GAS

Can this trip be saved? “We feel cheated as tourists”

Before Steven Barlow returned his rental car at Orlando International Airport in December, he did what most rental customers do who are trying to avoid a fuel surcharge: He found a gas station and topped off his tank.

Then he looked at the digital display on the pump at the Suncoast Energies station, which seemed to be moving faster than normal. Then he looked up and saw the prices were nearly twice the going rate for gas in Florida — an incredible $4.89 per gallon.

We could see no signs advertising the price. The clerk told me that they could charge this price as the station was close to the airport, and offered no other reason as to why they didn’t need to advertise. Basically, too bad you stopped and thanks for being stupid and giving us your money.

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Bank insists $1,390 gas bill is correct — now what?

Remember last year’s soaring gas prices? Annette Lazzarotto will never forget them. She paid $1,390 for a single tank of gas on a visit to Italy. What’s worse, her bank insisted the charges were legit, and billed her for the full amount.

It happened at a gas station on Via Cassia near our hotel. As it was “my turn” to pay for the gas and not noticing this error, I signed the receipt which was then charged to my Visa card. While obtaining the gas we noticed the attendant to be very different from all other stops at gas stations. He appeared nervous, rushing around and gruff with us. Although curious, we ignored the behavior as we always present ourselves with deference while traveling as visitors in foreign countries.

Sure enought, when Lazzarotto returned to the States, she found a $1,390 charge on her Visa bill.

I contacted my Schools Federal Credit Union Visa, which obtained a copy of the signed receipt and explained because it was signed they could not help me. I was told I had to contact the company myself regarding the dispute. I found the station and the parent station and through a Web search e-mailed representatives who admitted the error and initially discussed the process of crediting my account through several e-mails of various department levels at the parent company-ERG Petroli SPA.

I then provided Visa with all the copies of e-mails from this company in Italy (as my problem was forwarded to several staff). All e-mails demonstrated the company’s willingness to credit or provide a money wire to my bank account. I was then told by my bank that now that I had obtained agreement to credit the money they would take over and handle it.

After the Visa dispute department apparently “lost” my entire file, I was asked to send it again through my Credit Union in February. I provided copies of all the documents to Visa only to receive a letter this June that the ERG Petroli corporate office does not have authority to issue credits on behalf of the individual merchant location, and the location refused to issue the credit.

What next?

Well, the Fair Credit Billing Act doesn’t protect you for overseas purchases, so Lazzarotto needed to take the matter up with one of the companies — Visa, Schools Federal Credit Union or ERG Petroli. I recommended that she take her bank to small claims court to recover the $1,000 or so she was charged.

Yesterday, I heard back from her.

The process was quite simple as the courts provide online forms to complete with support for writing the “demand” letter. I sent this to my credit union who informed me they would turn it over to their attorneys. Within a week, a CEO at the credit union called me to say they would pay the charge and “they do not like their customers to have to experience fraud like that.” Interesting they were letting me experience that fraud for 16 months as I fought with them and their Visa dispute department to no avail.

I learned to check and keep all receipts as I travel and to not hesitate to use the small claims court process even against a large company.

That’s a great lesson learned — and a long overdue, but happy, ending.


Why high gas prices could cut your vacation costs

Too bad gas prices are falling.

While the rest of the world whined about the seemingly unstoppable rise in energy costs this summer, and the greedy oil companies that were probably to blame for them, we missed the other side of the story.

Soaring fuel costs can potentially save us real money on our next vacation — if not in the short term, then down the road. The effects were already being seen across the board: hotel rooms, car rentals and counterintuitively, even airline tickets. If nothing else, paying more at the pump would have encouraged travelers to do things that will make travel more sustainable in the future.

Don’t believe me? Just talk to your seatmate or fellow hotel guest.

If you do, you’ll hear that contrary to travel surveys that basically shrugged off the energy crisis, travelers either plan some dramatic and permanent changes to the way they get around, or they’ve already made them.

Chat with Kathleen Hargan, a child custody mediator from Oakland, Calif., and she’ll tell you the sad story of downsizing her car to a Prius. “I loved my Lexus almost as much as my firstborn,” she says. “Well, a far second, anyway. It was a dream car. But I had an epiphany when gas hit $3 a gallon.”

Some travelers have gone even further. “I’ve cut my gas consumption in half — or even better — by parking my old reliable GMC Suburban in favor of a BMW motorcycle,” says Jack Riepe, who works for a trade organization in Alexandria, Va. “In most cases, a pair of khakis and a dress shirt can be teamed up with a blazer in the saddle-bags for a business look. Business associates have gotten used to the boots.”

Others are trying to kick the fossil fuel habit altogether. “Gas prices pushed me to buy a bike,” says Lynette Phillips, a university research associate who lives in Shaker Heights, Ohio. “We live close enough to some stores that we can walk, so I do that more often.”

So how is this affecting travel? J Michael Murray, a retired professor from Sarasota, Fla., canceled his Mediterranean cruise this fall. “Flying to Istanbul and back from Rome was too big a hassle,” he says. “The cruise and related expense was just too much for what we would have gotten.” Remember, cruise lines have imposed fuel surcharges on their tickets, which jacked prices up without raising fares. Very clever. Or maybe not.

I’m hearing from a lot more people like Doreen Friel, a communications consultant from Tampa, Fla., who is frustrated by both higher energy prices and the hassle of travel. She just canceled her Delta Air Lines affinity credit card because, “Sky Miles are now worthless,” adding, “it’s just not worth leaving home anymore.”

If fuel prices head higher, travelers like Friel will benefit. Have I fallen off my rocker? No. Here are three ways high gas prices can you money.

1. Hotels: more incentives and falling rates?
During the last few weeks, just before fuel prices started edging downward, lodging analysts and hotel insiders told me rate growth had slowed. If conditions don’t change soon, they added, rates could start to fall. It seems every other hotel is issuing gas cards to encourage people to visit. No company is beneath this kind of incentive. I just saw Preferred Hotel Group — to which upscale boutique properties like the Mosaic Hotel Beverly Hills and San Francisco’s Huntington Hotel belong — offering gas cards.

Hotels were holding the line on further discounts, but if bookings continue to slow, they would have no choice but to cut room rates. Average daily rates slowed from an uptick of 7.1 percent in 2006 to about 5.9 percent last year, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers. A recessionary economy might have pushed that growth into reverse, which would have been a boon to bargain-hunters.

What that means for you: Wait as long as you can before making a hotel reservation. Prices are probably headed south.

2. Rental cars: bigger is … cheaper?
Soaring gas bills meant that rental companies were, in the words of one insider, getting “slammed” — and the beneficiaries are you, the traveling public. Don’t believe me? Try this: Go to the Web site belonging to a major car rental company, like Avis, Enterprise or Hertz, and pull up a random rate quote. Then head over to Hotwire.com and find out how much less the same car would cost. Then go to Priceline.com and bid a few dollars a day below that. Oh wait, you’ve done this before? No, you haven’t.

Here’s the thing about rental cars that few people know. The larger cars can actually be cheaper than the matchbox cars. Why? Because travelers want to save gas, which drives up the demand and prices of vehicles with better fuel economies. Oddly, smaller cars and hybrids could cost more than SUVs and minivans.

What this means to you: Bigger is better. If you have a large family or if you’re driving a short distance, bid aggressively for a larger car on Priceline. (I just snagged a full-size car at Los Angeles airport on Priceline for what Hotwire wanted to charge for its smallest vehicle. Go figure.)

3. Airline tickets: still pretty darned cheap.
Yes, this summer’s airfares are up about 20 percent from last year. But they’re still a bargain. The average domestic airfare for the first quarter of 2008 was $332 — the same price as it was a decade ago, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. And there are signs that consumers are resisting further increases, according to my friends over at Farecast. That’s bad news for airlines like US Airways, who envision a future where they charge outrageous sums of money to fly between big cities, presumably leaving the rest of us to ride the bus. If passengers refuse to pay higher prices, something’s gotta give.

It doesn’t take an aviation analyst to figure out what might happen if fuel prices again start heading north. Customers eventually will refuse to pay exorbitant ticket prices, and the weakest airlines will fail. But I don’t envision a future in which two or three remaining carriers are able to set their own monopolistic prices. Instead, I see a future where the poorly-managed air carriers liquidate and new airlines emerge to meet demand from air travelers. These upstart carriers will be more efficient, customer-friendly and unencumbered by the poisonous corporate cultures that have defined many of today’s dysfunctional airlines.

What it means to you: In the short term, you may pay more for an airline ticket. But don’t let the airlines name their own price. Know when to say when. Force the incompetent airlines out of business by refusing to do business with them. The sooner you do that, the sooner you’ll pay a more reasonable fare.

Higher fuel prices have already forced travelers to make some long-overdue changes — whether it’s cutting back on trips or being more mindful of our limited energy resources. Cheaper prices at the pump threaten to put a dent in the progress.

I’m not the only one who feels that way.

“I am enjoying the high price of oil,” says James Edward Wright, a retiree from Duluth, Minn. “For too long, citizens told our political leaders to make sure we have low gas prices, even if we have to drill holes in some third-world country that hates us. We need $4 to $5 a gallon gas to make it painful enough for us to demand a fix.”

Couldn’t have said it better myself.


Gas dips below $4 a gallon — brace yourself for fuel price amnesia

Ponder these two numbers. Travel on all roads and streets fell by 3.7 percent in May, the latest month for which data is available, as compared with same month in 2007. And gas prices have declined for the 11th straight day, dipping below $4 a gallon.

Kinda makes you wonder: If energy prices fall any more, will we get back on the road with our gas-guzzling SUVs and minivans? Or have $150-a-barrel oil changed the way we travel permanently?

Let’s take a closer look at the data. A check of the regional breakdown in the May driving data reveals that certain regions of the country — notably the Midwest — have put the brakes on travel by car. The western part of the country is off by only about 2 percent.

Put differently, not all of use are about to trade in our wheels for a train ticket. (Indeed, some of us can’t.)

A look at daily fuel rates suggests that prices at the pump are about to fall even more. Note the spread between prices paid at the pump and crude oil prices, which tend to move in tandem.

I hope the higher gas prices of the last few months have scared us straight. I hope we’ll embrace alternative energy sources and cut back on our fossil-fuel consuming ways.

But I doubt it will be enough. I think we need sustained fuel prices above $5 a gallon in order to change the way America travels. Otherwise, we’ll just slip back into our old ways.

Next up: fuel price amnesia?