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Travel Industry’s Deceptions du Jour

Ten years ago, I compiled a list of some of the travel industry’s false and misleading pricing techniques, using the metaphor of a man who observed various promotions as he walked along a city street.

First, he saw an appliance dealer featuring a “side-by-side refrigerator, only $499,” with fine print explaining “for the refrigerator compartment, plus $399 for the freezer compartment.”

A few doors farther, he passed a restaurant that had a big banner in the window displaying “Free Breakfast Eggs!” with tiny type noting “with the purchase of bacon for $7.99.”

Going on, he passed a shoe store advertising “Nike cross-trainers, $39”; here, the small print said: “Per shoe, when bought in pairs.”

He next looked across the street, where a big billboard headlined “New 2014 Lexus, $12,999,” with the by-now expected footnote, “Per person, based on five-passenger sedan.”

His last stop was a menswear shop to pick up the new blue suit for which he had previously paid in full. The clerk told him, “My rent went up last week, so I added $20 to the price of the suit. And the one I have for you is brown rather than blue.”

Sadly, nothing much has changed since then. You still encounter the travel industry’s version of all of them.

  • Split or “drip” pricing—splitting a true price into a phony lowball come-on price, then adding the difference back in as a mandatory extra—is still rife. Hotels are the worst offenders, featuring phony lowball rates, to which they later add mandatory “resort,” “concierge,” or other fees. Although you usually see the final figure before you buy, the consumer harm is in its distortion of the price-comparison process. So far, the Federal Trade Commission’s attempt to stop this scam is agonizingly slow. Also, despite some effective DOT rules, airlines still do it: True, they can no longer carve out part of the real fare, advertise the lowball figure, then add it back as a “fuel surcharge” or “carrier imposed fee” when you buy a ticket. But some lines continue to pull it by excluding the fee portion when they calculate a discounted fare; by adding those fees to supposedly free frequent-flyer award tickets, companion tickets, and such; and by not including them in some refunds.
  • Nothing is really “free,” if you have to buy something else to get it. That’s the inherent truth in the cliche “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.” But travel providers keep hyping their “free” companion tickets, fifth hotel nights, and such.
  • Airfare postings “each way based on round-trip purchase” are no longer as irksome as before, because so many low-fare lines offer their tickets at one-way prices. But you still see it, and it’s still a deception.
  • “Per-person double occupancy” pricing is so ingrained into the system that you’ll probably never see honest “per couple” cruise and tour pricing. But per-person pricing is a true scam when hotels do it, as they occasionally do.
  • Cruise lines can still modify itineraries without your having a right to demand a refund (although some give voluntary refunds or credits) and some tour operators are still allowed to increase some fully prepaid tour prices by as much as 10 percent.

In addition to these classics, FinancesOnline recently posted an infographic showing how hotels can finagle camera images to eliminate embarrassing backgrounds. And they also use wide-angle shots to make rooms look bigger than they really are. Similarly, hotel brochure and website language can be, to put it kindly, less than fully forthcoming. Yes, a hotel can accurately be “just steps from the beach,” even if that’s actually 12,500 steps.

And one more: I continue to hear of airlines’ offering only future credits for cancellations, delays, or bumpings in situations where they are legally required to offer cash refunds.

All in all, most of you are onto these deceptions. But never underestimate the travel industry’s ability—and willingness—to stretch or “improve” the truth when folks in the business think they can get away with it.

Ed Perkins on Travel is copyright (c) 2014 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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