Why There's No Such Thing as "Free" in Travel

One of the more pervasive travel practices is calling something "free" when it's not. Like Southwest Airlines' clever Bags Fly Free campaign, which should actually be called, "Bags Are Included With Your Ticket." But it doesn't have the same ring to it, does it?
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Chase lied. United Airlines lied.

At least that's how Marc Blumenthal sees it. When United offered him a United MileagePlus Explorer Card, which included a "free checked bag" for cardholders, it misrepresented the product in a significant way.

Blumenthal tried to get his "free" bag on his next United flight, but a gate agent insisted on charging him.

"I was told that in order to get the first checked bag free, I need to pay for the flight with the Chase credit card," he says.

His case shines a spotlight into one of the travel industry's darker corners, where misleading consumers is done with the tacit blessing of government regulators and the help of a small but loud group of industry cheerleaders. These mileage "experts" will say he should have read the fine print, and they are right.

But Blumenthal thinks that's wrong. The card should do what he believes it promised.

"It's a hassle for corporate travelers whose ticket was purchased by their company," he says. "I'm paying an $85 annual fee. I want my free bag."

In fact, neither Chase nor United lied. They just downplayed a few important facts. If you read the cardmember agreement, you'll see that the purchase requirement is disclosed in the terms.

"Primary Cardmembers and one companion traveling on the same reservation will receive their first standard checked bag free each time they fly on United- or United Express-operated flights when they purchase their tickets with their MileagePlus Explorer Card," it says.

No such thing as "free"

Ah, there's that word again -- "free."

The dictionary definition is "without cost or payment." In other words, no cost, no strings attached.

The United MileagePlus Explorer Card -- at least the way it's initially presented -- would cause the average customer to believe that by paying its annual fee, a cardmember would get "free" bags on United flights. And that's not true.

But Blumenthal has stumbled onto one of the more pervasive travel practices: calling something "free" when it's not.

In the airline industry, the most problematic example is Southwest Airlines, whose clever Bags Fly Free campaign should actually be called, "Bags Are Included With Your Ticket."

But it doesn't have the same ring to it, does it?

If bags really flew free, then anyone could walk up to a Southwest ticket counter, hand them their luggage over and ask them to fly the suitcase to their destination at no cost. But alas, you have to be a ticketed customer in order for your bags to fly "free" -- which is disclosed in the fine print.

It's not just airlines that offer "free" things that aren't. Holiday Inn, with its Kids Stay and Eat Free program, proudly proclaims that "nothing is better than free."

Oh, but there is something better, at least if you're a hotel -- making your guests believe it's free when it isn't.

Holiday Inn's terms reveals that, alas, you can't send your kids to the nearest hotel for a fun-filled weekend on the house while Mom and Dad enjoy some alone time. Your children must be accompanied by a paying guest, they have to be 12 and under, and you must order a meal from the adult menu and accompany junior to the restaurant.

Will someone please show me the dictionary they used to define "free"?

The mileage lie

But perhaps the biggest travel industry misrepresentation is that loyalty programs and all the benefits you get from them are "free." This is so patently absurd that I have a hard time taking anyone seriously who believes that brazen corporate lie. And yet I recently got into a heated debate with a loyalty program expert -- a person I've known for years and really respect -- about the cost of participating in a frequent flier program.

We can agree to disagree about the overall effects of loyalty programs, which is to segment your best customers from the rest and then remove as many amenities as possible from the nonelite have-nots. I have a real problem with that because the good people in the back of the bus suffer, paying higher fees and getting worse service.

But, I asked this expert, can we at least agree that there's nothing "free" about loyalty programs?

After all, you're paying to fly, you're shelling out $85 a year for your affinity credit card, and at the very least, you're giving the company access to your personal data and your spending habits -- data it can turn around and sell to one of its "marketing" partners without your consent.

Point is, you're earning those miles.

But no. Some of us have obediently swallowed the travel industry's rhetoric hook, line and sinker and truly believe those first-class award tickets to Europe are "free."

Well, if they're giving away "free" miles, I want some. I'd also like to check my bags "free" and send my kids to a hotel for "free" where they'll eat for "free."

Wouldn't it be nice if the Federal Trade Commission took the travel industry to task for these unfair and deceptive claims? But a 1983 policy statement on deception suggests it would only do so if there were a "material omission," which means, if they excluded the fine print.

In other words, some restrictions apply.

"Am I the only person who is bothered by this?" asks Blumenthal.

No. I'm with you.

Let's tilt at this windmill together.

After you've left a comment here telling me that your miles really are free, which I will just ignore, let's continue the discussion on my consumer advocacy site or on Twitter, Facebook and Google. I also have a free newsletter and you'll definitely want to pre-order my new, amazingly helpful and subversive book called How to Be the World's Smartest Traveler (and Save Time, Money, and Hassle). Photo: Sam72/Shutterstock