Introduction to Fuel Dumping

You’ll remember last week I discussed my philosophy on fuel dumping and whether or how much of the technique should be shared openly. This week I’m going to tell you a little bit about how to do it yourself. A lot of it can already be found in my posts on MilePoint. However, some could use more clarification.

Understanding Fuel Surcharges

With the rise in oil prices in recent years, many airlines have taken to adding fuel surcharges to their international fares. Some of them even make you pay the fuel surcharge when you book an award trip, claiming that the miles only cover the base fare (which is total BS, but that’s another story).

The result is that many (but not all) international fares include three components: (1) base fare, depending on the fare or booking class like L or Y for coach and Z or C for business; (2) taxes and fees imposed by governments and airports; and (3) fuel surcharges. Some airlines still include fuel surcharges in the base fare, and others may break them out only for certain routes. However, when a fuel surcharge exists, there is often the potential to dump it.

Why include fuel surcharges in the first place? I’m not entirely sure. I don’t believe it was done just to make people pay fuel surcharges on award tickets. That’s a bad customer service decision when the fees and fuel surcharge may cost more than a discount revenue ticket, and clearly some airlines (mostly U.S. airlines) manage to survive without doing it. I think a better explanation is that airlines can easily adjust the cost of a ticket by changing just the fuel surcharge that applies to many routes between two regions without adjusting the base fare for each individual route as well as the dozen or so fare classes on each flight.

When you get into this hobby, you may notice that the fuel surcharge between the U.S. and Europe is one price on PanAm, but a different price on TWA. It’s yet another price on PanAm if you are instead flying from the U.S. to Asia. It makes sense from the perspective of individual carriers trying to easily adjust fares in response to their own fuel expenses to each region even if we as consumers don’t always like the way it’s been implemented. For example, fuel surcharges haven’t really fallen much even as the price of oil has dropped significantly.

Since this is called fuel dumping, that means you can’t dump a fare without a fuel surcharge. Taxes and fees are generally fixed, so I don’t worry about them. A few special cases include the example of flights out of London, where the UK has imposed a large air passenger duty (APD) on departing flights. A way to avoid this is to originate your trip in another country but pass through London as a connection. But again, this is an example of a special case and not something I worry about.

Finding Candidate Fares

What you should worry about is finding flights with low base fare and high fuel surcharge, generally designated as YQ (sometimes YR) in the fare construction that you can find through ITA or other fare search engines. Base fares between the U.S. and Europe may be $80 each way in winter and $120 in summer. The reason the price you see is so high is that the fuel surcharge can be $500 plus an extra $100 in taxes. Dump the fuel and fares as low as $200 between New York and Europe are not unheard of. These low base fares are called “candidate fares” and are not all that difficult to find. Just look for low total fares and check the fare construction to see how much of it is YQ. If it’s just low because the base fare is $200 each way and there’s no fuel surcharge, then this fuel dumping technique isn’t going to help you at all.

Per the comments below, I’d like to clarify that a low base fare is not critical. However, it is important that there be sufficiently large YQ (or a very effective 3X) that a fuel dump be able to lower the fare by a worthwhile amount. If the YQ is $100, it probably isn’t worth the effort.

For example, here is a fare to Rome that I’ve been researching lately. Not a terribly good candidate, but you can see that even so, YQ of $476 makes up about half the total ticket price of $985.70. For a good candidate, the YQ can be over three-quarters of the all-in price since the YQ doesn’t vary due to seasonal demand or occasional sales.

Picture of ITA flight details page

Candidate fares are easy enough to find that they often aren’t coded at all; people just post the entire fare construction with dates and airlines and flight numbers. I’m ambivalent toward this approach. On the one hand, certain valuable itineraries that can be brought to very low prices should be coded because if too many people find a working dump and succeed in booking it, the fare could disappear and the dump stop working. It may not be a Tiffany jewel just yet, but we can all agree that it’s not wise to leave rough diamonds lying around unguarded. On the other hand, no one wants to decode the question just so they can create and code an answer to it. Less would be accomplished if everything were coded.

What Is a Third Strike?

The critical tool to make fuel dumping work is the “3X” or “third strike.” A normal fare might look like A-B-A. Two legs from A to B and back. A dumped fare might look like A-B-A,X-Y. The same A-B-A trip with an additional X-Y leg tacked on as part of a multi-city itinerary. However, you don’t fly X-Y. If anyone asks, you fell ill while changing a tire on the side of a road in the middle of a snowstorm because you were in a funeral procession for your recently deceased great aunt Hilda. Something came up. Because typically X-Y is in some remote part of the world that you can’t easily get to.

Of course, sometimes X-Y is nearby, and X or Y may even be the same as A or B. But it doesn’t have to be, and I think that’s where a lot of people get tripped up. Just because I am trying to dump a fare from Seattle to London does not mean that my 3X needs to originate in Seattle. The route construction for a dumped itinerary is A-B-A,X-Y and not A-B-A-Y. That comma is key. Just like in Eats, Shoots & Leaves.

[Yes, I am a huge fan of the Oxford comma. I’m a man who knows his cocktails, fare construction, and grammar. That and I get to use a microscope that can visualize individual blood cells coursing through a fish. Is it any wonder I get all the chicks? 😀 ]

Words of Caution

Of course, the airlines don’t particularly like you doing this, so if you want to get any frequent flyer miles for this it might be wise to schedule X-Y for a month after you return to A, making sure that you have enough time for the miles to post before you “miss” your 3X due to some “totally unforeseen” event. This is also why the 3X happens last. If you put it at the beginning of your itinerary and miss it, the rest of your ticket will be cancelled, too.

Finally, don’t tell anyone working for an airline or travel agency or in any remote position of authority about what you are doing. If anyone does some digging and sees that the fuel surcharge is missing and what you’ve done to achieve that, they could easily cancel your ticket and close that 3X off to everyone else in this game. So don’t whine about seat assignments. Don’t try to reschedule your flight or do a same-day change. Don’t ask about upgrades. Just accept that you are getting a steal on this flight and the miseries of being treated like a non-elite passenger in coach are part of the bargain.

I will talk about how to find a 3X and other variations on fuel dumping strategy later this week, so make sure you are proficient at using ITA before then. Check out my three-part series on using ITA if you haven’t already:

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  • Wandering Aramean

    Only a bit ironic that you wan people to “not tell anyone” about what they’re doing while you’re publishing a how-to guide and promoting it, huh?? 😉

    • Scottrick

      Ehhh, sort of, yes, I see your point. What I share is how to go off and look for these opportunities on your own. I don’t plan to publish any working 3Xs. I don’t encourage anyone to go share the 3Xs they learn with anyone else unless it is coded or in private. So that part is not public. Still, I don’t see the point in hiding the fact that these possibilites exist. They’re still just possibilities until someone goes out and finds a working dump through his or her own effort.

      Just like Amazon Payments, the Mint deal, Costco diamonds, and other ways to abuse certain opportunities to earn free miles, there was an argument to keep those under wraps, too, but I rarely see anyone getting pilloried for sharing step-by-step instructions. I’m trying to leave some things to the reader.

      • Rizwan Kassim

        I get your point; and I enjoy following you on MP (hi!); but all you need is one of the big mileage blogs linking to you here to cause a whole shitstorm. There’s something about a single blog post versus a number of forum posts.

        Costco, the Mint, etc – weren’t those mostly in the domain of FT rather than posted on blog pages that were likely to get linked?

        When I knew nothing about FDing; I was quite frustrated at the lack of easy intros; but at this point I’m glad I had to work for it — it filters out the people who weren’t willing to read 100+ posts to get a basic intro; learn how to code; and show some willingness to contribute.

        If you leave this up, perhaps make it require a little bit more work from the reader? Perhaps as an interactive exercise rather than a howto?

        Meant totally constructively =)

        • Scottrick

          I found all the info on those hacks by searching Google, which linked to FT and MP pages with walkthroughs. A blog is no different. In fact, FT has a lot of authority with Google, so its results tend to be near the top even without telling Google to restrict its search. But wait and see how the week plays out. I think there will still be a lot of reader effort required, but I can edit things later.

          Incidentally, the second most popular Google search term that leads people to my site is “WorldWingedExplorer.” At least one click-through every other day. I’m kind of hoping he comes back and shares another comment so his name ends up on the page :)

  • Matt

    In a lot of ways, looking for a low base fare candidate can be the least important starting point if starting from zero. Something like the example you cite is actually probably better – useful in that it gets you somewhere you may want to go from somewhere convenient to travel from, on an airline/alliance you want to fly. I’m guessing it’s dumpable as well, probably using tricks you already know.

    There are other things I’d look at first, as a dumping neophyte (which I am, other than pricing out a few dumps and flying one). As a non-member of the secret club, I’m reluctant to specify what and I’ll leave that to others. The questionable veracity of statements such as “you can dump pretty much all fares with YQ” come to mind…

    • Scottrick

      True. You don’t need the lowest base fare, but some people like to compete. And while not all fares with YQ can be dumped, they are a place to start. (I don’t think I made a statement to that effect, but if I did, please point it out and I’ll change it.) I’ve seen many people try to dump fares that don’t have YQ, which isn’t going to work.

      • Matt

        You certainly didn’t make such a statement, but I’ve seen it from others recently (followed up by a list of a half-dozen or more non-dumpable carriers!)

        I think some of the most valuable stuff for starting out is evaluating dumpability as a step 1.5 between finding a fare and looking for a strike etc. Like you said, people waste time trying to dump even fares without surcharges. For an absolute beginner I’d rank having a fare that looks pretty reasonable to dump even higher than having a low base fare. I guess a lot of this falls into “finding the strike”, but a sanity check before investing too much effort is always a good thing.

  • Karlyn

    Being a FT reader (sometime poster) for a couple years & a MP (since beta) member, I can’t tell you how happy I am to see someone writing easy-to-follow series of posts for those of us wanting to learn FD!

    I HAVE spent 100s of hours hrs trying to comb through the thousands of FT tricking posts, as well as early MP posts & hundreds of googled pages, but have very little actual knowledge (& not results)to show for it. Being an extremely literal/logic-based thinker, I’ve always learned best by being taught step-by-step how to do something & then applying that knowledge to become expert after practice.

    I see FD to be like advanced mathematics: even though someone may have the formula to an equation, it doesn’t mean they’ll be able to understand how to apply it without lots of practice. Everyone knows e=mc^2, but very few know what to do with it…

    WA–while I can’t thank you enough for your posts/blog/tools, I’m personally surprised to see you so critical of Scott teaching those who are wanting to learn the basics (& willing to apply them) so that they may develop the ability to master the FD puzzle.

  • The Man of a Thousand Places

    This is good stuff! I know many people are worried about having topics like this spelled out too clearly. However, I think the primary beneficiaries of this kind of content will be seasoned travelers who just need a little bit of clear guidance. It’s a relatively small, but very grateful audience. This topic is too complex, and frankly irrelevant, for the masses. Keep up the good work!

    • Scott Mackenzie

      I get a lot of emails from people who say it’s too confusing. Other people say it’s too clear. About 50/50. I think that’s a good sign I provided just enough information.

  • JohnB

    Fuel surcharges are done by the airlines to raise the revenue collected to be equal to the cost of providing the transportation. All fares have to be filed with ATP. Changing the fuel surcharge, increases the revenue without filing new fares. The base fare is considered to be fixed costs, of course the fuel isn’t. And with oil going up, fuel surcharges will increase. As I was travel agent for 25 years and currently work for the world’s largest air freight company, there are always holes in fare structures that can be exploited. Since the airlines have so little extra monies to search for errors, I doubt if any of the airlines have people looking at these blogs. As the technies know, air fares are like line code. Very easy to make a mistake. As I was Sabre trained agent, I know A* used to have a program that checked for the errors in fares, but since they are in bankruptcy and they don’t own Sabre anymore, I don’t think they spend the time on this. Remember A* has the least number of international flights….

    • cayhey

      Large agencies still make substantial commission on the base fare, so a 3:1 ratio of YQ to base fare ($600 fuel surcharge, $200 base fare) translates to a 300% savings in commission payout for the airlines.

      Fuel surcharge is a misnomer, as it has no basis in reality to the cost of fuel.

      • Paul Andrew DeLane

        i agree. although i do travel very often, this is far too complex for me. not to mention,i am positive this is illegal… but don’t worry, i won’t tell! lol go ahead take a risk, feel alive! lol I will just stick the safe and honest way.

  • TA

    is it possible to do this on one way routes? I’m new to this, and after about an hour of searching, I cannot find flights with fuel charges of more than $50. I’m trying to go from Seoul-anywhere in NZ…

    • Scottrick

      There may not be significant fuel surcharges on that route. Not all fares include them.

  • Sergey Firsov

    Yes, somebody are calling this steps as “Airline or travel agency bugs”. But it’s real fraudulence… Isn’t it?

    • Etienne Christophe

      It is fraud. Even if you don’t like how airlines price their tickets, you are violating your terms of carriage if you do this.

  • Bryan Makeda

    We’re planning a trip in Y from North America to Hong Kong, Malaysia, and Australia, then back to NA and the YQ is $780!

    I’ve discovered a very short domestic FD flight in Europe with a $37 fare that when added onto the above trip as a fifth leg reduces the YQ to $318.

    That would be a huge $850 net savings for a couple of seniors in their 70s on a once-in-a-lifetime trip, but dare we do it????

    • Scottrick

      Fuel dumping always involves a risk that the airline will find out. If it does, there is a chance it will cancel your ticket, or it may ask you to pay the missing fuel surcharge.

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  • GinlostinNYC

    Thank you, Scott. You saved my brain from imploding from reading the tricks thread on FT.

    • Scott Mackenzie

      I still recommend reading that thread, but this should give you a head start in deciphering the rest of the code.

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  • Jerry Mandel

    Beware: Sneaky airlines. Instead of YQ/YR, they call it “Carrier Charge”.

    • Scott Mackenzie

      All kinds of crazy names, yes. A few airlines still include the surcharge as part of the base fare, but that has it’s own silver lining — some loyalty programs still make you pay fuel surcharges when you book an award ticket, and there’s no way to fuel dump an award ticket. But if the fuel surcharge is part of the base fare, then it’s always going to be free on awards.

      You win some, you lose some. At least I hope it makes more sense now.

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