The price of a plane ticket for yourself is high enough, and then when you add in your spouse and kids, it becomes brutally painful on your wallet! One technique for saving money on airfare is using companion airfare deals – but watch out – because they aren’t always worth it.
How Do You Get Them?
Generally, companion offers will fall under one of these categories:
Airline Credit Cards – These are probably the most common way to get them. Some (but not all) airline cards come include a benefit for companion tickets; usually giving cardholders one to four of them per year.
Promotions – Everything from magazine subscriptions to hotel deals may offer a companion ticket as an incentive. The reason I am categorizing them all under the same group is because more often than not, the third-party provider of the ticket is the same (and hence, they have comparable terms and conditions with them).
How Do They Work?
Now here is where you really have to pay attention, because the terms will determine whether or not you are getting a bargain.
1. You will have to pay the fees and taxes
Whether it’s a travel credit card or some other promotion, there’s one thing in common with both: you almost always will have to pay the fees and taxes on the second ticket.
I’m not sure what the domestic fees are in Australia, but where I live (in the US) this can mean an extra $50 to $75 per ticket. For international flights it can be far worse: sometimes up to $500 or more in fees and “fuel surcharges” are tacked on. Obviously, this means your companion ticket isn’t truly free.
2. You might have to book a certain kind of ticket
When you normally buy plane tickets, you probably are not buying “full fare” pricing. A “full fare” ticket is not discontinued and it can be cancelled or changed at anytime with little or no penalty for doing so.
So when you book on say, Expedia or Cheap Flights, you are actually buying discounted tickets. Trust me, you will know when a ticket is “full fare” because it may cost as much as 2 or 3x more than the discounted ticket.
From my experience, many companion offers (whether they’re from a credit card or other promotion) will usually require you to buy a “full fare” for your first ticket. Obviously when that’s the case, you may not end up saving any money after all – sure the second ticket is free, but if the first ticket costs 2x normal than are you coming out ahead? Definitely not!
However there are deals to be had that don’t pull this trick. For example, I got the British Airways credit card last year because after spending a certain amount, it gives a companion voucher without a fare restriction. In addition to the British Airways card, others that give similar deals include Delta, U.S. Airways, and Alaska Airlines.
When it comes to Australian credit cards with similar deals, some of the Velocity Award cards (for Virgin) offer companion airfare. For example, the Virgin Flyer credit card ($99 annual fee) gives the following:
“Buy a Virgin Australia domestic seat and we’ll give you a complimentary seat8 on the same flight up to 4 times every year! Just cover the credit card booking fees.”
3. You might not be able to choose your flights
With the credit card offers, generally you can choose your flights the same as if you would if you were booking a ticket normally. However, some of the non-credit card promotions for companion tickets will put you at their mercy.
For example, I saw a hotel in the Caribbean that advertised a free companion ticket. Out of curiosity I looked into it and got a quote on a ticket – not only was the first ticket way more than a “normal” ticket, but they also were trying to give me two connections, one of which had an 11 hour layover!
Will a companion offer always save you money? Nope. In fact sometimes, it will even cost you more!
However if you read over the fine print ahead of time, finding one of these offers can be a good way to save money when you’re going on a family vacation. For example with that Virgin Australia card, mom and dad could buy their tickets and then their two kids could fly for almost free (just paying the booking fees).