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Buyer beware: “Three-then-free” airfares

Heavy on the fine print, light on savings
Image: O'Hare International Airport in Chicago
A traveler walks by as passengers wait to check in at the United Airlines terminal at O'Hare International Airport in ChicagoFrank Polich / REUTERS

At Budget Travel you, the traveling consumer, come first, which is why we’re peeking under the hood of the rash of “three-then-free” airfare deals that cropped up last week. Are they too good to be true? Well, that depends on the fine print. Let’s take a look.

United Airlines– the deal that started it all

At first glance, it sounds good; fly three round-trips on United, United Express or the airline’s spanking new low-cost carrier Ted by Jun. 15, and earn a free round-trip ticket to any airport of your choosing in the contiguous 48 states. If you fly three additional round-trips, then there’s a second free ticket in your future, and this one’s first-class.

But wait—could it be that easy? Sadly, the answer is no. The airline’s lowest fares are excluded entirely from this promotion, and to spell it out, no economy-class ticket including a Saturday night stay is eligible. To add insult to injury, the bonus tickets are highly restricted—an anemic flight selection, no holidays (or dates surrounding holidays), and summer travel is completely off-limits. If you’re not daunted by any of these restrictions and think you can make the most of United Airline’s deal, then you must register online by Apr. 15 on United's website.

Northwest Airlines was the next carrier to toss its hat into the ring with a three-fer promotion: fly three round-trips (in any of the 48 mainland US states) before Jun. 15 and get an addition round-trip ticket free of charge for use between September 2004 and June 2005. As with United, Northwest’s cheapest L, T, and K tickets don’t qualify. There are loads of blackout dates, and it’s slim pickins when it comes to good eligible flights. (Don’t expect eligibility when it comes to big name destinations or reasonable departure times.) To add insult to injury, before you can even qualify for the deal, you must first sign up for the offer on the Northwest Airlines website.

Still any reason to book this? Well, while some Northwest's fare quotes are bound to be winners, others reveal price differences of hundreds of dollars. For example, for a round-trip flight between Chicago and Orlando (departing on Feb. 22, returning Feb. 29) we got a price of $504 from Northwest, but just $201 from AirTran. Multiple that price differential by three and you’re spending much more than you’d be saving. Even if you’re committed to a single carrier, like Northwest, it’s good to shop around and play with flight days and times.

Only for the business traveler

Continental Airlines is taking a slightly different, and perhaps more honest, approach by directly appealing to business travelers, and says as much in the program description. Its offer is only good for mid-week travel and prohibits Saturday stays—the realm of laptop-toting warriors. And while Continental says it’s five-step registration process is “easy,” its terms and conditions list is much longer. Many of them look like United’s and Northwest’s. If you’re a regular business traveler minding her expense account, then we suggest you take a look for yourself on Continental.com.

Pick of the bunch

While US Airways offer claims to be good for over 200 destinations, including 10 European cities and 25 Caribbean islands, it too is only good for its first and “Envoy” classes, as well as the pricier and more restrictive coach fare classes. However, the program does appear to a shade more flexible than the others we mentioned, in that you can choose from a pool of national and international destinations, and a Saturday night stay is actually required for the bonus ticket. (Saturday night stays almost always bring the price down) All participants must become members of US Airways frequent flier program, travel before Jun 15, and all tickets must be purchased online.

When you factor in all of the hidden costs and laundry list of restrictions associated with the recent crop of buy-three-get-one-free ticket deals put forth by United Airlines, Northwest Airlines, Continental Airlines and US Airways, it’s simply not worth it to fall for these promotions, which appear to actually cost you much more per ticket purchased. In many cases, you will actually spend more than you would if you were to simply buy your fourth ticket outright. When scouring sources for the best airfare deals, we recommend keeping your options open and always reading the fine print—you could save yourself a lot of money.

{Editor's Note: Have you ever participated in a buy-three-get-one-free airline promotion? Do you have a money-saving hint, tip, or anecdote that would be helpful to other travelers? We'd love to hear it and possibly reprint it in our letters to the editor column. Simply to send a letter to our editors.}