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That free air ticket can be costly

Charles Stewart figures he should have known better. The promises made by his MileagePlus Explorer card from Chase — yes, the one that's heavily promoted in airports and on travel blogs — looked too good to pass up.

"In order to qualify for the free bag check and priority boarding, the ticket must be purchased directly from United, via its Web page," Stewart says. "I never noticed that. Seems to me that in order to impose such a limiting condition on a promised benefit, United should be required to disclose it more prominently."

Stewart isn't just another traveler with buyer's remorse, having applied for a credit card only to realize that it came with clauses that made it "limiting." As a retired tax attorney from Silver Spring, Maryland, he specialized in ferreting out the fine print. He figures that if he was deceived, other travelers will be, too.

They are. You don't have to look far to find people who were disappointed, if not duped, by the claims made by their travel credit cards. Offering such perks as "free" bags and "free" airline tickets, these cards are big on promises, but they often fall short on the delivery.

When Joan DePalma, a retired social worker from New York, applied for a Delta-branded American Express card, a representative offered her a $50 credit after her first purchase and 25,000 miles — enough for a "free" domestic round-trip ticket.

"When I received the card, I was refused the credit and the bonus mileage," she says. The reason? She already had another Delta American Express card, and the offer was limited to first-time applicants.

Drew Macomber, who runs a blog called Travelisfree.com that helps frequent fliers use credit cards to earn miles, says the fine print can be a minefield. Among his favorite "gotchas" are offers for "free" companion tickets that stipulate the first ticket must be an unrestricted economy-class ticket, which is often double or triple the cost of a regular economy-class ticket. That's right: It's cheaper to buy two regular coach tickets. Go figure.

Other "free" companion tickets are restricted by destinations. For example, a Lufthansa offer is limited to tickets departing from the United States to Europe, the Middle East, Africa and the Far East. It also must be on a Lufthansa flight — no code-sharing.

Oh, and those "free" award tickets you earn from a credit card may not include fuel surcharges, which can really add up. A recent "free" British Airways ticket cost more than $700 in fuel surcharges. "You'll often find flights to the same destination for cheaper than the fuel surcharges," Macomber says.

Some of the worst misrepresentations are the half-truths told by flight attendants eager to foist credit card applications on hapless passengers, says Rocky Horan, who writes for a frequent-flier blog called Upgrd.com.

Recently, Horan found himself on a flight on which attendants were trying to sell credit cards that offered a 50,000-point bonus.

"The flight attendants told everyone on board that 50,000 miles was enough miles for two tickets to the Caribbean," he says. That's true — sometimes. Usually, the tickets cost 70,000 round-trip. The 50,000-mile tickets "were restricted to just a few weeks a year," he adds. Anyone not familiar with the airline's award chart would have been misled.

Elliott is National Geographic Traveler's reader advocate. He has a consumer advocate website at elliott.org.

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