Free newspapers, free flights … this week’s Figure it Out looks at “free” offers and tries to work out if there’s a hidden catch

“Something for nothing” has been prominent in the press this week, thanks to two high-profile examples. On Monday, London’s Evening Standard re-launched as a free newspaper after more than 180 years as a paid-for title. Also on Monday, Ryanair announced they were giving away 1.1 million free flights – 100,000 for each of 11 misleading statements they claimed were in a BBC Panorama investigation.
So how free is “free”? Or is this a case of “if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is”? Well, the Evening Standard is more straightforward; the owner’s new business model is based on an expectation that the higher circulation will attract additional advertising income which will outweigh the loss of the cover price. So there are no catches, other than a likely reduction in the ratio of news to advertising.
If you’re prepared to be flexible (and travel light!) Ryanair can be attractive too. On their website this morning I was able to find a return flight from Stansted to Friedrichshafen in November for 1p each way including taxes. Not quite free, but who’s quibbling? The obvious catch lies in the charges for method of payment – only Visa Electron is free, and this type of card is as rare as free caviar and champagne on a Ryanair flight! Chances are it’ll cost you at least £10 for the privilege of paying for your 2p flights.
So where else are bargains to be had? We visited our favourite website to check. This week there are 76 “free” offers, ranging from a free car insurance quote to a free chance to win £5,000. Not surprisingly, there is a catch to almost all of these. We’ve categorised the offers as follows:
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Not surprisingly, only 22% fall into the genuine “something for nothing” category. The rest are carefully targeted marketing aimed at capitalising on our desire to sniff out a bargain. And if you want to do some more detailed market research, I suggest you carry out a survey at Friedrichshafen airport in November – it should be easy to spot the people clutching their packs of “Little Swimmer” nappies and Hovis sandwiches!