Warning! These “free” travel offers can really cost you


The travel industry is infatuated with the word “free,” and face it, so are travelers. Don’t believe me? Then feel free to ask anyone who has taken advantage of a “free” deal and regretted it.

From “free” tickets to “free” checked bags to “kids eat free” deals, the travel business is littered with deals that appear gratis. But read the fine print and you’ll find almost nothing is free. Maybe it’s time to delete the word “free” from our vocabulary.

Mary Orr checked into a small independent hotel in Los Gatos, Calif., that offered “free” wireless Internet. Turns out “free” meant a basic, slower Internet connection. “I logged on (and) was prompted to upgrade to premium Wi-Fi at an additional charge,” says Orr, a physical therapy assistant from Berryville, Va.

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The hotel had included the cost of Wi-Fi in her room but gave her a sluggish connection and tried to upsell her every time she logged on. That didn’t seem “free” to her.

Experts on business ethics say “free” offers are on the rise in the travel industry, a place where simply uttering the word “free” can make customers salivate like one of Pavlov’s pups. “But finding something that’s truly free is unusual,” says Chip Bell, an Atlanta-based customer loyalty consultant and author of The 9 1/2 Principles of Innovative Service.

Bell identifies three types of “free”:

True free. Something you get with absolutely no preconditions. The blueberry muffin samples at the airport Starbucks are actually free, because you can walk into the store, take the baked good, and leave.

Free with purchase. For example, the drink voucher the Four Points by Sheraton Manhattan that Chelsea handed me when I checked in a few days ago was a type of free. “It’s meant to build affinity with a customer,” Bell says — but only a paying customer.

Free with strings. That’s something you have to spend more money for in order to get. Bell just saw one from an airline, which he says offered 30,000 “free” miles if he signed up for a credit card. Among other things, it promised him a “free” checked bag on flights. “It’s clearly a game,” he says, because strings are attached. “To me, that’s a type of ‘free’ that’s unethical.”

The first two “frees” might appease Bell and others. The third? Not so much. “The bait-and-switch gets us into trouble,” says Wendy Patrick, a San Diego-based business ethics consultant.

Perhaps not coincidentally, that’s also where you’ll find most of the new “free” offers.

Todd Morse, a musician based in Los Angeles, checked into an “all-inclusive” resort in Hungary where the buffet lunch was “free.” The servers were unusually attentive, filling his glass with soda frequently. “Turns out the food was free, but they charge for every beverage poured,” he says. “We ended up with a 40 euro charge on my room.”

One of the most irritating misuses of the word “free” involves airlines, particularly loyalty programs. Airlines and their logic-impaired apologists love to refer to award tickets as “free,” but over the long term they may be more expensive than paying for a ticket with real money.

Of course there’s no such thing as a “free” ticket. Either you’ll fly many miles with one airline or spend lots of money with one of those co-branded credit cards, only to discover that you still owe taxes and various fees for your award ticket. And don’t even think about changing your itinerary, because the fee could cost as much as you just paid.

Airline wins. Credit card wins. You lose.

If you want something truly free, pay close attention to the fine print below the offer. No, your bags don’t fly “free.” The credit card offering that benefit has already made its money from annual fees and interest, thanks very much. In some cases, the airline simply raised its fares to cover the cost of the “free” bags.

And no, your kids don’t eat “free” at your favorite hotel unless you’re a paying guest and order an entree as well. Wi-Fi isn’t “free” at your hotel, it’s just included in the price, and often it’s sometimes just bait to persuade you to sign up for the pricier “premium” wireless connection.

Should the government ban the use of the word “free”? Yeah, that’d be nice. But meanwhile, take some free advice from this consumer advocate: If you see the word “free,” grab your wallet — unless you’re eying one of those tasty blueberry muffin samples.

Do you believe a company when it offers something for "free"?

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What does the fine print say? If you see a little star below the offer, chances are there are strings attached. It’s not really free.

Does anyone qualify? If you have to be a member of a club or a paying customer, then the amenity isn’t technically free — it’s included in your membership. It may still be a good deal, but it isn’t free.

What’s required of you? If the answer is “nothing,” then you might have the real deal. If sitting through a timeshare presentation or offering personal data is required, then it’s not really “free,” is it?

37 thoughts on “Warning! These “free” travel offers can really cost you

  1. i have lowered my expectations a long time ago.

    free internet- the few times it is free (included in the price of the room) AND good that is a miracle. similar to the first OP, i once went to a hotel with my husband where there was free internet that advertised a paid version.
    “the free works ok.” my husband said as he uploaded a few photos to facebook then all of a sudden the internet no longer worked on his laptop.- why? the free internet strictly prohibited file uploads. he was not allowed to have the internet restored until he agreed to the non-free version.

    1. Hmmm. Interesting. I wonder what would happen at that hotel if I tried to send an e-mail. When you send an e-mail, you’re uploading a small file to your ISP. Would the hotel’s upload restriction kick-in? If so, the “free” internet would be completely and utterly useless.

      1. If I remember correctly, uploading to a website uses a different protocol than email. You can also set your email server to reject attachments larger than a certain size.

        1. You are correct. The evidence of that would be that surfing to websites with a lot of pictures and videos (ESPN comes to mind) would work but very slowly. But email or “upload” (typically via FTP) by the user would be restricted.

          It’s wise, I think to use ALL “free” internet for web browsing and app updates only, whether or not it’s secure. If you need to upload or email, use your data plan. This approach has served us well.

          1. VPN will work as long as the ISP permits it (doubtful for the low speed “free” service) and the connecting point (e.g, a company) allows browsing to the internet sites you’re looking for. Of course, if you’re uploading to the company, then yes VPN will work fine.

          2. If you’re using a web client to send e-mail, the protocol is exactly the same as any web site.

          3. For reading — the main ports you are likely to end up using are 80 (HTTP) and 443 (HTTPS) for web traffic, and either 143 (IMAP) or 111 (for POP3). It is rare that you would use FTP, though some sites may allow/require downloads of large files via ftp.

            I didn’t think most web based mail systems would use ftp for uploading images — that wouldn’t make sense, so I used wireshark to examine the packet traffic between my machine and a gmail account I set up for the test.

            gmail is using https for the data transfer. This is an encrypted protocol, and I didn’t load the keys, but knowing the HTTP protocol, it is either a POST method with a multipart form encoded application/x-www-form-urlencode, or a simple PUT request.

            If you assembled the message locally — such as with a tool like Thunderbird or Outlook, then your mail client would assemble the entire message complete and then send it via SMTP or SMTP with TLS to your configured mail server.

            I’ll note that in answer to Cybrsk8rs’s question — the protocols used are bidirectional. Now, there could be some sophisticated filtering performed at the firewall — but how many hotels have the staff to configure their firewalls successfully in such a fashion, and still be able to provide basic service? (A recent hotel internet experience was when it took me about 30 seconds to diagnose that their wireless was not providing DHCP — the protoocol to assign addresses to machines — and it took two hours for the hotel staff to scratch their heads before giving up. The simple fix would probably have been to reboot the wireless router.)

            Odds are the original poster’s “free” access was simply rate limited, and the uploads reached the rate limit.

          4. Wow! I have NO idea what you’re talking about, but I love that. I just copied your comment, and I’m off to Google to try to learn something. Thanks for a terrific post.

          5. My email provider uses port 993 with SSL. This does cause issues occasionally at places that do have severely limited numbers of open ports.

            I get around it by having a separate email “account” set up in my email software which is a clone of the secured one that uses the simple IMAP without SSL when I have the issue. Seems a lot slower, but at least I can get email. I just have to remember to not load any emails that might have sensitive info in them.

        2. Maybe, but it still sounds like a pretty slimey tactic, and if PR will reveal the name of the hotel, I’ll avoid it like the plague.

          1. I’m not sure. Business have different levels of service across the board. Why not different tiers of internet service as well? As long as there is no deception, I’m ok. A basic service sufficient for me to check my email generally suffices for me.

    2. I have had mostly good experiences with the included internet at hotels. Yes, most throw ads at me to “upgrade” but since all I am usually doing is just checking and replying to emails or maybe CNN and Weather to see what is going on in the world, the basic level is good enough. When I travel for work, I usually do need a faster connection so that is the only time I upgrade. I have had better internet experiences in European hotels than in most of the US.

    1. Ah, I disagree. Samples at Costco (yes, they’ll give you enough to make an entree i if you want), bags on Southwest (since you pay the same whether you check them or not, deciding to check a bag is ‘free’), changing a flight at Southwest, getting a refund on Southwest, picking your own seat on Southwest.

      Free really means, “an additional service or feature without additional cost.”

  2. “True free. Something you get with absolutely no preconditions. The blueberry muffin samples at the airport Starbucks are actually free, because you can walk into the store, take the baked good, and leave.”

    Yes, and you can upgrade from a small sample to a whole muffin for a small fee – just as you can with the wireless internet connection in your first example. Yet, you claim that somehow that sample isn’t free.

    You can’t have it both ways, Chris.

    1. Exactly, besides the underlying premise that something requires no preconditions to be free is not true. A funny California example. You know those free throwaway newspapers? The one’s in little bins along with the local paper, a USA Today, paper, etc.

      In California it can be a crime (yes, with jail time) to take more than 25 “free” newspapers. This was because people were applying Chris’ (previous) definition that, its free, there are no conditions, I can take as many as I want. Nope, the paper is “free” you can take one and leave, but there are still conditions.

  3. Something I noticed with airlines recently – they no longer shout about FREE flights. The airline credit card ads just state “Receive XXXXX bonus miles/points, enough for a domestic round trip”. Even the credit card pushers at the airports don’t shout FREE anymore. And the mileage redemption tickets are referred to as “award tickets” not FREE anymore. Maybe they are getting the message? Or more likely, they are going to add in a huge raft of new fees on their reward tickets so they want to be able to say “We never told you they were FREE.” They do still go on and on about FREE bags if you have the credit card or elite status.

    But really, even that free muffin sample is not “free.” The next time you buy anything at Starbucks, you have paid for that sample. It is baked into the price of their products. And by giving out samples, they probably sell several more of that item than they would have otherwise. It is a great way for a company to sell an overstocked situation that prevents them from having to throw away out dated merchandise that didn’t sell.

    Anyone who sees the word “free” and thinks there is no associated cost with whatever is being offered is living in a fantasy world.

    1. I do believe Elliott would have them call it youcanuseandnobodywillaskyoutopayware or something like that. The amount of personal and corporate man-hours that goes into software that is truly available for use for free (and I think Elliott would have a hard time quibbling over the word in this context) is astounding to me.

  4. Ah, here we go again.

    When a business chooses to give something to a customer without charging them, what the hell do you want them to call it? Are you saying that businesses should not be allowed to offer anything to customers or are you just stuck on the semantics of the word free? I have bought from companies who have tossed extra items in the box with an order. They didn’t advertise this, they just dropped it in, usually with a note thanking me for being a good customer. Is that bad?

    I have both the Delta and United credit cards. Part of the reason I got them was for the “free” bags benefit, which is what they call it. When I signed up for those cards, I did the math. Which would be cheaper, the card or paying for the bags? For me the card is cheaper. The “FREE” bags are a benefit of the cards. Is it just the word free you have problems with, because I don’t think there are many people who get those cards who don’t realize exactly what it means. Should they call it “and a waived fee for the first checked bag” or would you start getting in a huff over “waived”?

    I have Amazon Prime. For that I get “free” two-day shipping. I know what it is. I’m not stupid. I know I’m paying for the shipping in the price. But, I’m not going to ever buy something online that is not cheaper, and it sure is easier to compare prices when I know exactly what I will pay, rather than having to make the order only to then figure out what they are going to charge me for shipping. Okay, maybe it’s “include shipping”, but everyone calls is free shipping, so they do, too. Again, is it the service you have a problem with or just the word?

    As for your internet example, if they included internet with the room and didn’t use the word free, would you be happy? Same thing. Or what if they didn’t offer the upgrade, just the slow service, which I’ve had at lots of hotels. Is it the opportunity to upgrade that is such a problem?

    As for Frequent Flier, programs, could you indicate where on the United or Delta sites that they even say you fly for free? All I can see if references to “award travel”.

    You’d really like the government to ban the use of the word “free”? Wow!

    And please don’t call me an “apologist”. I could care less about Delta for United. I use the programs they offer and I’m not a moron, so I understand that I will pay taxes and fees on that award ticket, something that is very clearly indicated in bold face when you shop for the tickets.

    1. Well said. But some folks still will call you an “apologist”. If you write that you have no problem with TSA, you will be called an apologist. If you say, “I’ve flown Delta for years and never had a problem, and when there were late flights, they got me on the next ones out. No problem” — you will be called an apologist. Thank you for you fine response, putting it all in perspective.

    2. I think the point is to distinguish between “free” and “included with no further charge.” A motel swimming pool for the kids isn’t “free”, because you have to pay for a room to use it, but it is indeed included with no further charge. In the case of the credit card, the “free” bag usually isn’t free, because you have to pay the credit card annual fee in order to be entitled to it. The bag fee is thus included as a benefit at no further charge. However, if you choose a credit card that waives its annual fee, then that baggage fee can be really free. There are several such credit cards on the market. There are companies that do offer certain things for free in the hope of bringing in business. A good consumer will be on the lookout for those, but with eyes wide open about what’s really free and what isn’t.

  5. Using the anti-free logic applied in the article, if the Starbucks giving the free samples is inside the secure area of the airport, you have to buy a plane ticket to get there to get the sample. Therefore it is not totally free because only those having a plane ticket can access the free sample! Even if it is outside the secure area, you still have to travel to the airport which costs money to get the sample. And you have to take the time to stop in there to get the sample. Since time = money, it costs whatever your time is worth.

  6. While I understand the issues cited with using the word “free”, what IS the solution on the industry’s side? How do you propose they offer something in addition to what the customer is already purchasing without increasing the cost of the purchase? What word works better but doesn’t require just as much fine print?

    That free kid’s meal with entree? I’ve seen people try to insist on getting the free kid’s meal when they don’t have any kids with them. Changing “free” to something like “complimentary” or “included” would only exacerbate those situations.

    You’ve identified the problem. What’s the solution?

  7. is this blog free? I have to pay my ISP for the internet. If it was fee Chris needs to personally deliver it to me at my chose location and time. Or what about the annoying ads disguised as articles? They are a real cost to me.

    Using Chris’s definition nothing, absolutely nothing is free. The act of living costs something. we need to take in food in order to live, even if we grow our own food, there is a cost in energy and time. Being dead isn’t free, it takes energy to cremate you and the cost to bury someone needs to be paid.

  8. Your two examples: kids eat free at Holiday Inns with an adult. Is it reasonable to assume you can just send your kids into the restaurant for free food? No, that’s not a reasonable assumption. Free checked bag with my affinity credit card. Yes, there is no charge for my checked bag. And more examples: Free airline club passes every year. Yes, I can use the airline lounge without charge. Complimentary upgrade to executive lounge at a hotel. No charge for drinks, snacks and breakfast. In my mind, no charge equals free.

  9. I’m a logic impaired apologist, of course, but most of the credit cards waive their fee the first year. You get a nice chunk of frequent flyer miles, then decide a year later whether you want to keep the card or not. Those miles have added up to lots of trips that are free (or would be save for the government-imposed taxes and fees, which are the real culprit).

  10. boy what a bunch of cynics !!!
    Often travel companies will offer free things, rather or before they discount them.
    For example, we were looking at skiing in Colorado.
    As an incentive to book & pay before a certain date, if we booked a package, ie. air + accommodation, then lift tickets were free for the duration of our stay.
    As long as you had the cash, you’d be mad to not take up this sort of offer.
    Many airlines in Australia, will offer free things like free accommodation &/or a free car, rather than simply discount the airfare.
    If an airline is having trouble selling seats at a certain time, then chances are that hotels, car rental companies are as well, so a deal can be put together, which works out better value than trying to put the bits together individually.
    Another problem with sale or discounted airfares, from an airlines point of view, is that people then benchmark that as “normal”.
    For example, at start of GFC end of 2007, Qantas airfares to LAX from say SYD in peak season over December-January school holidays (most Australian school kids get 7-8 weeks summer holidays over this period) was around $3500/adult & had been for years. Qantas was always most expensive, compared to poor old United who had old aircraft & were at the time, the only other airline to fly Sydney to LA nonstop.
    Then Virgin Australia & Delta started flying Sydney to LA nonstop.
    GFC hit & people cancelled their bookings or walked away from their small deposit (we used to put down something like $200/person for our 2 week Colorado ski holiday inc air from OZ & pay balance 2 months out).
    Fares plummeted down to $999 return & still nearly 7 years later, we hear people say, we’ll go to USA at Xmas, when fares go to $999, which they won’t unless we have another “perfect storm”.
    From memory airlines did try to offer free stuff, but as time ran out $999 fares were offered bye very airline, nonstop, direct or via Asia.
    The word free is very powerful in all marketing. Always has been & probably always will.

    By the way, the $200 deposit 8 months out, balance 12 months out payment schedule died with the GFC.

    Now, want a deal, pay for it now.

  11. maybe some of the casinos in Atlantic City should have been giving FREE stuff away. Just read Revel Casino built in 2012 for $2 billion is closing with loss of 3000 jobs.

  12. Flew United with my Chase United credit card for “free” luggage. Had to argue for 10 minutes to get them free. Discontinued card upon return. Free internet on the other hand is a big deal. Hotel TV programing is limited. I travel with great wiring systems to run my IPAD throught their TV. I have never had an issue if the hotel said free internet service.When I do, sure hope that they are prepared to honor their advertising.

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