Bait-and-switched into booking a summer “bargain”? Then read this

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Now you see those summer travel deals. Now you don’t.

Spike Spencer knows what that’s like. He just tried to book a four-night tour online from Icelandair, advertised at $1,073, including flights. But as soon as he selected his vacation, the price jumped to $2,600.

He complained to Icelandair, and it claimed the price was “neither a discrepancy nor a problem.” The company simply ran out of the $1,073 vacation packages.

“When you’re advertising something for a price and there’s a limited number of trips, it’s a bait-and-switch if you don’t have them,” says Spencer, a writer based in Los Angeles. “At least that’s my opinion.”

Michael Raucheisen, an Icelandair spokesman, confirmed that some of the airline’s vacations were in short supply. “Our packages are very popular and they do sell out pretty quickly,” he noted.

Most customers know that when it comes to online sales, timing is everything. But crack open the hood on the travel industry’s deal-marketing machine, and you’ll uncover even more.

I know, because I caught a glimpse of it in the crossfire between two enormous online travel agencies and lived to tell the story. In fact, online deals are often so elusive that you shouldn’t count on anything until you have a written confirmation.

What you see on the Internet isn’t always what you get. Who hasn’t clicked on a deal, only to be confronted with a pop-up window that says it’s sold out, but you can book at a higher price?

My adventure as a virtual war correspondent began with an e-mail from a large online travel agency. It claimed one of its competitors wasn’t playing fair. Its most incendiary accusation: that the competitor was advertising low but un-bookable airfares through Google ads. Clicking on the banner would take you to a search wizard, not the actual fare. Classic bait-and-switch.

I asked the competitor about the charges, and it quickly fired back, insisting the accusations were “false and defamatory.” When the customer clicks on the link, it noted, they would be directed to the flight listing page, which would display flights offered at that price for that route.

The competitor then launched a counter-offensive, pointing out that the online travel site leveling the accusations against it was guilty of the same thing. It sent screenshots to prove it.

What’s more, the accused online agency added, its competitor employed hard-sell tactics to persuade you to book quickly. It would tell someone who just finished a search to “Book now and don’t miss out on the price.”

As I reviewed these allegations, it struck me that the bag of tricks online agencies use to entice you into buying a seemingly inexpensive ticket, hotel room or rental car are expanding. No wonder the Transportation Department is flexing its regulatory muscle with a new proposal to add a series of new rules that, among other changes, would require better disclosure of fees and surcharges from online travel agencies.

Sure, a too-popular vacation package sold online by an airline and the day-to-day tricks online agencies use to persuade you to book a ticket are not exactly the same thing. But to travelers who often don’t know, or don’t care, about the difference between a direct booking and an agency booking, they are one and the same: frustrating.

I’ll hand it to Icelandair. Raucheisen says if Spencer’s package was completely unavailable, the airline “would have taken the Web page down.”

But is it asking too much to require that anyone selling an airline ticket, hotel room or rental car actually make good on its advertised price?

Should online prices be regulated better by the government?

View Results

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A few tips to get the best deals

Don’t be the last to know. Sign up for e-mail notifications or follow an airline or hotel on social media for real-time deals. Southwest Airlines offers an app called “Ding,” which alerts you to discounts at your home airport.

Don’t be indecisive. Discounted fares are in limited supply, and once they’re gone, there’s no bringing them back. Be prepared to take advantage of a sale as quickly as possible.

Don’t count on it until it’s confirmed. Prices can change up until the last booking screen. Your “deal” isn’t a deal until you have a confirmation number.

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at . Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Tons of stuff. I apologize if I miss some

    Wouldn’t it be easier to do what airlines do (usually) and specify dates the specials are for? At least then you can search for available specials

    I see that as more of the quality of customer service then a legal issue. For example, I refuse to patronize Yahoo travel because it’s interface is absolutely crappy.

    You’ve already put your info (name and everything but final payment) and only the tell you it’s not available.

    I agree that’s not cool. You should have all relevant information and especially final price before any information is required. I am happy with the law enforcing such a provision.

    I think it’s on the company to say WHEN the specials are available

    Again, I see that as a customer service issue that doesn’t require the weight of the law.

  • GG

    I answered the poll with a yes. But I am assuming that the vacation package (as advertised) was for *one* person (with no “single supplement” charge for the hotel) and Mr. Spencer was booking only for *one*.

    Otherwise, things are complicated. Sometimes I see a great (air ticket) price available for one or two seats. Book three, the price for all seats goes up. (Cheaper fare had only two more seats left. Al tickets on the same booking should have the same fare class. So booking three or more, automatically puts you in the higher fare class). This would not be a bait and switch.

    That said, my favorite airlines always puts in red: “Limited Seats Available” when such a scenario is likely to happen. They advise you to put in the exact number of passengers when doing a fare search. So far they have kept their word on that: If I put in the exact number of passengers, the fare shown up during a search is the fare I get to book.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    The question for me, should that be a legal matter or is the market a sufficient mechanism to sort that out?

    A few years ago I was invited to participate in the Starwood Preferred Guest Advisory Committee. Probably my single biggest gripe was that it was difficult to find out which dates a given rate was available. It was a PITA to discern. Enough support was gathered and it was implemented in the next version of the SPF website.

    But as much of a PITA it was, I don’t think that a law was the best approach. Just my $0.02

  • bodega3

    I can guarantee, with 100% confidence, that the price advertised WAS NOT for one person. Packages are always based on double occupancy.

  • bodega3

    Should you have to put in date after date? Hummm…YES! The information you see is cached, so until you put in the date, the number of people traveling, the computer won’t have the correct information, which is only correct until you book, as while you are looking, someone else could have snatched it up. The internet is not showing you live availability.

  • mythsayer

    No one should have to input random dates. Specificity is key here. They know full well how many specials are available and what dates they are for. No need to force consumers to go day by day by day. If you want that to be your business model, fine, but then you better be able to show me that the special is actually still available ON SOME DATE if I call to say I can’t find the special anywhere. If you can’t find me the special either, why should I believe it exists?

  • mythsayer

    My very first comment response to you actually basically agreed with you. I said I wasn’t sure regulation was the way to go… And then I said that I thought there might be liability for bait and switch. So basically, I’m saying the consumers SHOULD be the ones enforcing it. I’m particularly bothered by the fact that it seems like even after he called to say he couldn’t find the special, they didn’t find him the special on another date to prove it was actually available. They just said it was… With no proof, why should I believe them? Unfortunately, now we are in the realm of “it’s totally not worth lawsuit.” If a company wants to have the crap customer service website like I mentioned above (and you seem to agree they exist), I’m okay with that. But if I spend a long time searching for a special and finally give up and call, you better believe I want to hear that company tell me when the special still exists. Because if they can’t do that, I do truly believe it’s bait and switch.

    However, again, we already have laws and cases interpreting those laws on bait and switch. What’s an offer? When must it be honored? When is it bait and switch, etc? So basically, this tactic bugs ms, and I do wish there was a way to hold them responsible, but ultimately it’s not worth it for the average consumer. So then I guess we are back at the circular argument of “since it’s too hard for the consumer to really regulate these practices, should we have a law?” We could go on and on all day. And I think I could actually support either argument.

  • mythsayer

    The difference is that you know where to go to get the Black Friday tv. If you get there late, too bad.

    I see this as more of a Walmart ad that says “60 inch tv for $50…. At various stores”. Well, which specific stores? How do I know if I should go to my store or the one down the street? What if it turns out I can’t find anyone who got the tv? How do I know there was ever a deal at all?

    If you want to make the deal hard to locate, be prepared to prove you ever had it at all.

  • mythsayer

    That’s exactly the argument I made above!

  • AUSSIEtraveller

    Spike you’re just too slow (in may regards) on the mark.
    It’s not bait & switch if you can’t get your act together & click fast enough.
    Maybe you should have used a travel agent ?

  • AUSSIEtraveller

    if every seats was same price, that price would be much MUCH higher.
    Do you really want to pay more ?
    Yield management means, there will be some cheaper seats on less popular flights.

  • bodega3

    That is how it works. Don’t like it, call a TA and have them assist you.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    So then I guess we are back at the circular argument of “since it’s too
    hard for the consumer to really regulate these practices, should we
    have a law?”

    This is more of my paradigm than anything else. For me, I require 2 things. Truth-in-advertising and adequate disclosure. Once those two are satisfied, my default is the remainder is merely customer service for which a market-based solution is superior to a legislative one.

    If the airline has the special but the customer is too (pick favorite adjective) to spend the time looking, but expects to be spoon fed, that’s between the customer and the vendor. Put another way, the is no societal interest in good customer service.

    I personally pick vendors that make the shopping experience smoother and easier.

  • ORguest

    Next time you think more govt regulation might be in order, consider this:

    Ten Commandments: 179 words
    Gettysburg Address: 286 words
    Declaration of Independence: 1300 words
    USGovt regulations on the sale of cabbage: 26,911 words

    Consumers need to be smarter, and fully understand their travel purchases. Like they say, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

  • bodega3

    I suggest using a GDS trained TA for these bookings as we can look at the class of service needed for packages and see what dates are available so much more quickly than you can online. Saves time and stress for you! I have tested the internet for this and it is a pain and very confusing to those who don’t understand how fares work. We can often book last seat availability in the GDS and queue it over to the tour company to have them do the ticketing for the package.

  • Mark Carrara

    As it gets closer to black Friday retail ads will have in small print (for limited items) at least x per store. So if you know there is only five of those super deals you can either go very very early or just skip it. Maybe travel companies should include the number of special rates that are available.

  • Marcin Jeske

    That’s always annoyed me… I think that once you have selected an itinerary and are filling out your details, there should be a sort of courtesy hold for a brief time to allow you to make the transaction.

    Otherwise what you describe is like standing at the checkout counter getting your card out of the wallet… and having some other customer grab what you are holding and quickly swipe their card. (The store then offers you a similar item for twice as much.)

    You seem to accept it as routine… but from my perspective, it is deceptive if a company allows multiple people to start a transaction when only one transaction is possible.

    Worse yet, I have seen the effects of poor updating between the search front-end and the underlying GDS. Search results can include trips that are no longer possible to book, because the results are stale by 10 minutes or even more… yet they still show up, and often let you go through the process of supplying billing details… only to inform you that the booking cannot be made… we can offer you a higher price, or please search again… oh, yeah, we will show the same results again and again, just to frustrate you.

  • Marcin Jeske

    If the rules of your promotion that a reasonable person needs to know are so complicated that they cannot be explained in advertising… you should reconsider that promotion.

    Either you will frustrate your customers… or you are trying to fool and cheat them.

  • Marcin Jeske

    Well… from your image… icelandair is lying… it does not offer any packages for the prices listed. A single person traveling has to pay more, and a couple traveling pay double. Including “from” doesn’t really save them… no one ever can book those packages for just $615, $1985, $2099.

    Granted, pretty much every travel company uses this deceptive “per person based on double occupancy” advertising scheme, and we have gotten used to it… but how would you react to:

    – wedding packages, $1000 per newlywed!
    – shoe sale, $50 per shoe! (Must buy two shoes…)
    – Eye glasses $50 per lens.

    You get the idea… it is attracting customers with a low price that does not include required additional charges… don’t get me started on the likely fees and taxes that are also not mentioned.

  • Marcin Jeske

    It might be important to make a distinction between different offered rates and a discount. Usually, AAA is a discount applied to an available rate… you don’t “run out” of AAA discounts, at least until you run out altogether.

    For example, Amtrak gives AAA discounts as a percent off whatever fare is currently offered (except for some promo fares and travel within 3 days).

    Hotels will usually also apply a percentage discount for AAA on whatever rate they advertise.

  • Marcin Jeske

    But they are usually advertised using the “per person” price. That makes the cost seem deceptively low… and single travelers get doubly deceived.

    Why would you advertise something for half the price it will really cost if not to fool people? “Per person” is only reasonable when you have flexibility on the number of people… these package prices are not available for 1 person, 3 people, 4 people, and so on… only for 2 people.

    Responsible businesses should advertise the full price of the package.

  • TonyA_says

    As crazy as it may sound, that’s not lying since they are technically telling the truth :-)

  • Marcin Jeske

    If I sent them a check for $615, the moment they started advertising packages “from $615″ and said I didn’t care when I travelled… they would not sell me an advertised package.

    “from $615 per person, based on paying twice as much”

    Yes, there are any number of ways to phrase a statement to technically tell the truth and still deceive. You are absolutely correct, if you are.

    We could have a discussion on the semantics of “lying”, but will you agree they are being deceptive by highlighting a price other than the actual cost of the package? And that most of the travel industry does the same when advertising packages?

    Those offering package tours use this tactic to make their price seem lower than in reality when compared with independently booking a hotel and travel. Would it be acceptable if hotels began to advertise prices like that: Two queens, $50 per person, must pay $100.

    Would you accept prices like that from other retailers? “Couches for $500, must buy two.” Rental car rates from $15 per person per day, based on two renters. Only $300 to paint half your house (must paint whole house). If advertising half the actual price catches on, is the next step smaller fractions? No wait, we already have that: “Your monthly membership only costs $1 a day.”

    How convoluted yet technically true would an advertisement need to be for you to stop defending it?

    “Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive.”

  • bodega3

    Nobody is going to show you live availability regarding air. Not even the airlines. Any transaction online isn’t guaranteed, sometimes not even with a confirmation code. Last year I bought something online with Sears, as they showed they carried the item, which I thought was very strange but since they are well known, I bought through them, not a company I didn’t know. They charged my credit card, they immediately gave me a confirmation code, they even sent me a link to their shipping company to track the order. One problem…they never had the product and nobody in the US had the product as it was not being produced. Sears is acting like Amazon, selling via other vendors through their website.
    Anyway, back to airfare. You get a brief period, to book space and if you take too long, you lose it during the booking process. Considering that space can be accessed world wide and multiple people hit the access at the same time, with cached space, fastest one wins!

  • Lindabator

    Not to mention that I may have grabbed that seat, and am holding it, but then later change my mind and do not purchase. So then it IS available yet again.

  • Lindabator

    Doesn’t work the same with an airlines — when they announce a fare sale, it can be for a variety of city pairs, dates and times. JUST because the one you want isn’t available doesn’t mean they don’t have other options.

  • Lindabator

    FAA already ALLOWS the ads provided there is one seat at that price — which is why they may advertise, even if the ONE flight you want is NOT available any longer.

  • Lindabator

    And THAT is what these folks do NOT understand. Happens all the time!

  • Lindabator

    Because most people DO travel in pairs, but NOT as couples — knowing what each person is paying is important to most folks, and they don’t like having to do the math themselves.

  • Freehiker

    It’s insane how many people want the government to have MORE control and get involved in all aspects of their lives.

  • bodega3

    Package prices are always based on double occupancy with a single supplement cost unless the travel is being promoted for singles.

  • bodega3

    Some hotels do charge more based on numbers, other not. We sell travel and see it all. If you want to open your own travel business and advertise your prices you way, so for it. But how it is done has been done with way for decades. No deception, just many going online for cheapest price and not bothering to read the rules.

  • bodega3

    How difficult is the rule, ‘Based on double occupancy”? Sad that people don’t like being told the rules and want it their way.

  • bodega3

    So many of these posts just have me shaking my head. The internet brings out such craziness and arm chair quarterbacking!

  • BillCCC

    Sorry to disappoint you.

  • BillCCC

    I have no idea what you are trying to say but your use of capital letters has won the day.

  • bodega3

    Don’t take it personally, so many think they know who things should happen due to the internet and don’t want to understand how things actually work.

  • BillCCC

    It must have been my craziness coming out when I was sitting in my arm chair. Imagine having the audacity to post an opinion without being an expert in the field. Just to be safe, what was it about the post that made you thing it was crazy and that I don’t want to understand things?

  • Marcin Jeske

    You know, I can’t find any actual statistics, but my intuition says you have it backwards…

    My guess (based on observation) is that for most vacation travel, where package tours would be used, couples dominate, followed by parents with children, followed by single travelers, followed by groups, followed by pairs (not in a romantic relationship).

    For overall travel, singles are probably higher as business trips skew the results.

    Your suggestion, that displaying half the actual price of a package is motivated by clarity for those friends splitting a hotel room, could make sense in a world where two friends traveling together was the most common arrangement. On the last few package tours I was on, the one or two pairs were the exception, not the norm.

    And it pricing is shown this way for the convenience of friends traveling together, why don’t taxis, rental cars, and hotels also extend them this courtesy?

    Either way, you have to do math… either dividing by two for the price per person, or multiplying by two to know how much you owe. Please don’t pretend you don’t know why package tours chose the lower number… to make their product seem cheaper than it really is.

  • Marcin Jeske

    What you describe is different… selling an item not in stock, they made a mistake by showing it available (another peeve for another time). (By the way, I don’t know about Sears, but Amazon does somewhat inform you whether a product is being sold by them or by a third-party seller.)

    I was talking about letting someone else buy something while you are in the process of purchasing. This applies both to consumers buying for themselves on a OTA as well as TAs using a GDS… I have worked with complex, multi-layered database-backed systems in other fields, and it is quite possible to guarantee that only one user at a time enters the final booking process for a given seat or set of seats. And synchronizing status across multiple systems is also doable.

    While it is true that millions of people may be searching for airline tickets at any one moment, the chances that more than a handful are trying to book one particular fare on a flight at the same time are tiny… so queueing them up is no great burden. And please, any argument that “this is just the way things are done” will fall on deaf ears here.

  • Marcin Jeske

    I think you may be replying to the wrong comment. LFH0 wrote: “the ‘full’ deal could be so complicated that it would defeat the purpose of advertising”.

    I was responding to that, the idea that a promotion has so many rules and exceptions that it cannot be adequately advertised, not to our separate discussion about package tours obscuring the full price of a package by division.

  • Marcin Jeske

    Yes, but hotels use an extra-person fee or a similar device… they do not advertise half the price to make the room seem cheap. (Though, I do also object if the extra-person supplement is sufficiently hidden. I have seen a few hotels show the single (or double)-occupancy prices for rooms even when you have already said you are looking for 2 (or 3) people. Expedia is also notorious for throwing in the extra-person supplement only at the final payment screen.)

    A hotel will absolutely sell me a room for the single price. A package tour will not… they will almost always reveal a “single supplement” which is often just shy of the per-person price. (Yes, you can tell I travel by myself not infrequently, and get annoyed by these tactics.)

    This has nothing to do with me wanting to “advertise your prices your way”… this is the same as airlines hiding “plus taxes and fees” which constitute more than the price of the ticket, the same as required resort fees, the same as shopping channels highlighting “only $99.99″ while mumbling “for each of 12 installment payments, plus outrageous shipping and handling fees”.

    You are defending the same people who insist in saying $99.99 because it’s “less than a hundred dollars.” Whether it fools only a few people or many, it is deceptive, manipulative, and “everybody does it” is no excuse for not working to correct it.

    Many things “done for decades” are wrong and should be changed… and deceptive advertising is something everyone in the industry should combat.

  • bodega3

    Please let the GDS companies know your secret.

  • bodega3

    Glad you know how it works. Open up a travel business and make the big bucks :-)

  • bodega3

    You sound bitter. Sorry for all the deception but when you open up your business, do share your advertising ideas.

  • bodega3

    In travel, we hear opinions on how people want things to work because they don’t like what they have to deal with now that they are doing it on their own. Change happens, but many things have a reason for how they work and many don’t want to read or learn about it, just want it their way.