Hey buddy, wanna sign up for a credit card?
OK, that wasn’t Citi’s come-on when it asked Jerry Mandel if he was interested in an affinity card that would help him collect American Airlines miles. But it probably should have been.
Mandel, a frequent American customer and engineer based in Dallas, found the offer enticing: It promised significant discounts and perks in exchange for “qualifying” purchases. But Mandel, being the meticulous type — after all, he’s an engineer — looked for the fine print.
He didn’t find it. So he phoned Citi.
Turns out that in order to take advantage of some of the card’s guaranteed benefits, he would have to buy a full-fare ticket. “Of course, like many others, I would never buy a full-fare ticket,” says Mandel.
That’s because a refundable ticket can cost up to four times as much as one that’s nonrefundable. Granted, some large corporations will shell out that kind of money. But not mere mortals traveling sans expense account.
Mandel is unhappy. If he hadn’t called, he would have assumed that any American Airlines ticket would be good enough. This drama plays itself out all the time, in front of computer screens and often, at those little tables at the airport where airline employees hawk affinity cards. Those are almost as annoying as the flight attendants who try to persuade you to sign up for the airline’s frequent flier program at the end of a long flight. But I digress.
I deal with the fallout from these offers on an almost daily basis. Passengers who made assumptions about their cards that they shouldn’t have, and are complaining to me mostly because they want someone to hear them. They know there’s little I can do; rules are rules, after all.
Ah, but there is. I can write about this scam.
Did I just call it a scam? Absolutely.
One of the worst credit card offers was made by a European carrier, although I haven’t seen it in a while. It pitched a “free” companion ticket, but declined to prominently say that the original ticket had to be of the dreaded full-fare variety. And interestingly, you could probably buy four regular tickets for that amount and take the whole family to London for the games. Oh well.
It helps to take a big-picture view of affinity card offers made through airlines. What do I mean?
• There’s no such thing as “free.” Either you’re paying an annual fee or you’re dealing with confiscatory interest rates.
• There’s always fine print. Always! Among the worst gotchas: The miles you accrue don’t actually belong to you. If you don’t believe me, read the terms and conditions of your airline loyalty program.
• There are hidden expenses. The one no one talks about is the cost of giving your loyalty to the card or the airline, when a cheaper card or airline ticket is available. Over time, that can cost you tens of thousands of dollars.
What about the loyalty? Doesn’t that mean something? Not really. Travel companies — and particularly airlines — take your loyalty for granted unless you’re a quadruple-platinum business traveler. Even for those elite-level fliers, the goalposts of their loyalty program are constantly moving, requiring more miles for an upgrade or a perk.