By Christopher Elliott

When Walter Nissen signed up for a British Airways Chase Visa card recently, he thought he'd be jetting off to London after earning just 50,000 miles.

He overlooked one little detail: A glance at the fine print revealed he'd have to pay an extra $400 in fuel surcharges.

"We're not talking a few dollars for mandatory government taxes and fees," says Nissen, a computer scientist from Livermore, Calif. "Their secret surcharge goes right into British Airways' pocket. That's dishonest in my book."

British Airways insists the surcharge isn't a secret. The fee is clearly disclosed on its site.

"British Airways applies a fuel surcharge on all flights to reflect the fluctuating price of worldwide oil," it says. "The surcharge is based on flight duration and applies to all passengers, including children and infants travelling on British Airways operated international and domestic services."

How much is the surcharge? Well, that isn't immediately clear.

One other thing: The surcharge is nonrefundable on most tickets. Refunds "can be made on fully flexible tickets only with unused flights in your itinerary," it adds.

Indeed, British Airways, like many other international airlines, is playing something of a price game when it quotes a fare, even when you're paying good money for the trip.

A recent fare search for a nonstop flight from San Francisco to London pulled up a round-trip ticket price of $447. Not bad. The site continued to display this fare for two screens. But at the third screen it added taxes, fees, charges and surcharges, which brought the total up to $982.

Not good.

I asked the airline about its disclosure, and it said it was trying to be more upfront with passengers about its fees. "In our current seat sale, British Airways pays the fuel," spokesman John Lampl told me.

That's true. If you're flying from the United States, the airline was offering round-trip airfares starting at $420 between New York and London -- a decent deal. But if you were flying from Canada, the promotion warns, prices don't include "Canadian government security, insurance and fuel surcharges, airport fees, Air traveler's Security charges and taxes."

It's not difficult to understand why airlines break out the prices in this way. It makes fares look cheaper, and when one airline does it, every airline has to do it -- otherwise their prices will look a lot more expensive, putting them at a disadvantage.

Also, it's perfectly legal. And maybe that's the problem. The Transportation Department is considering a new rule that would require airlines to quote an "all-in" fare, including all mandatory fees and taxes. That would level the playing field and eliminate frustrations such as Nissen's.

At least most of them. People earning mileage still have another hurdle to clear: finding a seat for their award ticket. At a minimum, that can involve some paperwork, but often it can also mean a lengthy wait and inconvenient flight times.

Is there a better way? Asking an honest-to-goodness travel agent to pull a fare quote from San Francisco to London might work better. A competent travel adviser would not only offer a full price, but might also have access to unpublished wholesale fares that could save you a buck or two.


Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the co-founder of the Consumer Travel Alliance, a nonprofit organization that advocates for travelers.



Travel | When the Fuel Surcharge Costs More Than the Ticket