Be Wary of Promo Codes

Fares, United

A distraught reader sent me a note yesterday about a bonus mile offer he received from United, and I thought it was worth sharing with everyone. Take note – always do a search on with and without the code to make sure you’re getting the lowest fare.

This particular deal gives you an increasing number of bonus miles for each roundtrip you fly this Spring up to three total. It looks like it’s targeted at Colorado residents as part of the big brawl between Southwest, Frontier, and United but it can be used by anyone (just enter promo code MPD330). Sounds pretty good, right? Might as well get bonus miles if you’re flying, but be careful. This deal is only good on fares in Q class or higher. So let’s say you want to go from LA to Dulles on some random dates in May. With the promo code, I see this: With Promo Code

You’ll notice that it tells me that “To qualify for the promotion, all selected flights must be promotion-eligble,” but they don’t bother telling you that they are only showing fares that are promotion eligible. If I take away that promo code, guess what I see? Without Promo Code

Holy shnikes! That’s over $400 less. Now, if I’m a savvy traveler, I might see at the bottom of the terms and conditions that it’s limited to fares that are in Q or higher, but that doesn’t mean I expect to not be shown lower fares. Many people are likely to miss that restriction anyway. There should be something here that shows the lowest fare without a promotion code so people can evaluate if this is good offer or not.

I don’t know anyone in their right mind who would pay a $400 premium for some bonus miles. For that price, I could just flat-out buy over 10,000 miles directly from United.

So be careful if you’re using a United promo code on their website. Make sure you always do one search with the code and one without so you can ensure that you aren’t missing out on a much better deal.

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17 comments on “Be Wary of Promo Codes

  1. They did this with the “Denver Deal of the Decade” with a free ticket promotion. Flying on an expense account I didn’t care and got my free ticket, but yes, this is true of most promotions. I just got a promo to save 20% on select Starwood hotels in Canada, but the rates with the discount are higher than I can find doing a regular search on the SPG website. So this warning applies to all travel products, not just United.

  2. Holy shnikes! You can fly LAX to IAD for $238! I thought the $692 was a reasonable fare. No wonder the airlines are struggling.

  3. This unfairly paints United as an outlier in this practice when in actuality this happens with pretty much every promo code on any travel or retail website.

  4. CF,

    This might warrant a complaint to the FTC. I don’t care that the promo requires you to book a higher class, but look at the print next to the $692 fare — “Lowest Fare Available.” (It might be the lowest fare available that meets the promotion code, but they haven’t disclosed it properly.)

    1. There is nothing incorrect in what United says. That $692 is the “Lowest Fare Available” based on the restrictions of your search. It doesn’t say “Lowest Fare of the Day” but instead implies it is the lowest fare on your search parameters. Nothing misleading at all.

      1. I have a vague recollection that there’s a rule that states that an airline must present the lowest possible fare when you do a search. Is that an actual rule or just a messy recollection on my part?

        1. I guess if you want to be anal, they actually are presenting the lowest fare that matches ALL of your criteria. (If you enter an invalid promo code, it will tell you, and won’t return any flights.)

  5. I used to get excited about these too. The last one, (for Colorado residents) was buy a ticket get a free ticket or something like that. (Maybe the Deal of the Decade one.) I checked into visiting a friend in NYC for a weekend, plugged in the promo code rates and the fares were ridiculous – more than two non promo trips would be. (Does the second trip even earn miles?)

    Needless to say I’m jaded to these as well.

  6. All the airlines want to give you something so you think they are great and fly them, but they really aren’t doing you a favor, only themselves. I just read in the last week or so that (I think it was…) AA offering bonus miles in the JFK-LAX and JFK-SFO markets. And we’ve all seen the airlines do this in a certain market or during a certain time period. And it’s great except for my pet peeve of you always have to ‘sign up’ to get the bonus miles. Why should you have to sign up? Yes it’s for mileage members and you would have to sign up for that if you already aren’t, but if you are, why should you have to sign up. They should just credit you with the bonus miles. That is an example of them offering you something but they really don’t want to give it to you. If you fail to ‘sign up’ you don’t get the bonus and they’ll just say you didn’t follow the rules.

    I see what you are saying in the blog and people would understand it must be Q and higher, but some people may not understand that there can be a really big different in fares between the lowest fare and even as in this case, a Q fare. So you are right, if you don’t check you don’t know if it’s really worth what they are offering.

    And unless the government set rules, you will never see a comnpany like an airline say fare with offer $600 and fare without offer $300.

    This offer is really “You get what you paid for”, but it may not be what you really want.

    I was going to say ‘buyer beware’, but Sean already said it……lol

    1. I don’t try to break news, so you’ll have to wait for my take on the volcano tomorrow. I’m already working on the post (and the graphic, of course).

  7. Were the FTC ever allowed to regulate the selling of airline tickets and airline marketing practices, the domestic airline industry would cease to exist. What DOT, which now has the regulatory authority, does with that authority is not in the travelling public’s best interest.

    And, once the industry convinces Congress that airline alliances need and must be given antitrust immunity to discuss with each other any and all matters related to fares, routes, and capacities, with the only caveat that “full disclosure” [I, (insert airline name), hereby declare I colluded with any and all alliance members on this fare, route, or anything else], and that such statement be provided to the customer or to anyone reading an ad.

    Buyer beware? Heaven help us with this industry!

  8. That’s $238 RT, it’s $119 one way.

    I was curious about this “subject to government approval,” so I looked it up myself.

    “United Airlines is in the process of securing final approval from the government of Ghana to operate flights between Washington, D.C., and Accra. ”

    What the hell does that have to do with flying IAD-LAX?

    1. My guess is flight 990 will go from Accra to Dulles to LAX once it gets approval, so they just haven’t shown it properly.

  9. It’s not just promo codes. A while back I was booking Amtrak tickets on and selected myself as a AAA member, and it failed to show me a promotional rate that was offered to the general public (did not require a code). Same thing happened with more than one hotel site — choosing “AAA member” results in higher fares than “Best available”, because some lower fares are not eligible for a AAA discount.

    I would guess it is inadvertent faulty logic in the search algorithms rather than intentional deception.

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