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When Is a Deal Not a Deal?

Buy a “qualifying” ticket and get a huge discount, or some “free” deal, or something extra—that’s a common come-on in the travel marketplace. And although those deals can sometimes be really good, the fine print often results in your paying more than you should, not less.

I’m indebted to the excellent website, Cranky Flier, for bringing attention to my first example:

As part of a “bonus” promotion, United offered extra frequent flyer miles on flights to/from Denver. To reserve these flights, you enter a promotional code in your initial search. When Cranky Flier did this, the lowest round-trip fare he found was $692. But when he entered a normal search, without the promo code, the lowest available fare dropped to $238. In attempting to replicate his test, I found a promo fare of $652, but the lowest nonstop fare I could find was $493. Although I couldn’t find any $238 seats, I might not have checked all the right dates, or United may have sold out its very lowest fare buckets. But even the difference I found was large.

What’s going on? To qualify for the bonus, you have to book and buy tickets at the “Q” class fare—a fare bucket that is several notches up the ladder from United’s lowest fares. I couldn’t find out exactly how many bonus miles I’d get, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t as many as the 45,000 miles that Cranky Flier would have gained on his fare options, with miles valued at one cent each.

Here’s another case: For years, the AmEx Platinum Card has featured twofers in business class (and some in first class) for international flights on 22 airlines, including some of the biggest. The deal is straightforward: Buy one ticket at the regular price and get a companion ticket at no extra charge. The catch is equally straightforward: that “regular price” limitation. The only type of ticket that qualifies for the twofer is a full-fare ticket. And that’s a good deal only if you have to buy a full-fare ticket for some other reason; these days, you can find big discounts on business class tickets.

On Lufthansa, for example, you’d have to pay $5,636 for a full-fare business class round-trip from New York to Frankfurt. But, for travel this summer, Lufthansa is selling business class round-trip tickets to anyone who wants to buy them for as little as $1,917, so you could buy two of those discounted tickets and still pay $1,800 less than you’d pay for the ticket you have to buy to qualify for the AmEx twofer. Granted, that discounted ticket has lots more restrictions than the full fare option, and if business class fares rebound as the recession moderates, big discounts may not be around long. Nevertheless, at least for now, most leisure travelers looking for comfortable flights to Europe would be much better off with the two discounted tickets than the twofer.

Of course, some “too good to be true” offers you see are outright scams. Although they’re a problem, I’m concentrating now on offers that are honest—just not as good as they sound.
Over the years, I’ve looked at all sorts of twofer, companion, and other “free” promotions. Some of them have, in fact, been good deals. But all too often, the ticket/room/cabin/whatever you have to buy to “qualify” for the supposed freebie actually costs a lot more than the cheapest ticket/room/cabin/whatever you can buy, absent the promotion.

Fortunately, misleading promotions such as these are easy to detect and avoid. Just check out what you’d have to pay with the promotion and then re-check for the lowest rate/fare you can buy without reference to the promotion. And compare the restrictions on both options. If the promotion still looks good, by all means take advantage of it. If not, go with the non-promotional alternative.

Have you ever taken advantage of a “deal” that turned out to be less than ideal? Share your thoughts, experiences, and advice by submitting a comment below!

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