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

By | November 16th, 2008

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.

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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.

  • World Traveler

    I’m experiencing the same thing with Vayama.com. The search returns a lower fare, then goes up when I proceed to booking. I called Vayama about this, the gentleman I spoke with indicated the fare is no longer available and indicated the website will refresh itself shortly. I let him know this was an issue that had been going on for many hours and the website is not refreshing itself. I then asked to speak to his supervisor because he repeated the same answer over and over.

    The supervisor gave me the same story. I let her know Vayama has been publishing this price for over 12 hours and that is a very long time for the system to refresh. She told me she would report the issue. I let her know this was a bait and switch and there are laws that protect consumers against false pricing and there should be a disclaimer on the site if it is pushing false pricing otherwise legally they need to honor that price. She assured me this would be corrected immediately. I let her know I will come back to the site in a couple hours and if the price is still the lower price I would expect them to honor that price.

    Bottom line, she won’t do anything about it and I’ll save $630.

  • ninewives

    Blah blah blah. Advertising a product for one price, and then saying it is not available and offering to sell the same product for a higher price, is bait-and-switch no matter what kind of mumbo-jumbo you cloak it in. Bait-and-switch is illegal in every state in the US, so I smell a class-action suit here, it’s just a matter of time.