What’s the price of a travel credit card headache? ‘Free.’

By | January 9th, 2016

Charles Stewart figures he should have known better. The promises made by his MileagePlus Explorer card from Chase — yes, the one that’s heavily promoted in airports and on travel blogs — looked too good to pass up.

“In order to qualify for the free bag check and priority boarding, the ticket must be purchased directly from United via its Web page,” Stewart says. “I never noticed that. Seems to me that in order to impose such a limiting condition on a promised benefit, United should be required to disclose it more prominently.”

A United representative says Stewart misunderstood the offer, and that the “free” bags are indeed available for online bookings, even if they are made through an online travel agency like Expedia or Orbitz. If nothing else, Stewart’s experience underscores the complexity of these cards.

Stewart isn’t just another traveler with buyer’s remorse, having applied for a credit card only to realize that it came with clauses that made it “limiting.” As a retired tax attorney from Silver Spring, Md., he specialized in ferreting out the fine print. He figures that if he was deceived, other travelers will be, too.

They are. You don’t have to look far to find people who were disappointed, if not duped, by the claims made by their travel credit cards. Offering such perks as “free” bags and “free” airline tickets, these cards are big on promises, but they often fall short on the delivery. And although these financial instruments are legal, experts say they are not always worthwhile.

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When Joan DePalma, a retired social worker from New York, applied for a Delta-branded American Express card recently, a representative offered her a $50 credit after her first purchase and 25,000 miles — enough for a “free” domestic round-trip ticket.

“When I received the card, I was refused the credit and the bonus mileage,” she says. The reason? She already had another Delta American Express card, and the offer was limited to first-time applicants.

“I’m canceling the card,” she says.

Drew Macomber, who runs a blog called Travelisfree.com that helps frequent fliers use credit cards to earn miles, says the fine print can be a minefield. Even though he studies these credit card offers’ terms and conditions, “this stuff gets confusing to me.”

He adds, “It’s impossible to figure out how to use, and use well.”

Among his favorite “gotchas” are offers for “free” companion tickets that stipulate the first ticket must be an unrestricted economy-class ticket, which is often double or triple the cost of a regular economy-class ticket. That’s right: It’s cheaper to buy two regular coach tickets. Go figure.

Other “free” companion tickets are restricted by destinations. For example, a Lufthansa offer is limited to tickets departing from the United States to Europe, the Middle East, Africa and the Far East. It also must be on a Lufthansa flight — no code-sharing.

Oh, and those “free” award tickets you earn from a credit card may not include fuel surcharges, which can really add up. A recent “free” British Airways ticket cost more than $700 in fuel surcharges.

“You’ll often find flights to the same destination for cheaper than the fuel surcharges,” Macomber says.

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Some of the worst misrepresentations are the half-truths told by flight attendants eager to foist credit card applications on hapless passengers, says Rocky Horan, who writes for a frequent-flier blog called Upgrd.com.

Last week, for example, Horan found himself on a flight on which attendants were trying to sell credit cards that offered a 50,000-point bonus.

“The flight attendants told everyone on board that 50,000 miles was enough miles for two tickets to the Caribbean,” he says. That’s true — sometimes. Usually, the tickets cost 70,000 round-trip. The 50,000-mile tickets “were restricted to just a few weeks a year,” he adds. Anyone not familiar with the airline’s award chart would have been misled.

Robert Harrow points to the small print on the Citi Expedia card, which offers a way to quickly collect enough points for a “free” flight.

“However, any flights booked using points can’t be changed or canceled,” says Harrow, a research analyst for ValuePenguin.com, which helps consumers make personal finance decisions. “If, for whatever reason, you can’t make the flight, you will have lost all the points you accumulated.”

Oh, and one other thing. “Free ticket is really a misnomer,” he adds. The tickets come with service fees, taxes and other restrictions. In the end, they can cost more than a discount ticket. So when you hear the word “free,” watch it.

Loyalty-program expert Bill Hanifin, chief executive of Hanifinloyalty.com, coined the term “loyalty asterisk” to define these complex and confusing cards. He says that although these two-for-one and “free” ticket offers are not illegal, they can be difficult to decipher. “Unfortunately, the complexity of the financial models behind these programs is enough to mandate the asterisks in the copy,” he says.

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Yes, they’re legal. But maybe it’s time for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to say, “Enough is enough.”

This story first appeared Aug. 19, 2015.

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