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How good are twofers?

Twofers—often promoted as “free companion tickets” or such—are a frequent promotional ploy for the travel industry. But most consumers have become cynical about ad claims these days, and they justifiably challenge some of the industry’s puffery. As one reader recently put it, “I have seen free companion fare deals in the past, but now that I could actually use one I can’t seem to find any of these sales. Any suggestions for a free companion ticket? Are those third-party companies who sell them trustworthy?”

Short answer: Those companion tickets are truly “free” only rarely, but they are occasionally good deals. The usual catch is that the ticket you have to buy to qualify for the “free” companion ticket is either vastly overpriced or more expensive than the cheapest ticket you could find.

Business-class twofers

The two-for-one international business- and first-class promotions from American Express Platinum Card and Carte Blanche are classic examples of twofers where the qualifying ticket is grossly overpriced. Business-class international tickets can cost up to 40 times the cost of an economy excursion, so even at half price, a business-class ticket costs a fortune. When the AmEx promotion first surfaced, it wasn’t a bad deal. Business-class fares weren’t as high as they are now and, in any case, they were seldom discounted. Now, however, business-class tickets are widely discounted, at close to half price, and even at half price, they’re still out of reach of most consumers.

If you’re still interested, AmEx has business-class twofers on 18 U.S. and overseas carriers, with a first-class option on a few. Carte Blanche has twofers with British Airways that include some economy tickets as well as business. But to get the twofer you have to buy a full-fare ticket, not the discounted ticket you’d usually buy.

Economy twofers

You often see twofers available in economy class—for domestic and international travel—most often in short-term promotions from airlines or other merchants. The usual problem is that the qualifying ticket costs quite a bit more than the cheapest ticket you could buy.

Although I haven’t studied any recent twofer promotions in detail, Robert Cowen—who publishes an insightful email newsletter about online travel buying—recently did. He tested some different air trips and found that lowest-cost companion tickets were available in only 35 percent of the cases, and that in 80 percent of the times the companion prices were higher than the lowest prices available to anyone. When the site reported that its lowest-price tickets were unavailable, if offered available tickets at higher prices—an approach that, in my book, comes dangerously close to bait & switch.

When I last looked at twofers several years ago, I found about the same results. Most of the time, you’d be better off buying two of the cheapest available tickets, but the twofer occasionally was the better deal.

What to do

Cowen came to the same conclusions I’ve come to every time I looked at twofers:

  • If you can get a companion certificate (or whatever) without paying extra, you might as well take it—it might turn out to be a good deal, at least in a few cases.
  • But don’t pay extra or buy something you really don’t need just to get the certificate—on average, it will turn out to be worthless.

I don’t know why it is that so many people still think the travel industry is eager to give away its services. Airlines are having a tough enough time making a profit by selling one ticket at a time. Selling two for the price of one makes absolutely no sense—unless, of course, that the one they sell to qualify for a twofer costs more than twice the ones they sell individually. Folks, there’s no such thing as a free lunch, and anything that looks too good to be true is too good to be true.
Regardless of whether you’re interested in twofers, take a look at Cowen’s newsletter. You’ll find lots of valuable stuff.

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