In the recent past, owing to certain unfortunate developments in the family, I have had to book a lot of domestic flights for various people. As a result, I have spent a considerable amount of time on travel portals looking for low-cost tickets. I was drawn to the offers on these websites which were announced on their homepage as “Buy one get one free" or “Mega cash back scheme" or “Monsoon offer". offered a free ticket for every domestic flight booked before 21 July. All one had to do to avail the offer was to type “fly free" as a code while booking the original ticket. The fact that the “free" refers only to the base fare is something frequent users of these portals have figured out by now. What will flummox anyone, however, are the strings attached with this seemingly generous offer. I quote from the site: “The free ticket must be booked within 15 days of booking the original ticket. For example, if you book the original ticket on 10th August, the free ticket must be booked on or before 25th August.

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“The travel date of free ticket must be 15 days after the booking date of free ticket.

“There must be a 7-day gap between the travel date of main/original ticket and the free ticket. For example, if the main/original ticket is for travel on September 1, 2010, the travel date for the free ticket has to be on/after September 8, 2010.

“The travel date of the free ticket should be on or before September 30, 2010.

“The free tickets cannot be transferred."

Reeling under the complexity of these conditions and too exhausted to unravel them, I moved to, which said that in three easy steps one could book a “free" flight.

1. Book a flight on the site between 16th June to 15th August.

2. A coupon would be emailed in 48 hours.

3. Using the coupon code book a flight for travel 15 days later and get base fare free.

Illustration: Shyamal Banerjee/Mint

1. You can make the original booking on any airline; however the free ticket can be redeemed only on selected airlines. One select airline on which you can redeem your coupon code will be communicated to you in an email after your booking along with the coupon codes.

2. The travel date of your free ticket should be at least 15 days in the future.

3. Also, you cannot travel on a free ticket on the following blackout dates. (It helpfully provides a table with blackout dates in one column and blackout sectors in another, which I cannot reproduce here because its sheer size will eat up my word count.)

4. The “free" ticket is completely non-refundable and no date change can be made. was offering “Free air ticket guaranteed with every booking" under a scheme called “Ghar, Gaadi and Gifts". I didn’t want to know more.

Let us pause here, gentle reader, to understand the full import of these offers.

You can only use the offer if you know for certain that 15 days later you are travelling on a certain sector. The sector and date has to be in the permissible list. You can only travel on a specific airline, so you have to tailor your schedule according to their flight timings. Plus there is a deadline for booking the ticket and another for undertaking the journey. If you fall ill and cannot travel on that specific date, you lose the entire money as no amendment is allowed.

Is this really worth advertising?

If a tenacious customer manages to negotiate all these constraints and use the offer, he will find that the cost of a ticket a fortnight later is anyway at its lowest, so the removal of the base fare within that isn’t going to make him rich.

In 1792, the French philosopher Rousseau wasn’t thinking of travel portals when he said “Man is born free but everywhere he is in chains." But he might as well have.

Vandana Vasudevan writes stories of mass urban consumer experiences. She is a graduate from the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, and currently works with HT Media Ltd. Your comments are welcome at