Mexico for a dollar? Australia for free? Some things really are too good to be true

Truth in advertising is on my mind these days. First there's United's $0 Australia sale, an offer that sounds better than it really is. Then there's low-cost carrier USA3000's series of $1 fares to Caribbean destinations like Cancun and Punta Cana. With fuel prices skyrocketing, there isn't a single airline in any kind of position to give away free flights. So what's the deal with these offers?

United's $0 Australia flights

United billed its recent Australia sale fares as $0 for flights beyond Sydney—meaning for the price of a flight to Sydney you could fly on to Adelaide, Brisbane, Cairns, or Melbourne "for free." But was it really a good deal? Not even close.

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After reviewing the details and actually pricing out routes from Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, and Boston, we recommended travelers stay far, far away from this deal. That's because on every route we checked, United's "$0 fares" were about $200 to $300 more expensive than those of Air New Zealand. Here's what I mean:

  • $998 from Los Angeles to Brisbane on United (compared to $803 on Air New Zealand)
  • $1,124 from San Francisco to Adelaide on United (compared to $803 on Air New Zealand)
  • $1,428 from Chicago (O'Hare) to Cairns on United (compared to $1,233 on Air New Zealand)
  • $1,454 from Boston to Melbourne on United (compared to $1,258 on Air New Zealand)

USA3000's $1 Caribbean flights

Here's an example of advertising gone horribly wrong. Because of too-loose regulations from the Department of Transportation (DOT), there's nothing technically wrong with USA3000's recent misleading promotions. In those sales, the airline offered $1 flights to Cancun or Punta Cana. So far, so good. But our research showed various government-imposed taxes and fees jacked up the price of the $1 flight to $46.

And then there's the return flight to consider. Sure, USA3000 would bring you south of the border for a buck. But if you wanted a return flight, you had to fork over another $199 (not including taxes and fees) just to get home. Not such a great deal anymore.

That's not to say this promotion was all bad. We actually found USA3000's prices to be pretty good—on one route the airline's sale price was almost $400 cheaper than the next closest carrier. But even with that kind of savings it's hard to feel good about the airline's shameless bait-and-switch behavior.

More on the horizon

The bad news is this is hardly the end of such promotions. In fact, new rules proposed by the DOT could make it even more difficult to decipher the good deals from the bad. One proposal would actually wipe out almost all consumer protections against false advertising.

The good news? You can trust us to cut through the clutter and make sense of all the travel "deals" out there, both the good ones and the bad. We don't sell travel and we're not cheerleaders for the airlines. We call it like we see it, even when what we see isn't good news for travelers.

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