How the travel industry can win you back

By | September 13th, 2009

The travel industry wants you back.

But before you say “yes,” listen to Laura Salisbury, a teacher from San Jose, Calif. She mistakenly typed the wrong return date when she booked a vacation for her and her mother through Expedia.

“All I wanted to do was give my mom a trip of a lifetime to celebrate the successful end of her cancer treatment,” she says. The two women planned to visit Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming.

When she asked Expedia for help, it deferred to Delta Air Lines. “A representative at Delta said that the tickets were non-refundable, but that the company would change the flight dates for me for a $200 fee per ticket,” she says. “I said the flight change charge is more than what the tickets even cost, and that new tickets would be cheaper. I was then told that I was welcome to order new tickets if I did not wish to pay the fees.”

Before all of you airline apologists pounce on Salisbury for booking a nonrefundable ticket — and on me for being naïve enough to give her a platform (what part of “nonrefundable don’t I understand?” I can almost hear you saying) — let’s take minute to think about this.

The vacation package she bought didn’t offer a prohibitively expensive, fully-refundable airfare. But more to the point, why couldn’t Expedia go to bat for her? Why couldn’t Delta change her ticket if she made an honest mistake? Is the $400 it would pocket in change fees worth the lifetime of business it will probably lose from her?

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There’s no better time to be asking “why” than now. That’s because things probably can’t get any worse for the travel industry. Hotels are in foreclosure, airlines are once again on the verge of bankruptcy, tour operators are selling their products at ridiculous discounts, and destinations are resorting to publicity stunts to attract visitors.

For example, Southwest Airlines held a two-day blowout sale a few weeks ago, in which tickets were offered for less than it costs to fill the tank of an average SUV. The Copley Square Hotel, a luxury hotel in Boston, was hawking rooms for less than the price of a cab ride to Logan Airport. And in a move that can only be described as utter desperation, the notoriously unfriendly Parisians, in an effort to “show that Paris loves its tourists and knows how to welcome them,” strapped on rollerblades and formed an enormous human smile at Place Vendôme.

I’ll give you a few moments to ponder that image.

The fare sales and sideshows may lure some of us back in the near term. But over the long haul, they do nothing to fix the real problem. Basically, we’ve concluded that the travel industry is largely comprised of money-grubbing opportunists, and no fire sale is going to fix that.

But here are a few things that might:

1. Try “yes.”
Instead of gimmicky sales and two-for-ones, why not just stop saying “no”? For instance, why can’t you change the name on airline tickets? Well, airlines insist it’s for “security reasons.” So why do carriers like Allegiant Air allow name changes? Granted, there’s a $50 fee, and Allegiant throws an obscene amount of other surcharges at its passengers. But why not allow the name on a ticket to be changed? Simple thing, really.

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