Mark Hegeberg thought National would reward him with a lower price in exchange for his loyalty to the car rental company. So when he was looking for a car in Mexico, he clicked on the company’s website and volunteered his Emerald Club number.
“I checked reservations using my Emerald Club number and thought the charges were high,” remembers Hegeberg, who works for a packaged goods company in Mill Creek, Wash. A one-week, full-size rental in Los Cabos during August came to $246 with his membership, he says.
“Then I checked rentals without using my Emerald number and found them to be significantly less,” he says. The site returned a rate of $126 for the week — almost half the amount.
“Quite a difference,” says Hegeberg.
What’s going on?
Hegeberg emailed National, and it offered a cryptic response: “The Emerald Club is a US- and Canada-based program only,” a representative said. “Therefore, when you are adding your Emerald Club number to an international reservation, the system does not recognize the Emerald Club program for international rentals and generates a higher rate.”
I contacted National to see if I could get a few details about the price difference. It didn’t respond.
Would a travel company offer you a higher price because it knows who you are? Actually, it’s not only legal — in the future, it may become common.
For years, travelers suspected online agencies of serving up higher fares and prices when they recognized your browser “cookies” — those invisible electronic breadcrumbs that identify you. Even though nothing could be conclusively proven, I thought the cookie conspiracists had valid concerns.
This year, the discussion moved from tin-foil-hat territory to almost-reality when the International Air Transport Association (IATA) proposed establishing a new standard for selling airline seats called the New Distribution Capability (NDC). The NDC would allow an airline to collect personal information such as your address, birthday and frequent-flier information to offer you a special or custom fare based on what it knows about you.
Critics say that if the NDC is approved by the government, then it would essentially give airlines the ability and the license to do what they’ve denied doing for years: to offer you a “custom” airfare based on the information you share with it. You might not be able to compare prices between airlines, making airfare shopping virtually impossible.
If they can pull it off, this kind of Middle Eastern bazaar pricing could become common in travel. For you, we have a special price: more!
The right way
At the heart of the problem is this: The data used to make our purchase decisions is considered “proprietary” by travel companies. It’s only released to reservation systems and through the company’s own website, where it is subject to display bias and other shenanigans. And here’s where the government can step in and do some good. The federal government could always tell travel companies to release this information to everyone.