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Lie in the Sky: Airlines' Latest "Free Ticket" Deal is No Deal

With even elite business travelers saying no to super-high fares, airlines are flailing to get their most profitable travelers back into seats. Here's what doesn't work.

Note: This is part of a package of four columns, running Friday and Monday, about luxury-class amenities for budget travelers.

July 18, 2003 -- With even elite business travelers saying no to super-high fares, airlines are flailing to get their most profitable travelers back into seats.

First, there was the rash of "fly three, fly free" promotions earlier this summer. Still going on, these schemes give business travelers a free domestic roundtrip for every three coach-class trips they take. But so many cheap fares are blocked out that the "free" roundtrip often becomes a mirage: with the money you paid for your three qualifying flights, you could have bought four or even six trips on cheaper fares.

The new fly-free promotions are even more absurd. American, Continental, Northwest and United are all dangling a free economy-class ticket anywhere in the world before fliers buying international first and business class tickets.

That'd be great, except that the promotion only applies to full fare First and Business Class tickets, which only rock stars and Warren Buffett can afford. You don't get the free ticket if you fly on discounted business-class fares. Adding insult, the economy-class ticket you get is a capacity-controlled, blackout-dated award ticket with a list of restrictions as long as your arm.

Here's an example of the silliness of this scheme. A full-fare business class ticket for an August trip on American Airlines from New York to London is $6,450.50. But you can get that same ticket, plus a $500 credit for hotels and car rental, from Auto Europe ( for $3,812.

(For more on ways to get into business class cheaply, see today's other column, "How the Other 5% Lives" at

Let's say you want to go to Australia on your "free" ticket. Qantas is currently running a sale with flights from New York to Sydney for $1,299. So for your $6,450, you can get a business class ticket to London from Auto Europe plus two economy class tickets to 'Stralia, one of the world's most expensive destinations to fly to from the US.

Sure, you can contort this deal into a shape where it'd make sense -- mostly involving United flights to Mexico. A full-fare business-class ticket from LA to Mexico City on United costs $1,619 roundtrip, the most reasonable qualifying fare we could find. But if you're thinking of bagging a trip to Australia on your $1,191 business-class flight from Chicago to Mexico City, forget about it: that fare's "D" class isn't applicable for this deal.

(Moreover, for the same dates as the $1,619 ticket above, we found a coach-class ticket on Delta for $329.05 that wouldn't qualify for any free-ticket deals.)

This "deal" is cream for the few business travelers left who can afford multi-thousand-dollar international fares. For the rest of us, though, it's just sour.

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