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The Sinister Scam That Won’t Go Away

Despite Department of Transportation (DOT) rules, some travel sellers still feature phony—and ridiculously low—airfares with “plus fuel surcharges” in a fine-print footnote. As far as I know, airlines have stopped this pernicious practice, but I still see it from some third-party agencies, especially self-styled “discount” agencies and niche-market tour operators.

I got started on my latest check last week when I received a press release from an operator of Catholic tours touting a “pilgrimage to Paris” for a highlighted figure of $1,199 per person. Sure enough, the fine print said “add $146 Departure Taxes, $420 Fuel Surcharges and $189 for Optional Travel Insurance.” Now, adding the departure taxes separately still conforms to DOT rules—at least for another two weeks—and the insurance is carefully labeled “optional,” but reducing the real airfare by that $420 “surcharge” violates the rules.

For an example of just how phony the surcharge is, let’s take a closer look at the figures. The fine print says that the price of a “land-only” hotel/touring package without any airfare is $1,099. Subtract the land-only price from the supposed land-plus-air price and you’re left with $100 as the base airfare. Now, do you, the tour operator, or anybody else really think that even if the price of fuel dropped from the present figure (around $3 per gallon) back to the 1979 to 2005 range of around $1 per gallon, Air France would actually sell you a round-trip flight from Newark to Paris for $100? The sad part of this scam is that the real fare of $520 is a good deal, without any trickery.

After examining this release, I checked a dozen other niche tour operators, and found two more of them presenting airfares the same way: a preposterously low base fare plus a hefty fuel surcharge. One operator specialized in tours of Israel for Jewish travelers, the other in travel to Russia. The Russian tour site was especially flagrant: It featured “special winter fares” as low as $199 to Moscow, St. Petersburg, or Vilnius, specifying “fuel charges … not included” but without even stating how much the surcharges were. Most of the other agencies I checked avoided the problem by featuring land-only prices and asking potential travelers to contact the operator for airfare options.

I found three bad actors out of a dozen checks, so I have no idea how many total niche operators are also using the fuel surcharge scam. Presumably, quite a few.

My checks also raised the question of whether continuing to use the fuel-surcharge scam is particularly prevalent among operators of religious tours. This may be a gambit based on an assumption that folks interested in religious tourism are more likely to fall for a religious operator’s claim: “After all,” potential customers might think, “How could an organization that works with priests, ministers, and rabbis possibly be running a scam?”

Lest you think tour operators aren’t the only organizations continuing to use the fuel surcharge scam, I note several other places:

  • On foreign-based airlines, “free” companion tickets typically require that the companion pay a fuel surcharge. For a program like the AmEx Platinum business-class companion-ticket deal, that charge could well hit the “free” ticket with an added $1,000 to $2,000 surcharge.
  • Also, most foreign lines add the fuel surcharge on “free” frequent flyer award tickets when you use mileage in their own programs, although generally not when you use mileage in their U.S. partner lines’ programs. Go figure.
  • And I’ve noted a few cases where foreign lines say that discounts such as those for children are based on the phony base fare, not the surcharge. Presumably, then, on that $520 Paris fare, instead of paying the normal 10 percent ($52) an infant would instead actually pay $430 (10 percent of $100 plus the full surcharge).

I hope that, before too long, the enforcement folks at the DOT will get around to dealing with these outfits. Meanwhile, always stay vigilant for a fuel surcharge scam— it just doesn’t seem to die.

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Seniors on the Go is copyright (c) 2011 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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