Is Companion Airfare Really Worth It?
Companion ticket offers are used to peddle all sorts of products and services…magazine subscriptions, car rentals, expensive credit cards, and everything in between. With the high cost of air travel these days, it's obvious why these appear to be such a good deal. But like they say, appearances can be deceiving. (See also: How to Get the Lowest Price on Airfare, Even After You Buy)
Too Good to Be True?
Before we read the fine print and run the actual numbers, common sense will tell us many of these offers smell fishy right off the bat. For example, a while back Kodak was running an offer which touted complimentary companion airfare simply for making a $50 purchase.
Red Flag #1: Only a $50 purchase?!
According to The L.A. Times, the average price of domestic airfare was $247 during the first quarter of 2011. How can Kodak afford to fulfill your order plus give you companion airfare, all for as little as $50? You also have to ask how airlines (which run on razor-thin margins) would be able to dole out tickets for next to nothing.
Red Flag #2: The company providing the offer
As one would guess, Kodak does not actually operate the companion ticket program. Rather, that is administered through a totally separate company called Promotions in Travel. Their website is listed in the fine print and instead of telling you my thoughts about its quality, I will let that website speak for itself: CompanionTicketInfo.com.
What's in the Fine Print?
I searched for similar promotions and came across several, which were all eerily similar to the one above: no phone numbers, shady websites, and only vague information being provided. The exception was this offer from Meijer's which did provide more details in the fine print, including these drawbacks:
- There are blackout dates, and while the airfare is free, taxes and fees still apply for both tickets.
- Only major U.S. carriers participated. It listed Delta, American, Continental, United Airlines, and US Airways. As we all know, for some destinations their fares will be more expensive than discount airlines such as Southwest and JetBlue.
- Fares lower than $349 (low season) or $379 (high season) do not qualify for the offer.
- No phone number is provided upfront. Instead, we are told "Once you have your certificate, simply call API's toll free phone number for reservations."
- All tickets must be purchased through Airline Promotions, Inc.
Although no phone number was given, thanks to a little legwork with Google, I was able to track down the reservation number for Airline Promotions, Inc. The first time I called, I got an automated message telling me their hours of operation are 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. EST. So I called back the next day to try to get a ticket quote (to do a comparison) but the CSR said no dice, since I wasn't able to provide a certificate number.
How Do the Numbers Stack Up?
Having hit a brick wall with the above offers, I did some more Googling to see if I could dig up some real numbers to analyze. That's when I stumbled upon these two sites:
Companion Booking — This URL is associated with a Food & Wine Magazine offer.
Companion Fare Registration — I saw numerous bank account and credit card promotions linked to this site. For example, Sun National Bank was running a companion airfare promotion for opening a checking account with a Visa debit card.
If you visit these two sites, it's clear they must be the same company — same email listed, same logo used. In fact, the logo is also the one found on the Kodak offer, which we know to be Promotions In Travel. However between all of these websites, only one publishes a Terms and Conditions page which gives us pricing information:
Using this table and the zone information, I priced out three sample flights on Orbitz to see how they measure up. To make this an apples-to-apples comparison, I have done the following:
- The bottom-line cheapest quotes from Expedia were used, regardless of the departure times and number of layovers. This was done because to the best of my knowledge, you purportedly have little control over these variables when using the companion airfare benefit.
- For consistency, all of the tests involve a Saturday stay. This was done because the T&Cs mention a "Saturday stay may be required depending on the airline."
- Taxes and fees are not included.
Test #1: Los Angeles to Detroit, 9/21 – 9/27
Orbitz: $500 ($250 per ticket) on U.S. Airways
Promotions In Travel: $530 (zone 3 to 6)
Test #2: Chicago to Denver, 9/29 – 10/4
Orbitz: $336 ($168 per ticket) on Delta
Promotions In Travel: $550 (zone 3 to 5)
Test #3: Newark to Orlando, 10/21 – 10/25
Orbitz: $368 ($184 per ticket) on Continental
Promotions In Travel: $360 (zone 1 to 7)
As you see, 2 out of the 3 were cheaper by going with Promotions In Travel, but only by a marginal amount. Meanwhile, the flight from Chicago to Denver was significantly more expensive.
After running the numbers, it's hard for me to be enthusiastic about these offers. Will they save you money? It's possible. But given the limited options in choosing a flight, I would rather just buy the tickets on my own.
With that said, it's important to point out that the companion benefit — when offered directly by an airline — usually operates in a much more attractive manner. For example, with the Bank of America Alaska Airlines Visa Signature, you receive a $99 companion flight once per year. Since you don't pay an inflated price for the first ticket, this is probably a good deal. However, sometimes these travel credit cards require the purchase of a "full fare" ticket in order to use the companion perk, which may end up costing you more than what two discounted tickets would fetch.
Michael Dolen is the founder of Credit Card Forum. After a catastrophic car accident left him with sky-high medical bills piled on a plethora of cards, he started this community for people to ask questions and get answers about their own credit cards. Here are some additional resources from Credit Card Forum: