If they lie to us, why can’t we lie back?


Travel companies lie to you all the time. Why can’t you lie right back?

That’s the provocative question raised by the Transparent Airfares Act of 2014, which is sailing through Congress despite fierce opposition from consumer groups.

If passed, the law would give airlines a federal license to advertise a low “base” fare, and add taxes and fees later in the booking process, before you buy a ticket. In other words, that bargain $19 fare could ring up as more than double.

Passengers are understandably incensed. A Change.org petition to stop the bill has gathered more than 40,000 signatures, and consumer groups, in a rare show of unity, have demanded that Congress discard this wrongheaded legislation.

But in at least one important way, airlines are not being completely unreasonable. They’re only asking for permission to lie just as other travel companies do. Before the government gives them the go-ahead, maybe airlines should consider what their passengers might do in response.

Fudging a price is already far too common in travel.

For example, click on Dollar’s website for a rental car at Chicago’s O’Hare airport, and it’ll quote you a $90-a-day “total” rate on the first and second booking screen.

But can you get a car for $90? Not exactly.

Later in the reservations process, Dollar reveals your “estimated” grand total, which includes a mandatory “airport concession recovery fee” of $10, a “facility” charge of $8, a motor vehicle tax of $2.75, a “vehicle license recovery fee” of $1.26 and — as if that’s not enough — sales tax of $20.

The real rate, shown when you’re ready to reserve your car, is $132.

Or go to Hilton.com and reserve a hotel room at, say, the Hilton Lake Las Vegas Resort & Spa. The lowest room rate is advertised at $129 a night.

But wait! Keep clicking, and you’ll find there’s a mandatory $22-a-day “daily resort charge” that, among other things, covers guest Internet access, shuttle service, boarding pass printing, golf club storage, overnight shoe shine and toll-free and local calls. Then there are sales taxes.

That $129 room, you eventually learn, really costs $171 a night.

Unlike airlines, car rental companies and hotels are only lightly regulated at the federal level, at least when it comes to how they display rates. The Federal Trade Commission can’t force these travel companies to quote a full price.

The FTC only requires that a company advertising an initial base rate would disclose “clearly and conspicuously” that additional fees and taxes will be charged later, says Elizabeth Lordan, an FTC spokeswoman.

Consumers see this differently. To them, it’s a bait and switch.

Bob Scheidecker, a frequent traveler and chief operating officer for a restaurant chain in Chicago, says he’s “totally against” removing taxes and mandatory fees from a base price.

He’s particularly frustrated with renting a car, where he never finds out the real price until the very end — often after he returns the vehicle.

If travel companies lie, why can’t we?

“Maybe we should be able to bend the facts, too,” says Jill Wroblewski, New York-based frequent flier and communications consultant.

She has stretched the truth in past dealings with a hotel. Once, when she needed a late checkout, she claimed to be pregnant. She was actually hung over.

“They were completely understanding of the situation, congratulated me on my first and then started sharing their own war stories of being preggers. Hey, they let me stay until 6 p.m. that night when check-out was 11 a.m.,” she says.

As long as her white lie isn’t hurting anyone or being “tremendously unethical,” perhaps it’s OK, she says.

If the airline industry gets its way, and their ability to misrepresent your airfare is enshrined into federal law, maybe they deserve the lying passengers they get.

Airlines are quietly making the case to Congress that quoting an artificially low airfare will be an economic stimulus — people buy what they believe are cheap fares. When those same customers lie right back in order to get a price break, claiming to have a death in the family to qualify for a bereavement fare, airlines shouldn’t be shocked.

You don’t have to be an ethicist to know that lying is wrong, whether it’s your airline, hotel or you. Instead of taking us down this deceptive path, Congress ought to give the FTC the authority to stop deceptive “gotcha” pricing, forcing all American businesses to quote a full price.

Anything else is a lie.


Refuse to patronize travel companies that bait and switch. For example, Enterprise will offer (albeit in smaller type) a total including taxes on its site when you request a price quote. Other car rental companies don’t.

Sign the Change.org petition started by Travelers United, an advocacy organization. Here’s the petition. (Disclosure: I’m the co-founder of the consumer organization.)

Tell Congress to reject the Transparent Airfares Act of 2014. A companion bill is being considered by the U.S. Senate. Let your elected representative know you don’t want “transparent” prices.

If travel companies lie to us, should we feel free to lie back?

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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 chris@elliott.org. Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • $16635417

    Regarding rental cars. I’ve noted before that I’ve never been hit with any surprise fees at time of rental or return. All fees are included in the estimated total on my booking confirmation. I’m still curious where people that have these problems (like Bob Scheidecker in this story) are reserving their cars. When I receive my contract at time of rental it matches the total on my booking confirmation as well as my receipt at time of return.

    “He’s particularly frustrated with renting a car, where he never finds out the real price until the very end — often after he returns the vehicle.”

  • Len Oxman

    Chris, your mention of the “$19 airfare” prompted a thought that I’d like to throw out for discussion. If an airline offers $19 fares, I would guess that it expects to make its profit by selling add-ons, such as $35 for the first checked bag. What would happen if 80 $19 tickets are sold on a flight that has a total capacity of 80 and only 1 person shows up for the flight? Would the flight get canceled or would it be required to depart as scheduled? Would the airline lose money by not selling baggage transportation?

  • ChristinasCucina

    I told an airline my daughter was 15 to avoid their $100 fee they were going to charge for an “unaccompanied minor”. They refused to bend the rules even though there was only a month until she was 15. I hate to lie about anything, but I did not feel bad about that one!

  • $16635417

    I’ve been the only person on a flight a few times. One was an evening flight from Minneapolis to Rockford, IL on a Sunday night. I asked the pilots why they didn’t cancel for just me, they said they were spending the night in Rockford to operate the AM flight with our plane, which was usually full. It’s not worth it to adjust the schedule that close in when subsequent flights need aircraft and crew.

    Now…if you could figure out the aircraft and assigned crew’s schedule for the whole day, and had all those flights booked, you may be on to something!

  • Helio

    A small lie here, another small there… Suddenly a lot of people is lying, it becomes abuse, and everybody starts to complain – the companies and the customers.

  • TonyA_says

    It pains me to have to petition a bunch of liars and cheats. I’m talking about the politicians in D.C. This makes me feel so powerless.

  • Jim

    Two wrongs don’t make a right, but there is no I in team… Only an M and an E. And me is the only person I am worried about. As long as it’s not outrageous, no harm no foul (i.e. Your not stealing). Karma is a bi$#h so you wanna lie about a dead relative, go ahead, but watch what you wish for…

  • Len Oxman

    my thought was, perhaps the way to dissuade a policy of charging an extra fee for checked baggage would be to book up flights at rock bottom prices and not even bother to show up. perhaps if the airlines lose money on enough flights, they would conclude that the business model of charging low fares that do not include baggage might be ill-advised.

  • TonyA_says

    There’s a reason why the airline put up that $19 fare in the first place.
    Airlines use pricing to match supply with demand as close as possible.
    That said your $19 fare will most probably be sold with a ton of restrictions (one being non refundable with a $200 change penalty.) Of course, as you said, there’s also the opportunity to collect ancillary fees.
    I also doubt if they will put 80 seats of that fare bucket – the booking class restriction of that $19 fare.
    Finally, most airlines don’t just willy-nilly cancel flights since the equipment would most probably need to be positioned at the destination for another flight.
    The last thing we need to worry about is whether the airline makes money or not.
    If they don’t make money they won’t fly the route.

  • Michael

    I’m kind of torn here. While I do think that all prices quoted for anything should be the actually total price I will pay at checkout, why should airlines be treated different than say Sears, or National Rent a Car, or Hilton? Sears, Best Buy, Macys, etc. all advertise their price even though tax will be added later at check out. Why should Delta have to take the heat for excessive federal taxes? Maybe if this bill passes and people see just how much the taxes really are there will be enough of a consumer backlash to get the taxes reigned in.

  • Jim

    Age at your daughters age is subjective. She might be 14, but act 16. Arbitrary age limts can be brutal!

  • $16635417

    I understand. You also questioned would they even bother to operate a flight if it were lightly booked. That is what I was addressing.

  • Richard Smith

    I’ve had that happen. Way way back in the dim and distant past, Eastern Airlines operated a shuttle between New York airports and Washington airports. They had a policy — if the flight is overbooked, they will fly an additional plane to accommodate all passengers. This included walk-ups.

    On one occasion, flying EWR-BWI at the end of summer, I was a sole passenger on the “extra” flight.

  • Carl Parkes

    OK, I’m a former travel guidebook writer with Moon, Nat Geo, Reed etc., and it was another frustrated travel writer who told me how to open those overpriced mini liquor bottles, enjoy, then recap the bottle so that room service would never notice, and I thank her to the stars for her tips. Chips, too…

  • Carl Parkes

    The entire minibar ripoff should have been eliminated decades ago, so I don’t feel any guilt to borrow their products as they don’t mind borrowing my writing products to promote their products. It’s all now getting very confusing

  • frostysnowman

    Regarding hotels: I’ve said it before and will say it again, if your nightly rate is $150 with a “mandatory” $25 per night resort fee, then your rate actually $150. Just charge me the $150, have that rate include all of those lovely resort fee “extras” and quit nickel-and-diming me.

  • $16635417

    Actually, charge $175 up front with whatever the resort fee includes. If you want to charge me $150 and then not allow me to utilize the resort amenities, I can deal with that as well. I don’t want the $150 rate and then be forced to pay $25 for something I may or may not use.

  • frostysnowman

    I’d rather not get charged either, believe me. But if the fee is mandatory, it doesn’t matter if I use the stuff or not. I will be charged regardless, so just give me a room rate that “includes” all that and let me go up to my room. I’ve never successfully talked any hotel that tried to charge me a resort fee out of it because I won’t be using the gym, the phone, or whatever. So I avoid those types of hotels. But I’d be more inclined to stay at them if they just charged a room rate that “includes” everything instead of making a big deal of charging me a resort fee on top of it.

  • Name

    I agree with mikegun, I always know the full price when I book the car.

  • Name

    Wow, stealing liquor out of your hotel room because it’s overpriced. You should run for political office, with your mindset you’ll fit right in.

  • $16635417

    I’ve talked them out of it. Setting up a corporate rate at a hotel in Miami Beach, I lobbied that we were using it primarily for business and not for leisure. Sales Manger immediately crossed it off the contract and still included the amenities. (Pool use, newspaper, free local calls and wifi.)

    I’d probably be willing to stay at a hotel that includes the amenities as well. But if I narrowed my choice down to a couple of hotels and the one did not have a resort fee charged $200 and the one that did was $150 with a $25 fee, I’d be inclined to go with the cheaper total option. This is similar to not paying a premium for Southwest, when I know I wont be checking bags or paying the premium for Southwest and having the bags included.

  • TonyA_says

    How about the next occupant? Is he gonna pay for all the stuff you “borrowed”?

  • $16635417

    I have a mindset that if I think it’s overpriced, I just don’t buy it. Never thought of stealing it instead. Glad I read this column, learned a new trick.

  • TonyA_says

    White Lies must be the new normal.
    I just googled “airline tricks”/
    Lo and behold, top in the search results is a Reader’s Digest article “6 Tricks for Airline Travel”. Here is Trick #3:

    3. The hidden city trick

    The New York Times recently exposed a little-known secret:
    Airlines love to gouge passengers on routes to their hubs, yet they’ll
    offer lower fares on the same flight that connects to another city.
    Savvy passengers can book the lower fare and simply depart the airport
    at the hub.

    The downside: Actually, there are three downsides. First,
    you can’t check luggage to an intermediate point, so you can only carry
    on. Second, you must book these itineraries as one-way tickets, since
    the airlines will cancel any other flights after you miss one. Third,
    although this trick is perfectly legal, it still violates the rules of
    most airlines, with the notable exception of Southwest. You’ll only get
    caught if you do it repeatedly, and while theoretically the penalty can
    be severe – not ever flying on that airline again – it’s more likely to
    be the suspension of your frequent-flier account: Not adding your
    account number reduces this chance.

    My 87 year old Mom reads RD. I can’t imagine she is being taught to do this tricks.

  • $16635417

    I can add another risk. Have a family member who did this often. He once needed to go to Atlanta, but it was cheaper to connect to Savannah. When they were boarding the originating flight on the west coast, the agents were making announcements that they would need to be checking all remaining carryons. He noticed the gate agents were printing tags from the computer and tagging them the to final destination that was listed in the passengers’ reservation and advising the passengers of that.

    Of course, he didn’t want to have his bag go to Savannah, so he went to the bar and monitored the boarding. He waited until it was final call and they paged him. He ran up to the gate and rather than print the bag tag from the computer, they hand wrote the tag. They asked him his final destination, he said “Atlanta” and that was it.

  • TonyA_says

    Do you really think those federal excise taxes are excessive. 7.5% of base fare and $4 per flight segment goes to Airport and Airway Trust Fund.
    Do these need to be reigned in?

  • TonyA_says

    Dear Chris Elliott,
    I am surprised you do not bring up the issue of private jets.
    Since there are no tickets issued, then there is nothing to tax. They do not pay the 7.5% ticket tax that we do.
    In fact, according to Pres. Obama, they get a tax break through accelerated depreciation.

  • polexia_rogue

    lie if you CAN.

    yes the story of the hungover woman works because no one will question that.

    but the many people who say “I didn’t cause the damage to my rental car! the car was in my sights the entire time!”

    easy to use lies i have used

    -if you rent a car always say “yes, I’m the ONLY driver.” (ESPECIALLY if anyone in your party is under 25.)

    -when they ask where are you going? (as if they are making casual conversation.) say “I’m going to (location WITHIN THE STATE).” even if you are planning a road trip.

    then get full coverage insurance and they will not think twice.

  • Mel65

    How are they possibly “borrowing your writing products to promote their products”? And how is stealing liquor and putting water or whatever in the bottle and recapping it, “borrowing” in any sense of the word? It’s thievery and it’s disgusting, especially if you drink straight out of those bottles and someone else may unknowingly do so later, as well. You don’t have to patronize the mini bar if you think it’s too expensive, but passive aggressive thievery doesn’t change the way they do business. Simply not using it is the only way to tell a hotel that it’s not wanted or needed. I, for one, don’t find integrity “very confusing”.

  • Cybrsk8r

    Well, a brink and mortar store is a totally different situation. You’ll usually be shopping in a store in the state in which you live, which means you’ll know exactly what the sales tax is.