BEND, Ore. (CNN/Money) – "There ain't no such thing as a free lunch," wrote Robert Heinlein in 1966.
What about half-price lunch?
Anyone who works for Wolfgang Puck's fine-dining establishments pays 50 percent of the tab when they and up to three guests feast at Spago, Chinois, and Puck's other celebrated restaurants.
In fact, employee discounts are more common than not for businesses that make or sell consumer goods and services. If you haven't heard about these bargains, it's only because many companies don't like to make a big deal about their deals.
Harley-Davidson's public relations firm, for one, told CNN/Money it doubts the company would disclose details of its employee purchase program (which supposedly is quite generous). And indeed, we never heard back about cheap Hogs.
Target said both part-time and full-time employees receive discounts at all of its stores, including Marshall Field's and Mervyn's, but wouldn't say exactly what that discount is.
|Employer ||Deal |
|Beringer Blass ||50 percent off wine |
|Gap Inc. ||30 to 50 percent off at Gap, Old Navy and Banana Republic |
|Kimpton Group ||$50 rate at all Kimpton hotels, 20 percent off meals |
|Notre Dame ||Free tuition for staffers' kids |
|Southwest Airlines ||Unlimited stand-by privileges |
|Starbucks ||Free drinks while on duty, 30 percent off everything |
|Vail Resorts ||Free ski passes and lessons, other discounts |
|Wolfgang Puck ||50 percent off the tab |
| Source: CNN/Money research |
Initially, Gap simply said its discount is "substantial," though it later confirmed that employees save anywhere from 30 to 50 percent at Gap, Old Navy and Banana Republic.
It stands to reason that companies don't want to publicize their company discounts. After all, customers like to think they're paying rock-bottom prices.
Here's a sampling of who's getting what these days.
Free flight, cheap sleeps
Though the policies do vary slightly from one airline to the next, most carriers allow employees, their spouses, children and parents unlimited stand-by privileges. That is, they can get on any of the airline's flights for free as long as a seat is open. For a small fee or percentage of the fare, they also can get a last-minute seat on most other airlines.
Of course, flying stand-by does make planning for vacations a little more challenging. And with flights particularly full these days there's a chance you'll never get on a flight.
"You always have a back up," said Christine Turneabe-Connelly, who works in Southwest's media department and often puts her name on several airlines' stand-by lists if she has travel plans.
Hotels often give their employees steep discounts as well.
The Kimpton Group, which owns dozens of luxury boutique hotels, lets employees and their families stay in any of their properties for just $50 a night and eat in their restaurants for a 20 percent discount.
Though the deals are subject to availability and have some restrictions, they are available to everyone, whether they're bellhops or accountants.
"My parents love it," said the company's public relations director, Kathleen Bertolani.
Drink and drive for less (not in that order)
At Beringer Blass wineries, employees pay half price for company vintages, have access to classes on wine, and can invite friends and family on free tours and tastings.
At Starbucks, meanwhile, employees receive a pound of whole-bean coffee, box of Tazo tea bags and other goodies -- every week. All coffee drinks are free during working hours, and food, beverages and merchandise are 30 percent off when employees are not on the job.
Cheap wine and coffee certainly are nice.
But they're no match for the discounts given within the auto industry. Auto company employees, retirees and their family members can save thousands of dollars when they buy new cars, typically paying less than the dealer's invoice.
Of course, what auto insiders save on the sticker price they sometimes give up in low-interest financing, generous trade-ins and the other incentives dealers put forward when selling cars for a profit.
College tuition breaks
Many colleges and universities have an offer no parent could refuse: Free college tuition.
According to a 2002 survey by the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources, about 58 percent of schools will foot the entire bill if employees' children are admitted to their school. (More than 76 percent will pay full tuition for employees themselves and 56 percent will pay full tuition for spouses.)
What happens if your child wants to go to another school? Nearly 16 percent of schools surveyed will pay full tuition at other accredited schools.
At the University of Notre Dame, for example, children and step-children of administrators, faculty and staff who have completed at least three consecutive years of full-time service are eligible for full tuition for eight semesters. For children who'd rather not be "Domers," the school will contribute up to 30 percent of Notre Dame's tuition toward another school.
A ski bum's dream-come-true
Among those who measure fortune not in money but inches of fresh snow, there is no better job than at a ski resort. Why? Because most resorts give employees free ski passes and other deals to make the sport less "spendy."
At Vail, for example, full-time seasonal and year-round employees, their spouses and children receive season passes good at all five of Vail's resorts. Considering that you would pay about $1,500 for an adult season pass for Vail's Colorado resorts, it's quite a perk.
|More Your Money
On top of that, employees can take a free ski or snowboard lesson every month; eat two for the price of one in Vail restaurants at the end of the season; stay in Vail-owned resorts for $65 a night on weeknights, and flash their pass for discounts at most other ski resorts across the country.
Last but not least, Vail employees pay half price on sporting equipment, clothing and other items in the Vail employee store.
"It really makes the cost of living in these resort towns more affordable and builds loyalty among employees," spokeswoman Kelly Ladyga said, adding that she scored a huge deal on her mountain bike. "Even seasonal employees come back year after year."
Can you blame them?