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.