'Free' airline award flights can be pricey

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A Scottsdale man says his free award flight to Europe came with some major sticker shock and other travelers could face the same surprise if they don't understand the true cost of booking award travel.

Here's the scenario: You accumulate a lot of frequent flier points over a long period of time and now you're stoked because you've finally earned a free flight. But if you're using your award for international travel, you better budget for the cost of that 'free' flight.

Cliff Smith and his wife moved to Arizona from the U.K. back in the 1970s. They often visit England and are heading over again next August for a wedding.  Smith thought one thing he didn't have to worry about was the flight.

"I knew that I had about 100,000 miles and I thought I could apply it to the airline," Smith said.

It was actually 120,000 American Advantage miles to book two round-trip tickets from Phoenix to London. Smith had that covered, it was the $1,040 in taxes and fees that shocked him.

"You go, wait a minute, this can't be right," Smith said.

But it is. Like most airlines, American Airline's Conditions of Carriage states taxes and fees are added to award flights. Some travelers, like Smith, have no idea how high the fees can be.

"What would it be if you were a family of four, two kids going, so it's not $1,040 anymore, it's $2,080," Smith said.

Smith has learned that a free flight doesn't really mean free. Smart travelers need to know about the taxes and fees and factor them into their international travel budget.

"And you've got to be very careful because depending on the route, depending on the actual airline that you're using, they could be staggering," Smith said.

Taxes and fees on award flights can vary based on how many legs you have to your journey and which airports you fly into, but the charges are generally your responsibility. It's the same with most airlines.

This information is available on airline websites but still some travelers are shocked when they find out how much they have to pay for their 'free' flight.

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Dave CherryCBS 5 Advocate Dave Cherry works to resolve your consumer problems and protect your money. If he can't help, he'll do his best to point you in the right direction.

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Dave Cherry
CBS 5 Advocate

Dave was born and raised in Philadelphia and considers himself one of the biggest Philly sports fans. At 6-feet, 5-inches, he's probably right! Dave started on a different career path before fulfilling his lifelong dream of reporting the news and helping consumers. Dave graduated from Philadelphia University with a Bachelor of Science degree in Accounting; he later earned an MBA degree in Finance from Temple University in Philadelphia. Dave also spent ten years as Vice President and Director of Sales and Marketing for two of America's leading real estate franchise companies. Dave started his 21-year news career at WHP in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, as news anchor and reporter, then moved to KOLD in Tucson, as the morning news anchor. From Tucson, he went to KRON in San Francisco as a freelance news reporter before moving east to COMCAST in Philadelphia as a general assignment reporter. In the fall of 2003, Dave moved west and joined KPNX in Phoenix and spent nine years as the station Call for Action Consumer Reporter. Through his on-air advocacy work in 2011, Dave and his team were able to help consumers save more than $1 million. Dave joined CBS 5 News as our CBS 5 Advocate in December 2012. Dave is a vegan and likes to eat the amazing vegan food prepared by his lovely wife, Carmen. Dave's also a big Bruce Springsteen fan (he's seen more than 70 shows!), the man who inspired him to learn the guitar. Besides playing many of the boss' songs, Dave writes and sings his own songs and recorded a CD of original music.

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