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American offers ‘Hundreds of Dollars in Savings for Only $129!’

American Airlines, inventor of the modern mileage program, on Thursday launched a paid enhancement to the program, TrAAvel Perks.

For an annual membership fee of $159 (discounted to $129 through August 31), TrAAvel Perks members receive the following:

1) Two companion certificates. Although the required paid tickets must be worth at least $299, American claims the companion tickets are worth “over $600.” And the fine print acknowledges that, “When available, short term promotional fares may provide a lower cost for your trip than the use of this certificate.” Other caveats: The companion tickets are only for travel within the contiguous 48 states and Alaska, cannot be upgraded and may not be used during blackout periods.

2) 2,500 AAdvantage bonus miles—500 miles after the first 45 days of membership with subsequent miles issued in 500-mile increments during the end of each calendar quarter for the first year. Using $0.012 as our per-mile value, the bonus is worth all of $30, doled out over a year.

3) “AAdvantage participant discounts and bonus miles.” American has rounded up a number of travel suppliers and retailers and negotiated special deals and discounts for TrAAvel Perks members. It’s a mixed bag. A free Admirals Club day pass, worth $50, is a meaningful benefit. Discounts on Samsonite luggage, bonus miles for purchases from online florists, an earning rate of 10 miles per $1 spent at SkyMall … these deals are widely available without paying an additional fee to obtain them.

American’s website boasts: “Get Hundreds of Dollars in Savings for Only $129!” Maybe, maybe not. Such buy-access-to-future-discounts offers have value only insofar as participants truly need the featured products or services and actually purchase them. The program operator pockets the membership fee whether the subscriber takes advantage of the potential savings or not.

In short, TrAAvel Perks is a sure thing for the airline, but no guarantee for the consumer. Kinda sounds like the basic premise underlying frequent flyer programs, doesn’t it?

The take-away: before writing American a check for a one-year subscription to TrAAvel Perks, be sure that the value of the benefits you will receive at least offsets the subscription price, and that those benefits are not available elsewhere for free.

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