Free vs Complimentary. Why They Actually Don’t Mean the Same

Let me get this straight right away. When it comes to free vs complimentary, whether they mean the ‘exact’ same thing or not, depends on the context.

In some cases free means complimentary and vice versa. Whereas in some other cases, it is about using the better word.

Let’s say you buy something and get something else additional with it at no extra cost. Is it free or complimentary?

Some of you might say ‘free’, while some others might say ‘complimentary’.

Right answer: There is no right answer. Just a better answer than the other.

Free vs Complimentary: Easy vs Elegant

As the easier word to understand for the majority of the public, free is definitely the more used word. It is simple and easy.

In fact, free is one of the most powerful words in advertising.

On the other hand, complimentary is more elegant. And hence may be the reason why it’s more used in the hospitality and luxury industry. It sounds more special and nicer.

Context is everything

Obviously, the right word is more dependent on the context.

If you are a luxury brand, or into a high-value industry like real estate, complimentary sounds better for your tone and voice.

But if you are a sportswear brand, a supermarket, or a mobile app, free is the preferred option.

Also, you have to be careful with the usage of free vs complimentary when there is any kind of payment involved. You can have complimentary items when you buy something. So though the actual item is free, its definition of ‘free’ is dependent on the purchase of something else.

Let’s see a few examples to explain this better.

Free Parking vs Complimentary Parking

Take this news example of Melbourne CBD’s free parking.

Free parking melbourne cbd

The offer of ‘free parking’ is available for everyone. There are no conditions, except maybe time restrictions. But the offer of ‘free’ parking is not dependent on any purchases being made.

Hence, ‘free parking’ makes the most sense here.

Now consider this snap from Pan Pacific’s website.

Complimentary parking panpacific

It is ‘complimentary parking’ because the no-cost parking is provided under the condition that you are a guest at their shopping center or hotel. If you are not a guest there, you cannot avail the ‘complimentary parking’ facility.

Free WiFi vs Complimentary WiFi

Another example to explain this better.

Here’s a news article about India’s Railtel internet facility at railway stations.

example of free vs complimentary- indian railway free wifi

It is a ‘free’ service because there are no strings attached to avail this facility.

Now look at this example from Taj Hotel’s website.

Taj Complimentary Wifi

It is a ‘complimentary’ service because it is dependent on you satisfying the condition of being a guest at the hotel. It is definitely not given freely to anyone who walks in through their door.

(For the sake of this article I am turning a blind eye to the fact that Taj should have it as ‘maximum 2 devices’ instead of ‘minimum 2 devices’.)


Please take this with a pinch of salt. There are probably a whole lot of examples out there that do not satisfy this explanation. Just consider this as a general rule of thumb instead of a biblical statement to live your life on.

To put it simply:

Free – if the product or service is availed free, without any conditions in place.

Complimentary – if the product or service is availed free, only after it satisfies some pre-defined conditions.

When to use free vs complimentary. Free - if the product or service is availed free, without any conditions. Complimentary - if the product or service is availed free, only after it satisfies some pre-defined conditions. Click To Tweet

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Vijay S Paul

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