Is It Fair to Charge Extra for Booking Awards by Phone?

If you need to book a flight over the phone — whether a revenue or award ticket — you’ll probably be asked to pay a fee of $25 or more. Fees are usually waived for elite frequent flyers. Average customers can avoid most fees by booking most revenue tickets online. Award tickets are also becoming easier to book online, though they aren’t quite as simple.

Unfortunately it is still very common to run into situations that require talking to a human. Maybe you want a complex itinerary with a stopover and the online search engine can’t price it correctly. Or the flights just aren’t displayed. Many airlines still do not show award availability for all their partners online.

Usually I’ve done all the research in advance through ExpertFlyer or other tools. I don’t want to talk to an agent. I’m already upset that I have to call an agent, waiting on hold for 15 minutes or more. Why should I pay for something I don’t want to do?

The simple answer is because it costs money to pay a human to answer that phone.

I think most of us would agree it is fair to charge for booking revenue tickets on the phone. Nearly all tickets can be booked online. If you’re trying to do something complicated and need an agent, well, you brought it on yourself. And agents aren’t cheap, either. An airline has to worry about salaries, benefits, training, turnover, facilities, computer terminals, telecommunications systems, etc.

But award tickets are a different situation. I don’t know of any carrier that displays award space for all of its partners online. That means you need to call to book. British Airways is pretty good about handling this and is known to waive the phone booking fee for awards on Alaska Airlines. I always recommend you try this approach if you find yourself forced to call it.

United Airlines actually does share information about most of its partners online and has a pretty good system for booking complicated award tickets with stopovers. But it got a lot of flak when it removed Singapore Airlines award space from its online search engines. You now have to call to request information on availability and then book it. And they were clear in announcing the change that they would not waive the phone booking fee.

Is this fair of United? As I said, agents cost money, but United removed our only option to avoid the fee.

Before answering this, consider US Airways. They charge a fee to book every award. Whether you book it on the phone or not, there is an “award processing fee” of $25 to $50. Book it over the phone and it costs an additional $30 to $40. Some of these fees are waived for elite members, but not all tiers.

I realize these fees are separate, though in a sense they reflect the same thing: the cost of processing an award ticket. It is less and less common for your miles to cover the entire cost of fulfilling an award. All carriers impose taxes and fees. Many carriers impose fuel surcharges. A processing fee is an extension of this trend. Even if you book an award online there may still be people in the back office taking charge of that reservation and making sure the appropriate alliance partners are contacted so each segment is ticketed properly.

Everyone would like it if booking fees were included in the cost of an award. But a la carte service fees are the new reality of air travel. Breaking out fees for things like checked baggage helps to keep fares low, and breaking out fees for booking an award — whether any award or just those booked by phone — helps to reduce (though not eliminate) the inflation of award charts.

I don’t think these booking fees can possibly cover the entire cost of providing the service. $25 seems low for 30 to 60 minutes of manpower plus the entire infrastructure supporting the reservations team. I’m sure that carriers would prefer to make it possible to book as many awards online as possible. Sometimes they just don’t have the IT systems to support every partner. I imagine in the specific case of United and Singapore where a partner has been removed there may be more going on that we know. Requiring customers to call in every time they want an award on Singapore Airlines doesn’t help Jeff Smisek toward his goal of cutting $2 billion in costs.

So at the end of the day, are phone booking fees ideal? Certainly not. But I would not go as far as saying they are unfair — as long as the carrier is making an effort toward letting us book online and avoid those fees in the future.

Scott created Hack My Trip after learning how to travel better on a budget during grad school. He now flies over 150,000 miles every year.
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  • Henry

    The phone fee has nothing to do with cost. It’s charged because they can get away with it. What other business charges you to buy their product? If you don’t believe that, why is there a close in booking fee? What expense does that fee relate to? Nothing. It’s a money grab just like all other airline fees.

    • Intelligent Thinker

      Because the money just magically appears every time they have to pay a call center related bill, right?

    • Darth Chocolate

      Every business charges you to buy their products; you just don’t see it as a separate line item. That’s what markup is all about. Companies do not sell at “cost” because there would be no incentive to produce the product.

  • Lappalicious

    “Is it fair?” I was unaware that the United States follows socialist principles to make sure all companies play “fair”.

    Is it fair that Apple charges me $600 for an iPhone, which implicitly creates a 50% profit margin for them?

    So if you believe that this is “fair”, then an airline should be allowed to charge you a $100+ fee to attain a similar profit margin. Agreed?

    • Scottrick

      They could do all kinds of things, including double the cost of an award ticket in miles and remove the fee.

  • Noah

    Businesses price based on demand, not cost. But even if there is some linkeage…

    I think the phone fee should be instituted for all itineraries, award or revenue, if they can also be booked online or through other self service channels. If you have problems or complexities, I would like to see airlines be flexible with the fee and not charge for itineraries that cannot be built or priced properly online.

    Ultimately, there is a cost and benefit of providing the service and if it is not the customer’s only option, then the airline can do it without my backlash as it lowers the cost for those who chose to use cheaper, available, self service options

    • Scottrick

      Your proposal is sensible.

      But to be more clear, I have had airline representatives explain that the fee is charged because they have bills to pay. And for that reason I think it’s a “fair” fee (as are many ancillary fees, including checking baggage or charging for snacks/drinks) even if it isn’t directly related to the cost of providing that service.

      I contrast this with an “unfair” fee like assigning a seat even when that seat doesn’t have any extra legroom or other features that might explain why an airline needs to collect additional revenue.

  • jvl

    I agree with Scott.$25 cannot cover such booking fees be they revenue or reward tickets.I recently spent 40 mins on the phone with a Star Alliance reservationist booking a Business Class R/T LAX/BUD on Lufthansa (using United Miles Plus for 100,000 miles plus $98 tax—prior to ‘the deprecation!).She ‘trolled’ every day the entire month of April to find me a seat( FOR ONE PERSON!) and did precisely the same for the month of May (FOR ONE PERSON!)! Did she earn her fee of $25? I,ll let you be the judge BUT given that my local ‘bricks-and-mortar’ TA charges ‘ a reservation fee’ of $80 added to an Economy ticket costing $950 vs the $25 fee charged above for a $4500 Businees Class Ticket I find the latter was ‘a steal’! Oh! By the way to put things into perspective: Do you realize your local VW mechanic charges $125/hr for his labor? So $25 for 40 mins——————————————-!!!

  • Victor

    I recently booked an award ticket on AA, and since I’m based in Australia, they charged me $80 AUD (approx USD 75) which I found to be outrageous as I was still calling the US call centre.

  • Award Magic

    The reality is booking a phone over the phone that can be booked online is fair and reasonable. That said, regardless of the “official policy” and what some agents – often poorly informed ones, I should add – may say, they are often willing to waive the fee for tickets that are not bookable online. It’s true that it doesn’t always work out that way, but for us at Award Magic, we ALWAYS try to save our customers money by having the agents waive the phone fees!

  • TheFrugalWeds

    If an online booking option is available I will always go that route first, but if I am going to pay then I just make sure that I have exhausted all scenarios and I am securing the best deal before finalizing. Not sure if that makes the booking fee “fair” but it does make it easier to accept.

  • http://www.thesterlingtraveler.com/ TheSterlingTraveler

    I think it’s fair if the itinerary is bookable online. I had this “discussion” with a BA rep trying to book an AS award flight. While I didn’t agree with the reps response, I did not want to hang up and call again (thus waiting on hold for what seems like forever).