Is the travel experience really getting worse?

By | February 22nd, 2012

The world is going to hell in a handbasket, as my dad used to say.

Or is it?

Consider the overall travel experience, which I write about every day, and which my readers experience every day. It’s easy to assume that companies are getting more aggressive about pushing their ridiculous fees, surcharges and other scams on the masses.

But then I hear from Jeff James, a reader from Lee’s Summit, Missouri, about an experience he had a few years ago when he rented a car from National in Denver.

When he returned the vehicle, a representative claimed there was a dent on the bumper.

“I couldn’t see it,” he says. “After arguing with the guy for a few minutes, he suggested if I paid him $20 that he could take care of the problem. I gave him a $20 bill and rushed to catch my flight. I never rented from National again.”

I checked with National, which was understandably concerned about this obvious scam, and learned that the alleged incident took place more than a few years ago. In fact, it happened in 2001.

And that got me thinking: Do we just assume that the travel experience is getting worse?

Is it possible that the “good old days” were actually the bad old days, when it comes to the quality of travel?


I spent an hour on the phone with an airline publicist yesterday, who tried to convince me that the flying experience had actually never been better. She raved about her carrier’s new lie-flat seats in business class and new aircraft, both of which undoubtedly make for a superior air travel experience.

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It’s true, too, that airline tickets are cheap — maybe too cheap for even the airline industry’s own good. (I mean $9 fares? C’mon.)

But the argument that flying is getting better for all of us is absolutely preposterous. For the card-carrying elite-level passengers lucky enough to be sitting in the lie-flat seats, it might be improving. For the rest of us wedged into the steerage-class seats in the back of the plane? Definitely not.

With some travel industry sectors, it’s really hard to figure out if the experience is any better. Hotels are a prime example. A decade ago, many unscrupulous properties were padding their pockets with “energy” fees (a court forced them to stop). Dial it back another few years, and properties were charging outrageous fees to use their in-room phones (thank goodness for cell phones!).

And while hotels have added lots of amenities, like new beds, pillow menus and flat-screen TVs, they’ve made relatively few innovations in the area of customer service and hospitality in recent years. Maybe they think we’ll be wowed by the amenities and not mind if the guy at the front desk just doesn’t care if we’re having a good stay.

And car rental companies? Well, you can rent a late model, low-mileage vehicle the next time you need a car, but it would be a stretch to call the experience “better.” Car rental companies have perfected the art of passing along fees to you, which effectively double or triple the actual rate you pay.

Oh, and that $20 ding scam? It’s been taken to a whole new level by some car rental companies, as regular readers of this column know. Now, instead of pocketing a twenty, they send you a bill for $500, which just happens to be the amount of your insurance deductible. And they don’t even show you proof that the car was fixed or evidence to support their daily “loss of use” fee.

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I want to be optimistic. Heck, I’ve even been ordered to be more optimistic. A few years ago, an editor commissioned a story that argued these were the glory days of air travel. It was a journalistic low point for me, and I stopped writing for that news organization shortly after that.

But the longer I cover this industry, the more I wonder if my dad was right.

Maybe this world really is going to hell in a handbasket. And maybe the only thing standing between you and a complete rip-off are a few government bureaucrats and the last consumer advocates remaining.

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