paying airport fees, but they have become a necessary evil in many airports around the world.

In Canada, most regional and major airports charge an “Airport Improvement Fee” of between $2 and $40 to help maintain the airport’s infrastructure and expand to meet a growing passenger demand. Many airports have a detailed explanation on their website justifying the fee, as they need to get money somehow and don’t get any money from the government.

While I am glad that I haven’t seen one of these cash-collection points at an airport in a very long time, I always moan when I see an Airport Improvement Fee added to one of my tickets. As if food and drink at airports weren’t expensive enough already…

Recently, when making a speculative summer booking, I noticed that the Airport Improvement Fee amount depended on the length of layover at the airport. 

For example, at Vancouver International Airport, a layover of less than four hours has around $34 fewer total taxes/fees than a layover of more than four hours.

The fee breakdown on the payment page shows that the booking with a shorter layover was only subject to a $5 Airport Improvement Fee and a $7.12 Air Transportation Security Charge…

…while the longer layover was subject to a $30 Airport Improvement Fee and a $14.25 ATSC.

Indeed, this seems to be the case in other airports in Canada, too:

  • YYC’s website states that the $35 Airport Improvement Fee isn’t charged to domestic passengers with a connection of less than four hours or to international passengers with connections of less than 24 hours
  • YYZ charges $30 for departing passengers and $6 for connecting passengers

If you’re like me and enjoy spending time lounging in and exploring airports, the length of time on your layover may add a few extra dollars to your total cost. 

Airline-Imposed Charges

Carrier surcharges have long been the bane of miles and points enthusiasts’s existence. Our travel-guru-in-chief Ricky has described them as “nothing short of a shameless cash-grab” and has written a guide on how to avoid paying them. 

Airlines justify charging fuel surcharges as a way to protect themselves from volatile fuel prices, increased costs during peak travel periods, and unpredictable operational costs. In other words, it’s a way for them to generate more money to use how they see fit.

In Canada, we are fortunate that there are no longer fuel surcharges imposed on Aeroplan award tickets. Under the old program, savvy travellers used to avoid Air Canada, Lufthansa, Austrian Airlines like the plague, and saved hundreds of dollars in doing so.

Carrier surcharges are added to award bookings with other loyalty programs, though. As always, investing some time and energy into combing through the wealth of information on Prince of Travel and other loyalty websites may net you significant savings down the line.

On paid bookings, carrier surcharges can often make up a large percentage of the total cost of the ticket. Consider the following breakdown of fees for a flight with Lufthansa between Toronto and Frankfurt.

The $314 carrier surcharges for this booking make up 37.5% of the total cost. When combined with the other surcharges, 45% of the total cost of the ticket is in taxes/fees and 55% is the base fare.

I’m sure there are many more extreme examples of this to be found – and perhaps “dumped”, if that’s something you’re interested in.

Lastly, some airlines impose a fee for booking a particular product on particular routes. My favourite example of this is Air Canada’s Equipment-Type Surcharge.

When flying on a paid business class fare on domestic or transborder routes, there is an additional $300 added to your ticket if your flight offers Air Canada Signature Class with lie-flat seats. 

Given that these flights are less than five hours in duration, I think that this is a pretty steep price to pay for the added benefit of lying horizontally.

I can also picture myself going through as much food and drink as possible to justify spending the extra cash, although I’m much more likely to adopt the “Latitude Attitude” or book business class using Aeroplan points to begin with.

Conclusion

Taxes and fees are something that can’t be avoided when paying for an airline ticket. 

Some of the fees imposed by governments go towards paying for the cost of keeping travellers safe or for using government-run facilities. Others seem like a revenue-generating mechanism to line the coffers of government accounts.

While I find the most frustrating fees to be the ones imposed by airlines or airports, I have come to accept them as the cost of travel, and this is something I’m willing to pay. I will, however, do my best to avoid them whenever possible.

Have you noticed any interesting charges on your itineraries? How do you feel about the unavoidable fees? Feel free to comment below, join the discussion on the Prince of Travel Discord chat, or leave a post on the Prince of Travel Elites Facebook group.