BIG NEWS: Thai Airways is no longer levying fuel surcharges on any of their routes. Scroll down to #6 below for more information.
The term “fuel surcharge” can be thought of as a universal mood killer for anyone who’s ever dabbled in Miles & Points. Otherwise known as “scamcharges”, these mysterious fees are tacked on to many award redemptions by the airlines, resulting in you having to pay a hefty price out-of-pocket in addition to your hard-earned miles.
I call them mysterious because they were originally introduced by airlines supposedly to combat the rising cost of jet fuel, though they silently kept levying the surcharge even when the price of oil tanked in recent years. Some airlines even renamed it a “carrier-imposed surcharge”, effectively admitting that the whole thing was little more than a poorly disguised money-grab.
Of course, I’ve already discussed how to avoid fuel surcharges by flying with airlines that do not levy them when redeeming your Aeroplan miles. As a reminder, here's a guide to the Star Alliance members with the "safe" airlines that do not levy surcharges shown in full colour. (It might need a bit of an update, as you'll find out below.)
It appears, however, that a handful of governments (or national aviation regulation bodies) around the world happen to agree with the wider frequent flyer community that fuel surcharges don’t make a lick of sense, and have implemented legislation that either regulates how much fuel surcharges an airline is allowed to levy, or bans it outright.
In this post, we’ll go on a fact-finding mission, from east to west, to see which countries have followed this path, as well as how you can optimize your award redemption to take advantage of this.
Keep in mind that this information is accurate as of writing, though this stuff can change at any time and it’s often hard to keep track, with only a few news reports in local publications reporting about this stuff. The rest is anecdotal evidence, which I’ve gathered here in spades.
What’s going on in Australia? I wasn’t able to find any news on fuel surcharge regulation, but for a while now Air Canada flights departing Australia have only minimal fuel surcharges attached to them.
This is true for both one-way and round-trip tickets originating in Australia, though unfortunately not for tickets with Australia as the destination. Compare BNE–YVR–BNE ($198 in total fees) with YVR–BNE–YVR ($878 in total fees) below.
In the latter example, although there’s a BNE–YVR leg which departs from Australia, the origin of the round-trip ticket is still Vancouver, so fuel surcharges are indeed levied.
Nevertheless, this trick can be useful for any Australia trip – for example, you could fly Cathay Pacific using Alaska miles with a stopover in Hong Kong on the outbound, and then fly Air Canada on a direct flight home, with minimal surcharges to pay.
2. The Philippines
The Philippines banned fuel surcharges back in 2015, but there’s not many Star Alliance carriers flying there, and most of the ones that do (Turkish, United, EVA, Air China, etc.) already don’t levy surcharges anyway. The one exception is Asiana, which does usually levy surcharges for incoming flights to South Korea. So keep this in your locker if you ever need to get from Manila to Seoul in a pinch (perhaps part of a Mini-RTW?)
Unlike with Australia, the Japanese fuel surcharge regulation seems to apply not only on flights departing Japan, but also on Air Canada flights FROM Canada TO Japan. In fact, curiously enough the fuel surcharge is even slightly lower in this case.
I was curious whether you could snag Lufthansa First Class on the cheap using this trick. It turns out that it works on the Tokyo–Frankfurt route ($110 in total fees), but not in the reverse direction ($463 in total fees).
I'm not exactly sure why Toronto–Tokyo on Air Canada is subject to the surcharge waiver, while Frankfurt–Tokyo on Lufthansa is not. Chalk that up to Aeroplan being Aeroplan and glitching out somewhere in the process.
In any case, All Nippon Airways (ANA) typically wants to levy quite a huge chunk of fuel surcharges, but because of Japanese legislation, they can't. So go ahead and take advantage of this to book the incredible ANA First Class experience on the cheap.
4. South Korea
South Korea has also recently reduced fuel surcharges to zero for domestic and international flights, meaning intra-Korea flights as well as flights to other countries departing from Korea.
For flights FROM Canada TO Korea, the fuel surcharge (at least on Air Canada) seems to be capped at $100 per segment, rather than completely waived. This is still pretty cheap considering what Air Canada typically wants to charge you.
You can take advantage of Korea's legislation to fly Asiana First Class, an excellent first class product that usually comes with hefty fuel surcharges, on the cheap...
...although surprisingly, in Korea's case it doesn't work on Lufthansa. Again, go figure.
5. Hong Kong
Hong Kong scrapped fuel surcharges at the beginning of 2016, though recently there's been talk of introducing legislation to allow airlines to once again set their own surcharges, which hopefully doesn't come through!
Hong Kong's fuel surcharge waiver is pretty comprehensive. It applies to both round-trip and one-way flights originating from China's special administrative region.
As in Japan's case, Air Canada flights with Hong Kong as the destination also enjoy minimal fuel surcharges.
If you fly out of Hong Kong, you can enjoy Lufthansa First Class or Austrian's excellent Business Class, both of which usually come with hefty surcharges, for pennies on the dollar compared to their usual prices.
I also found out that if you put your open-jaw on a Mini-RTW trip adjacent to Hong Kong, you can get certain fuel surcharges to drop out from the fare even though the flight doesn't actually depart from Hong Kong.
In the below example, Air Canada typically levies a fuel surcharge on the Beijing–Toronto flight, but because the "destination" of the whole trip is Hong Kong, the fuel surcharge drops off.
I'm not really sure if this is a bug or a feature, but it's something cool to keep in mind.
If you played around with the Aeroplan search engine enough, I'm sure you'll find endless tricks by combining the "surcharge-free havens" in this article with stopovers, layovers, and open-jaws. Unfortunately that's beyond the scope of today's post, but in the future I might write up a list of cool tricks I find.
6. Thailand / Thai Airways
I suspect that this isn't a case of a government imposing fuel surcharge regulations, but rather Thai Airways changing their fuel surcharge rules. In fact, Thai used to have hefty fuel surcharges on pretty much all their routes, but it seems they've recently changed that, and no longer levy any surcharges on any routes – departing Thailand, inbound to Thailand, intra-Thailand, the whole gamut.
I don't think it's government-imposed, because other carriers like Lufthansa and Austrian, departing from Thailand, still seem to be charging their usual amounts.
Nevertheless, this is an extremely welcome change, since Thai has a huge global network and their surcharge-free flights unlock many more routing options for your next big redemption. Plus, Thai First Class, as well as their First Class Lounge in Bangkok, are ultra-luxurious experiences that any aspirational flyer should have on their radar.
Who knows whether or not the "no surcharges" situation on Thai is here to stay, so if you're interested in one of their flights, I'd go ahead and make the booking sooner rather than later.
Lastly, the original country to ban fuel surcharges way back in 2010 is Brazil. Recently there was a scare in which we all thought Brazil might repeal this legislation, but apparently that didn't come to fruition.
As with many other countries on this list, flights originating in Brazil enjoy minimal surcharges, while flights with Brazil as the destination do not. Compare GRU–YYZ–GRU ($130 in total fees) with YYZ–GRU–YYZ ($330 in total fees). Having said that, it seems that in the latter case, the fuel surcharge is still capped when compared to Air Canada's usual surcharge shenanigans.
However, Brazil is unique in that it applies the legislation even when you only have a layover in Brazil. In the other countries' cases, you have to actually be originating in that country to enjoy the surcharge waiver.
For Brazil, any segment in your itinerary that departs from Brazil will have its fuel surcharge diminished. That makes the São Paulo–Toronto direct flight on Air Canada a very attractive option for your return journey from South America, or even South Africa!
And if you ever need to get from South America to Europe, there's no better way to do it than a surcharge-free Lufthansa First Class experience, departing from either São Paulo or Rio de Janeiro.
Whew! That's a lot of information, and there's plenty of nuances in terms of which countries waive fuel surcharges, and under what conditions they do so. The important point is that there's always sweet spots out there, and moreover that these sweet spots are constantly changing. For example, I'm not sure when Thai abolished fuel surcharges, but it must've been recent since most articles on the topic still have them marked as ruthless surcharge merchants.
Keep these tips and tricks in mind as you're planning your next Mini-Round-the-World trip, and I'll be sure to let you guys know when anything changes!