Westgate promised, but did it deliver?

Westgate promises Matt Solum “free” ski lessons, tickets and cruise vouchers as part of his timeshare purchase. But when it doesn’t deliver, should he get his money back?

Question: My wife, Gwen, and I bought a timeshare from Westgate last December. The location where we purchased was in Park City, Utah, but the week we ended up buying was in Arizona at another Westgate property. We had taken a free two-night stay with the agreement we would sit through a presentation at the end of the stay.

As you can imagine, it was a high pressure sales pitch and there were two people trying to get the sale. They offered us all sorts of incentives to get us to buy and they really seemed like quite a good deal.
Continue reading…

Is this a cruise club bait-and-switch?

Azamara cruise. – Photo by Jonathan/Flickr Creative Commons
Even though having the words “cruise” and “club” in a single sentence are probably enough to make some of you scream “scam!” this one is may be different.
Continue reading…

The low airfare that vanishes in a click

Now you see it. Now you don’t.

When you’re airfare shopping, attractive prices can vanish in a split second. Just ask Jim Doll, a systems engineer in Atlanta, who recently tried to buy a ticket to San Francisco on AirTran Airways’ Web site. He found a one-way fare for just $130, but by the time he’d toggled over to to see if he could do better there and then clicked back, the price had changed.
Continue reading…

Hey Southwest, if this isn’t bait-and-switch then why does it feel that way?

It just happened to me.

For years, I’ve patiently and dispassionately explained that when the price of your flight doubles while you’re making a reservation, it’s not bait-and-switch; it’s a function of the airline industry’s imponderable yield management software.

And yes, I’ve gotten the “I’m sorry, the fare is no longer available” message while I’ve tried to buy a flight online.

But never like this.
Continue reading…

“Pay an additional $800 or you can’t board the ship”

Timing is everything when you pull a bait-and-switch. Most of them happen just before or after the purchase – an “oops-the-price-isn’t-available” or a “sorry-did-we-forget-to-mention-a-fee” stunt. But for Mary Hoefs’ Royal Caribbean cruise, she didn’t find out until she tried to board.

Here’s what happened she tried to embark on the Liberty of the Seas with her family recently:

While checking in, our son and his family from Texas were pulled out of line and taken to another room. There they were told: “Pay an additional $800, or they you can’t board the ship.”

They were in a state of panic, and two little grandsons were in tears because they could not get on the ship. Not really understanding the reason, we had to come up with the extra cash for them to board. (Had we not had the money, what would have happened?)

The cruise was paid in full by us, at the time of booking. They had all this information far enough in advance that should there have been a problem, had plenty of time to let us or our travel consultant know so that it could have been taken care of before the date we were to set sail. Under no circumstance should this have been thrown in our face while standing in line to board the ship!

We feel that the full $800 should be refunded by Royal Caribbean. They only refunded $400, and sent that to the travel agent, with no reason or apology to us as to why our family from Texas was singled out like this.

Sounds dreadful, doesn’t it? I figured there must be another side to this story, so I asked RCCL. Here’s its response.

Our records indicate that this booking was not created in-house, rather, through a travel agent. During the booking process, the guests from Texas were booked as being residents of West Virginia – with a promotional discount that was being provided to residents of West Virginia at that time. When the guests were unable to provide government issued ID that showed they were residents of West Virginia, the discount had to be removed, thus, the additional charges.

In other words, Hoefs’ family had used a discount that can only be used by West Virginia residents. When they couldn’t prove they lived in West Virginia, they had to pay a fare difference.

I shared this information with Hoefs.

I paid for the two from West Virginia $1,787, which was the “special rate.” The family from Texas, I paid $3,275. And from here in Arizona, the price was $3,275. So the Texas family did NOT have a special rate. Regardless, I booked and paid in full on December 16th, 2008, the cruise was not until March 14th 2009. If there was a discrepancy, they had plenty of time to notify me before rather then wait till we were standing in line to board the ship. If they did not feel they were in the wrong, then why did they return half of the $800?

Hoefs is correct. She didn’t create the confusing pricing system that led to this problem. RCCL had ample time to check the IDs of the travelers. And yes, the $400 refund doesn’t make a lot of sense.

Lesson learned? If you’re booking a cruise through a travel agent, make sure you qualify for any discounts, and can prove it. At a time like this, cruise lines are trying to collect every extra penny from their passengers — even if they have to do it at the dock.

A hotel bait-and-switch — how a $29 rate became $180

I’ve taken a considerable amount of flak for pointing out the obvious fact that the rate you’re quoted when you’re booking a trip should be the price you actually pay. My industry critics foolishly insist that’s not how it works — not when you’re dealing with a “highly dynamic” pricing system.

I’m not going to debate the misguided airline apologists here, except to point out yet another obvious fact: Bait-and-switch isn’t limited to air fares.

Consider what happened when Stacey Blakemore booked a $29 suite at the Days Inn and Suites in Auburn, Ala., through Travelocity, but ended up being charged $180 a night.

When I arrived at the hotel, they informed me that the room had been canceled. First, the desk clerk tried to tell me that I canceled the room. When I assured her that I had not, she said Travelocity had canceled it. When I told her that I had contacted Travelocity recently to confirm the room and that I had a confirmation code from Travelocity, she finally admitted that the hotel had canceled my room per the owner’s request.

The owner simply did not want to honor the rate because it was a busy weekend and he or she felt that the hotel could rent the room for more. No one ever contacted me to warn me that my room had been canceled.

Blakemore phoned Travelocity, which tried to persuade the Days Inn to honor the original rate. The hotel refused. And there were no other hotel rooms available in town.

A hotel representative told me there were two rooms left, and that I could book either one of them for $180 per night. Each room had two double beds. So, instead of the suite for $28.99 per night, I was offered a room with two double beds for $180 per night. I felt I had no choice but to book the room.

Days Inn refused to refund the difference between the original rate and the new rate after Blakemore contacted it at the corporate level. What ensued, as far as I can tell, was a blame game — with Days Inn trying to fault Travelocity for the problems, and Travelocity unable to negotiate an acceptable settlement.

Blakemore, for her part, was furious.

I feel this was a bait-and-switch. The hotel advertised a rate of $28.99 on multiple Web sites. The hotel allowed the room to be booked. Then, just days before my scheduled arrival, the hotel canceled my reservation and no one notified me.

I contacted Travelocity, and it refunded the difference between the original rate and the new rate.

Lesson learned? Don’t just phone your online travel agent to confirm a hotel reservation. Call the hotel directly.

And one more thing: Airlines aren’t the only ones that play the bait-and-switch game.

Unfair fares: 5 secrets for avoiding the bait-and-switch

Andy Daniel thought he had found a terrific airfare from San Francisco to Miami for Christmas. Instead, he found a terrific disappointment.

When Daniel tried to book a $400 ticket advertised on Expedia, the price suddenly more than doubled.

“I called Expedia and a very polite, helpful agent apologized for the problem and found my $400 fare,” says Daniel, a microchip designer from Palo Alto, Calif. “She tried to book it for me — and then informed me that the fare had changed to $900 ‘because fares can change in seconds as tickets are purchased.’”


Bait-and-switch offers are one of the oldest — and popular — tricks in the travel trade’s book.

Maybe that’s one reason why customer ratings for online travel agencies such as Expedia are on the skids even as e-commerce companies as a whole are getting their highest marks in history. The authoritative American Customer Satisfaction Index earlier this year found that grades for the three major online travel sites dropped, with Expedia slipping almost four percent to a score of 75 out of 100 and Travelocity and Orbitz both receiving a 73.

That’s a low “C,” in case you were keeping track.

This isn’t limited to the three big online agencies, of course. Airlines, hotels and car rental companies have suffered similar declines in customer-service ratings. It would be unfair to pin this poor performance entirely on their slippery price displays. But it would be equally unfair to claim these fluctuating fares had nothing to do with it.

Travelers don’t trust their Web sites any farther than they can throw their desktop computers. Which isn’t very far.

I asked Expedia about its fare displays, and specifically about Daniel’s problem. Turns out the online agency has two systems that track airfare availability: one for shopping and one for booking. “While uncommon, the two systems will rarely return disparate fares, as appears to have happened in this case,” says Expedia spokeswoman Katie Deines. “It speaks to the highly dynamic nature of pricing and availability. Expedia works throughout the booking process to verify pricing and availability so we are showing customers the latest information.”

But travelers don’t care about the highly dynamic nature of pricing and availability. When they see a low fare one minute and a higher price the next, they call it a bait-and-switch. So do I. The price you’re quoted should be the price you pay. Every time.

Not everyone agrees with this simple assertion. One of my colleagues took me to task for referring to Delta Air Lines’ fare displays as a “bait-and-switch” a few weeks ago, claiming that it revealed my ignorance about the highly dynamic nature of pricing and availability.

I wish I was wrong about this, but I’m not. Calling these illegal sales tactics by their correct name reveals my indignation with the system — a system, I would add, that lot of so-called “experts” not only accept, but also defend, even as the customers whose interests they’re supposed to represent are foiled when they try to buy a ticket.

But wait. Aren’t travel companies — particularly online travel agencies — just victims of this scheme, like us? Not really, says Chris Lopinto, a partner for a site called that lets you connect directly to the computer reservations systems used by airlines. Without getting too technical, here’s what you need to know about how prices are set: Fares and rates are loaded into these reservations system and adjusted by the minute in order to maximize revenues for the travel companies. Companies use a team of math whizzes to predict demand and instruct the systems how to set the prices. Think of it as a game of “chicken” on a grand scale. And it’s played by nearly everyone in the business.

“The average person doesn’t understand what’s happening behind the scenes,” Lopinto told me.

We may never fully comprehend what’s commonly known as “yield management” in the travel industry, but there are a few ways of making sure you don’t become a victim of these deceptive pricing practices.

Always read the fine print
Beware of terms like “as low as” and “starting at” — as in “rates as low as $99” or “fares starting at just $49.” They’re almost always followed by “taxes not included”, “based on a roundtrip ticket” or “based on double accommodations” in four-point type on the bottom of the page. Perhaps the worst offenders today are airlines. They’ve begun a practice called “unbundling,” which is a sophisticated bait-and-switch tactic. By removing the cost of meals, luggage and advance reservations, they are making their prices seem artificially low. But when everything is added up, the ticket often costs much more than you expected. Incidentally, airlines love unbundling. In a recent earnings conference call, a Delta Air Lines executive declared, “a la carte pricing is where we need to go as an industry.” Do yourself a favor. Next time you hear the word “unbundling” just substitute the word “bait and switch.” It’s much easier that way.

Don’t count on a price until you have a confirmation
Most travelers believe a price quote from a travel company is like seeing a price tag on merchandise in the store. They couldn’t be more wrong. The price you see is almost never the price you actually pay, because at best, taxes, fees and surcharges are added to it. And at worst, the price changes between the time you get the quote and the time you click the “buy” button. Incidentally, why is it that you never hear of a fare going down during the reservation process? If prices are so highly dynamic, why can’t they be dynamic to the downside every now and then? Just something to think about. Bottom line: don’t count on a price until you have the confirmation e-mail and your credit card is charged.

Avoid the worst offenders
If you’re unsure about a travel company’s offer, you might want to consider what the Federal Trade Commission has to say about it. The government agency publishes an archive of case files going back to 1996 that could shed some light on the company you’re thinking of booking a trip with. Unfortunately, the worst offenders change their names, move and start another questionable business until they’re slapped with a “cease and desist” letter from the government. Another good place to look is your local Better Business Bureau which keeps files on businesses, including any recent complaints from consumers.

Use a travel agent
Competent travel advisers can spot a bait-and-switch offer from a mile away. It’s what they get paid to do. But not every agent is competent. Christine Austin, a homemaker in Louisville, Ky., swore off her travel agent after she fell for one of those “now-you-see-it/now-you-don’t” fares. “She called, told me the fare and ten minutes later called back and said the lower fare had disappeared while she was talking with me,” she remembers.

Since timing was important, Austin felt she had no choice but to buy the more expensive ticket. I think a good agent would have handled the situation differently — either by explaining that the first price was just a quote, and that prices could change, or by waiting until she was ready to buy before offering a price.

If it looks too good to be true, it probably is
Perhaps the easiest way to spot a bait-and-switch offer is to ask: Does this look too good to be true? If it is, then run, don’t walk. Reader Marianne Ventruella received one such offer in the mail last year that offered everything but the kitchen sink.

It included a travel voucher in the amount of $1,600, a cruise, resort visit and theme park tickets. She phoned the company and was connected to a salesman who insisted that she make an immediate purchase. “I knew it was a scam,” she says. Others aren’t so lucky.

I can’t cure the travel industry’s bait-and-switch epidemic in a single column. It takes concerted action by consumer groups, government regulators and fellow travelers like you.

But with just a little research, a skeptical attitude, steering clear of the worst companies and finding professional help, you won’t just minimize your frustration. You also won’t fall for the oldest trick in the book.