Offers of free plane tickets carry a high price

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You have to submit a copy of your driver's license with the application. You can't travel within a week of any federal holiday and must book your trip at least 60 days before the intended travel date. The tickets are no good after 12 months have passed.

All flights, airlines and airports "are at the discretion" of Featured Travel, which reserves the right "to offer an alternative departure date and/or destination."

"All terms of this offer must be met or the offer will be voided," the website says, adding that the travel company "reserves the right to change these terms and conditions without notice."

I tried hard to track down anyone at Featured Travel but kept ending up at the Travel Awards call center. Recania at Empowered Partners said he'd try to connect me with someone at the marketing company, but that went nowhere.

The Better Business Bureau in Arizona issued a warning this year that a company called American Travel Deals was blanketing the country with suspicious mailers almost identical to the one that reached me.

"It's misleading advertising," said Felicia Thompson, a spokeswoman for the bureau. Free plane tickets aren't what's really being pitched, she noted. It's that pricey travel club.

American Travel Deals, according to the bureau, operates under a variety of aliases, including Featured Travel, Travel Awards, Travel Union, US Airlines, American Airways, United Airways, Desert Sky Travel, Travel and Deals, Travel Premium Awards Agency and Universal Travel Deals.

I called the number on the website for American Travel Deals and was connected with — who else? — Tanya at Travel Awards, who by this time was growing pretty annoyed with all my questions.

Shawn Bay, director of marketing for Empowered Partners, said companies such as Featured Travel are able to offer free plane tickets because "there's a lot of breakage." That's marketing-speak for coupons not being used by consumers.

"A lot of people never redeem their certificates or decide not to travel," Bay said.

With all those catches, you can see why.

I asked Recania if he was comfortable with the marketing tactics being used to lure people to his company's presentations.

He said he wasn't familiar with the mailer from Featured Travel but insisted: "I'm not in favor of anyone doing or saying anything that's not legal."

Never mind illegal, I'd settle for simply not duping or misleading people. If the point of the solicitation is to get people to attend a pitch for a travel club, then come right out and say it. Don't monkey around with fake checks and make-believe airlines.

Recania said he's offering an above-board service, and I have no reason to believe otherwise. But the company he keeps leaves much to be desired.

That's why this is one trip I'd skip.

David Lazarus' column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. he also can be seen daily on KTLA-TV Channel 5 and followed on Twitter @Davidlaz. Send your tips or feedback to david.lazarus@latimes.com.

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