Answering Reader Questions: The Mystery Surrounding “Fuel Dumps”

There were a ton of great questions in yesterday’s open thread, and I will slowly work my way through them. I don’t promise answers to every question, and of course some of the comments weren’t questions at all or even close to on topic for this blog.

But that’s ok, I asked what’s on your mind, it’s given me a ton of food for thought. The questions I think will be of broad interest to my readers I’ll try to give some public answers to. And of course I do my best to answer reader e-mail as well.

Eric FD said,

discuss the ‘fuel dumping’ fare tricks often secretly discussed on FT/MilePoint trick-it forums. i hate the secrecy there – can you shed some light?

There’s a great deal of secrecy surrounding the concept of a “fuel dump” — the various various tricks and strategies to avoid paying fuel surcharges when buying airline tickets.

Discussions often take place “in code” which are fairly impenetrable to the layman. Although a little bit of time spent on the code and you realize they aren’t all that sophisticated.

Ongoing discussions of these techniques take place in the “Trick It” threads on both Milepoint and Flyertalk, and they take place “in code” because of a fear that open discussion of the particulars will result in the various techniques being shut down.

Back in March, 2010 Airfare Watchdog ran a post on forcing airfare pricing to drop fuel surcharges, often saving hundreds of dollars on an international ticket. This was a popular trick discussed in online forums, but the broader world’s attention was caught by the Airfare Watchdog post. The simple trick that had worked so well for a couple of years was shut down in a matter of hours.

Now, initially I didn’t believe that Airfare Watchdog could have brought so much quick attention to the issue, and I certainly didn’t think that the United IT folks could work so quickly (since United was often the carrier on which the trick was most frequently used).

It turns out that the extra attention was enough to make it a priority to get things fixed, and knowing some of the people involved in the outside company that assisted in plugging the hole I do know that my initial reaction was wrong, the Airfare Watchdog post was what escalated the issue and that it was indeed plugged in a very short time.

Airfare Watchdog took a lot of heat for posting the piece, since the attention meant that the pricing trick was killed. And I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that the website has since pulled the piece, as though it almost never existed. Matthew from Live and Let’s Fly quoted much of it in a contemporaneous post-mortem.

In simplest form, folks would book a segment from the US to Canada at the end of an international itinerary. That would cause fuel surcharges to drop out of the price of the itinerary. And most folks wouldn’t fly that final segment, just tossing it.

Airlines know about ‘fuel dumps’ and for the most part they are obscure enough and low volume enough that they aren’t a priority to deal with. Discussing the existence of fuel dumps won’t make them go away.

But I’m not going to name the specific city pairs that cause fuel surcharges to drop off of specific tickets, because enough broad use of specific technique will raise the cost to the airline of that technique, and raise the priority to close the ‘loophole’.

The gist of the trick is this:

  • Airlines that don’t have interline fuel surcharge agreements split revenue on the basis of IATA’s BSP settlement tables.
  • Those tables are country-specific. Some routes, on some airlines, aren’t fully updated correctly in some country BSP tables.
  • So adding combining two different airlines that don’t have those interline agreements, ticketed correctly, can cause pricing engines not to include fuel surcharges in the price of the ticket.

This is fairly complicated, and not for the novice. The website you use to book the ticket matters because (1) different online travel agencies might book th same itinerary that combines two airlines as tickets on one versus the other, and that can affect whether or not fuel surcharges price, and (2) the country that the ticket is issued in matters as well.

It’s important that if you use any of these techniques that you don’t draw additional attention to yourself (and in many cases, that means not even trying to upgrade the tickets). An airline can refuse to let you board until you pay the applicable fuel surcharge. There are occasional anecdotes of such things happening, although they’re rare.

I would say that novices should:

  • Read the threads on the frequent flyer forums, at least as a pass-through, to familiarize themselves with the concept.
  • Then ask questions, not about specific city pairs but possibly pose a question about a specific itinerary they’re working with, and hopefully a kind reader of the thread will reach out with a suggestion.

Or consider that there are other techniques to save on tickets as well, which are sometimes more broadly applicable, such as throwaway ticketing and hidden city ticketing to reduce the cost of your airfare.

Again, nothing in this post that hasn’t been posted publicly elsewhere including in widely published FAQs on the subject. I’m not going to write about the specific airlines and city pairs, besides the particulars do shift over time. But now you know what folks are talking about by ‘trick it’ and ‘fuel dump’. And if you want to invest the time to learn more, you can.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Good post, you gave good background without clearly identifying active dumps.
    (I’ve never taken the time to learn the dumps.)

  2. I spent the time learning and figured this out prior to the Airfare Watchdog fiasco. In the end, it was fun to think about all the possible trips, though I only did book 2 tricked tickets and saved a few hundred bucks. As time passed, I stopped going to those threads as much, since keeping up with the tricks wasn’t worth my time.

    I would suggest the following for those interested in these tricks. If you may be interested in help from one of the FT or milepoint threads, build up a positive reputation first by helping others in areas you know about. Users will be far more likely to help if you are an active and contributing member of their community.

  3. Dear Mr. Fancy Pants,

    I’m Party Pooper, personal assistant to Mr. Jeff Smisek and I’m here to kick ass and take names.

    I’m gonna go ahead and ask you for a list of names of everyone you know who’s ever taken a dump (fuel-related or otherwise) on UA and/or any of our Star Alliance partners and/or any of our IATA partners.

    In conclusion, you’re busted and I’m gonna tell Mrs. Mommy Points that the next time she pays an extra $500 to fly Lufthansa first class on the A380 (also known as “fancying up her pants”) she can send you the bill.

    PS: Sorry, it’s a slow day at work…

    PSS: I, too, find the secrecy hilarious, but I totally understand you not wanting to be the one to publish the details. There’s nothing scarier than a digital mob of frequent flyers who now have to pay a fuel surcharge!!

  4. A blog kill a deal? Oh, say it ain’t so! Lots of tricks have survived for years now only because they have gone underground.

  5. Hi Gary,

    Hoping you can advise :

    Last week, I got my United Mileage + CC , verified with CSR’ the 60k bonus after 1K spend, made the 1K spend immediately.

    Today , I got a postcard from Chase saying – cos I’d had the CC & bonus previously, I would not get it again !

    Thought this CC was churnable – got & cancelled my 1st Mileage + CC
    6 months ago, now not sure what to do ?

    Can U recommend what I can say in a SM to Chase to get the bonus – seems to me the CSR’ should have informed me at the CC Activation .

    Many thanks

  6. @Anita — Chase cards are on the whole generally not churnable, though there are exceptions to this the usual rule is one bonus per card type. You can get a bonus on each card once.

  7. I dont mind the code. To be honest if its your thing then its quite easy to learn the code. It would just take a little time and paying attention to get the hang of it.

  8. @Anita,

    I’m not sure why you would think the UA card (or any Chase card for that matter) is churnable. Chase is strict about giving the bonus for the same card multiple times.

    There are some ways for some cards but not all.

  9. Not legal for U.S. based airlines to suddenly change the price of a ticket they sold you (collect additional fuel charges) at the gate. This is a DOT rule, so the airlines can’t just make up new fuel charges at the gate. So, no, they can’t refuse to board you for not paying the fuel charge at the gate. They would have to make up something else to refuse to allow you to board. Any VERIFIED example of this occurring? I mean, other than, one time a guy on Flyertalk who sells booking services claims it happened once to him — after he (as a de facto travel agent) booked literally hundreds of tickets? I have asked there before and other than that individual, I basically heard crickets. Lots of “I heard it happened once to some other guy I heard about” and that sort of nonsense…total FOAF stuff. I have better evidence for UFOs.

    Despite my quibble, great summary of the process. A good link I can hand off to people who ask me for more details about this method of finding cheap tickets.

  10. @MileageUpdate,

    I don’t mind it either but it is not easy to learn. Plus the community is understandly reluctant to give out information to anyone asking for it. They get a ton of requests daily from users with less than 10 posts.

  11. I’m generally familiar with this stuff, and have even successfully fuel dumped before. I’m past the stage where I want to spend 11+ hours in coach for most of my trips. For me the time investment just isn’t worth the savings, and I suspect the same is true for many here, even though everyone always wants in on a deal.

  12. I agree with the notion that specific fuel dumping techniques NOT be published.

    There is an old expression “loose lips sink ships”. That is applicable today when things are too much out in public.

    I do not know any fuel dumping techniques and I do not want to take the time (my choosing) to get educated in the threads since I am grounded (air travel) due to medical reasons.

    One may not agree with my position but I agree with Gary with not posting specifics.

  13. @ Dee Tee. I firmly beleive you should be a contributor 1st and the 10 post people shouldnt be “in”. Once you establish yourself as helping and answers other questions on FT or MP then you can get into the fuel dump groups. Its really not that hard to learn once you dive into it.

  14. @Nick, agreed!

    I knew some tricks as well and could have booked a few. Just like you said and I suspect is the case with others, the idea of traveling in economy is not appealing no matter how cheap. I think most folks want to know just for the sake of knowing. Not many will actually use them.

    @MileageUpdate, I think the simple ones are not hard to learn. But to make it worthwhile and be a pro (RT to Europe for $150), much more time is needed and the tricks keep changing.

  15. This post was a great dance…helped me have a better understanding of something I didn’t really get before without compromising the trick for those who are in the know. Well done.

  16. @Tom // Sit in first – if you’re buying from a non-US website, then one that does not charge foreign currency transaction fees. And ideally also one that bonuses airfare purchases. How about Chase Sapphire Preferred? Hah!

  17. @chemist661: There is some evidence the that original “Loose Lips Sink Ships” propaganda campaign begun in 1942 was not so much designed to deny German agents information, but rather to keep American civilian morale up by reducing communication about how much shipping was being sunk by German U-Boats. I do wonder how many deals come and go without any of us hearing about them.

  18. The problem with the way fuel dumps are currently discussed (in code) is that frequent flyers who might have use for the tricks once or twice a year are disincentivized from carefully following the threads and keeping up with the lingo.

    Of course, the keepers of the lingo like it that way, so the tricks can survive longer than they would if they were more widely utilized.

  19. Hey can you please send me an email , I would like to ask you for some private classes via skype.

  20. I have just seen that my comments won’t be published without your approval , so I can be more explicit. I am wiiling to pay you or anyone you know who can teach me tricks

  21. I know that if you tell me you will have to kill me so can you just give me a hint and rough me up a bit?

  22. It might be good to point out that most of the time you ask for help on FT for an itenerary, there are a few FT folks that will send you awnsers thru a secure message and even offer “tips” to help you figure out what you did wrong.

    Also helps to mention you would like “sudegestions” thru private messages.

    Maybe even state it just below your post. HINT HINT

  23. I echo Thomas statements……there is little spirit of cooperation on these threads unless you somehow know the secret handshake…….I have better ways to spend my time……..

  24. @JustSaying I think @Thomas was saying just the opposite. His point was that while there may not be open cooperation in the public threads, there are some who are often willing to help privately if you ask nicely and discreetly.

  25. @Jonathan perhaps……I didn’t experience that but maybe I will venture into the dark hole again and see what transpires………

  26. It’s often a bit of a dilemma when you find a serious ‘hole’ in the system whether or not to share it (Outside a tight-lipped circle). Airlines do monitor the blogs – often closely. Rule of thumb – if you think it’s going to shut it down by broadcasting it – keep it to yourself….

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