How Much Is That Free Ticket?

I was once lectured by an airline customer service agent when I complained about a fee he proposed to charge me for booking award tickets. “Those tickets are worth at least $1,200 each,” he said, adding that I was getting them “practically for free.”

It was a ridiculous and infuriating argument. Award tickets aren’t free at all. They’re purchased with a currency called frequent flier miles.

The suggestion that I was getting a “practically free” ticket was, I suppose, meant to make me feel bad for questioning the fee. What kind of ingrate cavils at an insignificant, little charge when receiving such a generous gift from the airline? A $1,200 ticket! For practically nothing!

Well, nothing except the 50,000 frequent flier miles I paid for each ticket, plus the standard $10 Sept. 11 security fee.

My problem was that the agent also wanted to charge a cash fee for telephone assistance. My view was that this fee did not apply because the only reason I needed phone help was that the airline’s Web site wasn’t working.

Instead of arguing with the agent, I hung up, called back and got a more pleasant and reasonable agent — it’s amazing how often this works — who didn’t try to charge the extra fee.

Still, I shouldn’t have let that first agent get away unscathed with that bogus remark about “practically free.” The difference between a free ticket and an award ticket should be obvious, especially to an airline employee.

A free ticket is a gift. “Here,” a friendly airline representative might say, “have a free airline ticket.” Needless to say, this does not happen.

Award tickets are not free. They are purchased with frequent flier miles, a currency that passengers earn — mainly by flying on planes or buying things with affiliated credit cards.

Most experts believe airline miles to be worth between 1 and 2 cents each, so 100,000 miles should be worth $1,000 to $2,000. (The agent estimated the value of my 50,000-mile ticket at $1,200, which is above that range. I believe he was wrong. As I recall, the ticket actually would have cost more like $900.)

Airlines also can and do charge cash fees, along with frequent flier miles, for an award ticket. Most have been charging a few bucks for the Sept. 11 security fee for quite a while, many tack on telephone service fees and last-minute booking fees and several are now adding fuel surcharges. The most recent is Northwest Airlines, which will charge as much as $100 to redeem miles for tickets. (The Airfarewatchdog Blog has a fine chart of the various fees, by airline.)

So even if an award ticket were free, which it isn’t, it wouldn’t be entirely free. (This puts me in mind of Homer Simpson, who asked when offered a free vacation trip, “Free weekend, eh? How much are you charging for it?”)

Anyway, passengers may grumble about these charges, and the accelerating devaluation of their frequent flier miles. I know I do. But most of us figure the airlines may raise their prices as they choose, whether in dollars, euros or frequent flier miles.

I can deal with that. Just don’t pretend I didn’t pay for my ticket.


2 thoughts on “How Much Is That Free Ticket?

  1. Throatwarbler Mangrove

    Bad customer service agent. The correct response is “Let me transfer you to web support!” A quick push of three buttons and you would be someone else’s problem!
    All kidding aside, we airline phone monkeys don’t have the authority to waive fees. And calling a supervisor won’t help. The airline I work for has a policy that if a memo has been put up on the computer network (they have the ability to put up memos very quickly) then we may waive fees. In my two years I’ve only seen such a memo once.
    Though I am not supposed to, I WILL waive your fee if a web support agent transfers you and tells me him/herself that your ticket cannot be booked online.

  2. Jeanne Leblanc

    Thanks for the insight, Throatwarbler. I don’t envy your challenging job. In fact, as a Web monkey by trade, I’m the one who says “Let me transfer you to customer service!”


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