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Triple American, United Miles (But Mind the Asterisk)

There's been a lot of hand-wringing lately regarding the lack of transparency in airline pricing, particularly as it applies to the minefield of fees and surcharges that have become a fixture on the travel landscape.

But there are other aspects of the airlines' mind-numbing pricing schemes that are every bit as opaque, and every bit as in need of a bracing dose of clarity.

A new offer from United, matched by American, illustrates the point.

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Offer Details

Triple miles on United's flights between New York and Los Angeles or San Francisco? That's what United's website says ("Earn triple award miles between New York (JFK) and Los Angeles or San Francisco").

United's email announcement puts it slightly differently: "Fly in the comfort of our Premium Service and earn triple award miles."

Premium Service (p.s.) is what United calls the upgraded seating and service offering on the airline's flights between New York and both Los Angeles and San Francisco, featuring more legroom throughout the coach cabin, lie-flat seats in first class, better meals, and so on.

So the proposition seems to be that you'll earn triple miles—good—when traveling on United's most comfortable domestic flights—again, good.

However, lurking in the promotion's fine print is the following restriction: "Offer valid in F, A, C, D, Z, J, Y, B, or M booking codes."

In the test bookings I made on United's website, the booking codes associated with the most affordable fares—the fares any rational coach traveler would naturally book—were V or T, neither of which would be eligible for the bonus.

The problem here isn't the restriction to higher-priced tickets. That's a marketing decision that United has every right to make. And as a legal matter, it has disclosed the restriction, albeit in tiny type and in language that is likely to leave the average travel consumer more confused than enlightened.

And compounding the problem, it has promoted the offer as though no significant restrictions apply.

American's marketing communications are only marginally clearer. Its website reads as follows: "Fly our transcontinental service between New York and Los Angeles or San Francisco. Earn triple AAdvantage miles." There's no asterisk or other indication that the offer is restricted in the headline. Only after reading halfway through the offer details will the attentive reader discover a reference to "select Economy Class" fares, with no further elaboration except to cite the alphabet soup of eligible booking classes: F, J, Y, D, I, A, P, H, K, or M.

The bonuses, American's and United's, are in effect through December 31.

Deal or No Deal

Triple miles: Excellent.

Restricting the offer to more expensive fares: Unfortunate.

Promoting the offer as though no such restrictions apply: Shameful.

Reader Reality Check

Have you ever purchased a ticket expecting to earn a frequent flyer bonus only to discover, too late, that the fare you paid was ineligible for the promotion?

This article originally appeared on FrequentFlier.com.

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