January 23, 2004 -- Sometimes, patience doesn't pay off. That's the case with United's pale imitation of the two-fer promotions from American and Delta. (Read our earlier report on those by clicking here.)
United is offering a ticket to anywhere they fly, as long as you fly twice on certain East Coast-California routes by April 15:
- New York-Los Angeles (JFK-LAX)
- New York-San Francisco (JFK-SFO)
Unfortunately, United's lowest economy fares are all excluded from eligibility, making this a lousy deal compared to American's competing sale -- which has no such restriction and offers more routes on which to earn your trip. United is being plain stingy with the routes they're using: why no Newark-SFO flights, other Southern California airports, or flights to Florida?
For an example of why United's deal is hardly a deal at all, their lowest Boston-LAX fare for March travel is currently $163 plus tax. Their lowest eligible fare, though, is $273 plus tax. American also has a $163 fare, and that's eligible for their two-fer.
United's deal also falls short of Delta's. Delta also excludes its lowest fares (its lowest eligible fare on that Boston-LA trip is an appalling $323), but lets you travel on New York-Florida routes where eligible fares are closer to the lowest available fares (we saw a $40-60 difference when we checked last week.)
The only upside to this deal is that United has a wider Asian network than American or Delta -- you can get to Australia, Shanghai or Seoul on United, where you can't on American or Delta. But the reward ticket you win will be very restricted in your choice of dates and seats, just as it will be with the other two airlines.
This deal is best for business travelers whose companies have sweetheart deals that oblige them to book with United. If you're interested, go to www.united.com/page/article/0,1360,50712,00.html.
Our message boards and feedback mailboxes have been buzzing with questions and opinions about the Delta and American two-fer offers.
One witty wag inquired if you actually have to take the flights you buy to qualify for the free ticket. The answer, of course, is yes.
Another reader warns that you have to be very flexible in when you take your reward flight, which will have the same terms as a frequent-flier ticket bought with the lowest possible number of miles. I agree; the number of seats available for popular routes and days will probably be tiny.
The most confusion, though, came from readers who had trouble figuring out where you could take the reward flights to -- and there we enter the marketing hell of codeshares.
Codeshares are flights on one airline that "pretend" to be on another for marketing purposes. For instance, all flights that appear to be on American but go to Australia are actually on Qantas, not American, though they have American flight numbers. When you're booking your flights, look for a little line near the flight number that says "Operated By" and the name of a second airline. That's a sign of a codeshare.
Codeshares let airlines appear to have worldwide networks when that's not actually the case. But they create unnecessary confusion at airports. If you're flying on a codeshare, you have to go to the check-in desk and gate of the airline that actually runs your plane, not the airline named on your ticket. And if you have problems with your flight, you may be shuttled back and forth between airlines in a blame game. (Go to the airline that actually runs the plane first.)
The two-fer deals do not cover any codeshares: you can take your American Airlines reward flights only on American, American Eagle or American Connection, and your Delta reward flights only on Delta or Song.
To see where you can fly on United, go to www.united.com/page/middlepage/0,1454,1019,00.html -- only cities marked in red are actually served by United.
For American, go to www.aa.com/content/aboutAA/whereWeFly/maps/world.jhtml and look for cities marked by red circles, triangles, or stars. Red squares and blue diamonds mean codeshares, not American destinations.
For Delta, go to www.delta.com/travel/maps_guides/dest_maps/index.jsp and pay attention to icons that mark "destination served by Delta" or "Delta Connection", not "codeshare partners."