Chase lied. United Airlines lied.
At least that’s how Marc Blumenthal sees it. When United offered him a United MileagePlus Explorer Card, which included a “free checked bag” for cardholders, it misrepresented the product in a significant way.
Blumenthal tried to get his “free” bag on his next United flight, but a gate agent insisted on charging him.
“I was told that in order to get the first checked bag free, I need to pay for the flight with the Chase credit card,” he says.
His case shines a spotlight into one of the travel industry’s darker corners, where misleading consumers is done with the tacit blessing of government regulators and the help of a small but loud group of industry cheerleaders. These “experts” will say he should have read the fine print, and they are right.
But Blumenthal thinks that’s wrong. The card should do what he believes it promised.
“It’s a hassle for corporate travelers whose ticket was purchased by their company,” he says. “I’m paying an $85 annual fee. I want my free bag.”
In fact, neither Chase nor United lied. They just downplayed a few important facts. If you read the cardmember agreement, you’ll see that the purchase requirement is disclosed in the terms.
“Primary Cardmembers and one companion traveling on the same reservation will receive their first standard checked bag free each time they fly on United- or United Express-operated flights when they purchase their tickets with their MileagePlus Explorer Card,” it says.
No such thing as “free”
Ah, there’s that word again — “free.”
The dictionary definition is “without cost or payment.” In other words, no cost, no strings attached.
The United MileagePlus Explorer Card — at least the way it’s initially presented — would cause the average customer to believe that by paying its annual fee, a cardmember would get “free” bags on United flights. And that’s not true.
But Blumenthal has stumbled onto one of the more pervasive travel practices: calling something “free” when it’s not.
In the airline industry, the most problematic example is Southwest Airlines, whose clever Bags Fly Free campaign should actually be called, “Bags Are Included With Your Ticket.”
But it doesn’t have the same ring to it, does it?
If bags really flew free, then anyone could walk up to a Southwest ticket counter, hand them their luggage over and ask them to fly the suitcase to their destination at no cost. But alas, you have to be a ticketed customer in order for your bags to fly “free” — which is disclosed in the fine print.
It’s not just airlines that offer “free” things that aren’t. Holiday Inn, with its Kids Stay and Eat Free program, proudly proclaims that “nothing is better than free.”
Oh, but there is something better, at least if you’re a hotel — making your guests believe it’s free when it isn’t.
Holiday Inn’s terms reveals that, alas, you can’t send your kids to the nearest hotel for a fun-filled weekend on the house while Mom and Dad enjoy some alone time. Your children must be accompanied by a paying guest, they have to be 12 and under, and you must order a meal from the adult menu and accompany junior to the restaurant.