Lufthansa Miles and More frequent flyer program -- not recommended

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On Nov. 2, 2012 I redeemed 50,000 miles in my Lufthansa Miles and More awards program for a round-trip to Istanbul departing JFK March 31, 2013 and returning April 18, 2013 (the flights are on Swiss International Airlines with transfer in Zurich, which is the only airline choice I was offered by Lufthansa). Unfortunately Lufthansa Miles and More does not include taxes and fees as part of the deal, which I had to pay separately at the unexpectedly exorbitant cost of $436.04. Ouch, ouch, ouch, ouch, ouch! This is not the first time that has happened to me with a Lufthansa Miles and More award redemption, but it's darn well going to be my last because I have subsequently retired that account (although I still need to hold onto my Lufthansa Miles and More card as ID for getting a boarding pass for that flight in addition to my passport). I am a long time member of AAdvantage and Delta Skyteam, but was looking for a Star Alliance partner as an alternative and replacement for Lufthansa. Now that United took over Continental's OnePass Program earlier this year, I was automatically enrolled in United's Mileage Plus program under the same mileage account number and password that I had with OnePass. [Getting off on a tangent for a minute, unfortunately United, the most user-unfriendly of all US airlines, didn't automatically notify me about that -- I found it out only recently when I called United to inquire about switching to their MileagePlus program and was told that I'm already enrolled as a result of the airline merger. And then when I asked them to send me an official MileagePlus card, they said they no longer do that -- the most they allowed me was to print out a copy of it, which I did on thin letter-sized paper with my black-and-white printer and which is a stretch of the imagination to consider a card.] Last night, almost 6 weeks after I redeemed my Lufthansa mileage, it suddenly dawned on me to look at United's website just for the heck of it to see what kind of airfare and schedules they are offering to Istanbul for the same departure and return dates as mine. I see that they have a round trip from JFK to Istanbul by way of Frankfort or Munich with a United flight number (albeit operated by Lufthansa) that is $583.00 base fare and $141.50 in taxes and fees, for a total round trip fare of $724.50. That particular round-trip flight schedule was not offered me when I redeemed Lufthansa Miles and More for the flight award. In other words it cost me 50,000 Lufthansa miles plus $436.04 in taxes and fees to get a round-trip flight to Istanbul that I could have purchased for $724.50 including taxes and fees. I saved all of $288.46, which is totally out of proportion to the amount of mileage and taxes/fees expended on it. Lufthansa may refer to it as a flight “award”, but I deem it almost as a flight “punishment” for booking through Miles and More in the first place. I don't know -- many of you with whom I have corresponded privately seem to have better luck in the frequent flyer department and have never mentioned having to pay hundreds of dollars in taxes and fees. But the frequent flyer game doesn’t fly right with me. Lufthansa was once my favorite airline when I joined Miles and More, but at the end of the day its frequent flyer program turned out to be for the birds. Bye, bye Birdie. Auf Wiedersehen. What remains to be seen is whether United's MileagePlus program is any better. My new favorite airline is Star Alliance partner Turkish Airlines (which has better food than Lufthansa) and indeed I would have much preferred to join their Miles and Smiles program over United's MileagePlus. But alas, as a non-US carrier Turkish Airlines is as likely as Lufthansa to charge tax and fees on their frequent flyer award redemptions. According to the Boarding Pass column in the April 2012 issue of ITN Magazine, the only way of getting around the higher cost when booking a mileage-awards flight is to book a similar flight on a US carrier, which so far does not compute surcharges separately (hey, let’s not give them any ideas). However, all bets are off when one books an award flight on a US carrier that is operated by a foreign one. Consequently, even if I had enough mileage in United’s MileagePlus to book a mileage award ticket to Istanbul, all United flights from JFK to Istanbul are operated by either Lufthansa or Swiss International and thus I still would have been subject to the taxes and fees imposed by those airlines. The only way around that is to take three flights: from New York to Washington, DC on United Express (or some other United subsidiary); then from Washington to Frankfort or Munich on United; and from there to Istanbul on Lufthansa. United flights between Washington, DC and Germany are operated by United in its own right and not by a non-US carrier. But by taking 3 flights to get from New York to Istanbul (and then back again), one loses in time what one saves in money on taxes and fees. There’s really no way of winning the frequent flyer game because the airlines ensure to it that they have an inherent, built-in advantage that is stacked up against the consumer if not in one way, then in another. To the frequent flying public I view it as a losing proposition. Only just now do I realize that it is better suited towards upgrades rather than for “free” flights in themselves.

It is my understanding that most (if not all) of the European Airlines charge fuel surcharges and taxes for any ticket that they issue under their FF programs. Certainly, from personal experience, I can state that British Airways does. I paid $880(!) in surcharges and taxes last year for a Business Class ticket from Denver to Moscow. (I have subsequently cleaned out my BA account on domestic American and Alaska Airlines flights). This year I booked a Business Class ticket to Ethiopia using United miles. I used 120,000 miles and paid $121.00 for Denver to Addis Ababa and the flights are all on Lufthansa and Ethiopian Airlines. It is the FF program that issues the tickets which determines how much in extra charges you will have to pay.

It is a shock that airport taxes are getting sky-high You are completely right in that you could have bought a economy ticket for just $288. more.  But I think the best value of frequent flyer miles is in obtaining a business class ticket.    For just about the same taxes (maybe a little more), you would have had a $5000 ticket.    Its also really hard to upgrade using miles now as you need to buy the "lowest upgradeable fare"  as well as give miles  which in the case of the $724 ticket, might have been as high as $1500.  
As luck would have it, I was calling for an award ticket to Spain yesterday. This is what I found out about ticket “taxes and fees”:

Iberia Airlines
Business Class ticket (final price: $3930) -- taxes are $986
Economy Class ticket (final price $1373)-- taxes are $626

While we were waiting for rates to come up, I asked the agent about taxes when transiting through Heathrow Airport - which has huge taxes - she said price depends on class of seat, time of day (and probably if it is raining!) and can run:
Economy $600 to $900
Business $1000 to $1200

I wonder if it is just European airports that have these huge fees. I did some web-checking and fees for air to Bangkok is $171; and to Delhi $132.

Bottom line...... I guess nothing is really free anymore, especially when traveling to Europe!  

Thanks to all of you who have offered insight and feedback on my original post. After reading your comments (as well as the Boarding Pass column in the April 2012 issue of ITN Magazine and the long article on airline fees in the new, January 2013 issue) I have come to the conclusion that in redeeming frequent flyer mileage 1) it is best to avoid using it for flights to and from Europe (least of all London Heathrow); 2) as a corollary, that Asian airports may have cheaper landing fees; 3) that a flight that entails transferring in Europe regardless of your final destination will rack up additional airport taxes and fees as opposed to one that is non-stop; 4) that the biggest chunk of taxes and fees are imposed by your destination’s airport and by the government of the country and municipality in which it is located; and 5) that because US carriers compute taxes, fees and surcharges into their fare structure in a different way than European airlines, you will be clipped to a lesser degree by using a US-based carrier's frequent flyer plan than a foreign one (but nonetheless you will still be clipped).

The Apex of my frequent flyer experience was the economy class round-trip to Japan that I bagged two years ago for only 50,000 AAdvantage miles and a total of $50.40 in taxes (no typo, no joke) not including $40.00 in airline-imposed fees to make the reservation by telephone (American Airlines did not permit me to book the flights online -- I tried). [Unfortunately that fantastic deal ultimately turned out to be a pyrrhic victory because along came the devastating earthquake, tsunami, and resultant radiation crisis that quashed my Japan tour (with Adventures Abroad) and I had to wind up redepositing the mileage into my AAdvantage account where it remains to this day (yes, I realize that I better use it while American Airlines is still with us -- long may it live!).]

The nadir of my frequent flyer experience was the Lufthansa mileage episode described in my original post above.

This thread has caused me to come to the conclusion that airline frequent flyer programs "ain't" what they used to be and that the game has changed drastically for the worse from as recently as two years ago. As a result, yesterday I exchanged 40,000 Delta Skymiles for a round-trip from New York to Vancouver, BC in August (taxes/fees were $55.30). While two years ago it cost only 25,000 or 30,000 award miles to the same destination, even with 40,000 I feel that I got more "bang for the buck" than I would have with a flight to Europe. Vancouver is roughly the same distance from New York as the westernmost countries in Europe, but I didn't have to pay such an odious tax.

Yesterday I also redeemed 96,264 American Express Membership Points for an Ipad 4 (normally 120,330 points, but on sale for two more days at a savings of 24,066 points). There was no tax or shipping fee, which was already figured into the cost. I feel very comfortable with my decision. A flight is a fleeting moment in time, but I will always have the Ipad (at least until the next technological breakthrough comes along to render it obsolete). We have been conditioned to use our mileage redemptions only for flight awards (or upgrades), but methinks it is now more cost-efficient and economically productive to consider using them for non-flights.

Wishing you all Happy Travels in 2013! The best thing about each New Year is not that we're getting older, but that it brings a brand new slate of travel to look forward to.

You can use United Mileage Miles on any Star Alliance partner, I believe. I have an economy class ticket on Ethiopian airlines round trip to Kenya for $93 plus 80,000 and a round trip business class to Bangkok on Turkish Airlines for $56 plus 120,000 miles. Both airlines are Star Alliance partners. I was able to book both trips online on the United web site and these airlines were given as choices on the dates and destinations that I requested.

BTW, I believe that Turkish Airlines has a non-stop flight from JFK to Istanbul.