February 11, 2004 -- Although the twofer deals from American, Delta and United that we reported on last month are all still in play, United has decided to ratchet up the free-ticket dial another notch with a new three-fer deal. Pity it has a killer catch.
United's deal: fly three roundtrips on flights operated by United, United Express or Ted by June 15, and you'll get a free roundtrip ticket to anywhere in the lower 48 states. Fly three more roundtrips, and you'll get a second free ticket, this one in first class. You can use your bonus tickets between Sept. 1, 2004 and June 15, 2005.
Sound good? "Eh," we say. The problem is, once again, the lowest fares are excluded. In fact, no economy-class ticket that includes a Saturday night stay -- at any price -- is eligible. That makes this deal utterly useless for most leisure trips.
The reward ticket you receive is also highly restricted -- there may not be seats on the flights you really want, and there are huge swathes of blackout dates around major holidays. Also, check out those usage dates above -- you can't use the ticket any time during the summer.
If you can work around this thicket of restrictions, you can make this deal make sense. We did the numbers for mid-March dates on a trip departing Tuesday and returning Thursday, and we picked three routes where we thought United had a good chance of beating the competition.
Los Angeles to Las Vegas is a heavily traveled, competitive route. United is using its new "low-fare" spinoff, Ted, to compete on this route. Ted's $76.70 fare is matched and sometimes slightly beaten, but only by a few dollars, by Aloha, Delta, America West and Southwest.
The route from Denver to New Orleans is another new Ted route where United is offering low promotional fares. Their $278 fare was matched, but not beaten, by Frontier.
The route from New York to Chicago connects the nation's largest air travel market with a United hub. It's also highly competitive. There, we found United's $265 fare easily outpaced by ATA, Continental, and American, all in the $190-200 range. There, it's not worth flying United just for the free ticket; the $210 or so you'd save on three roundtrips could get you a much less restricted ticket to many U.S. destinations.
On routes where United's fares are competitive such as LA-Las Vegas, sure, go for it. But this deal isn't worth losing more than $50 per ticket. And remember, the Saturday night stay ban makes it completely worthless for most leisure travelers.
If you do feel you can take advantage of this deal, you must register by April 15 online at www.united.com/page/article/0,1360,50735,00.html.
What do you think of this threefer deal? Are you able to take advantage of it or not? We'd love to read your responses on our Air Travel Message Boards today.