More consumer woes on the travel front

I’ve already written about the “trick” of reducing the contents of a package, often without reducing the size of the package, so the only way the consumer knows the cost of the item has increased without the nominal price being raised is to look carefully at the label, particularly the statement of weight or fluid content. When that happens, at least you can see what’s being done to you, if you look carefully enough.

In making some travel plans to attend a professional conference this summer, I discovered a few tricks that are even more insidious. After booking a flight on a western regional airline for the first time, I found, upon reaching the final page on the web site before confirming my ticket purchase, several theretofore undisclosed and unexplained “fees” added to the price of my ticket. I’m not talking about the usual government-imposed taxes, airport facility fees and security fees that all airlines break out and charge for separately (of course, those were there, too); I’m also not talking about the now near-ubiquitous charges for seat upgrades, checked bags, advance check-in, etc. (they are in most cases fully disclosed and the traveler has the option of declining them before purchasing a ticket), but a $14.00 “convenience fee” and a $7.50 “segment fee.” I cannot imagine these are anything but a way to fraudulently advertise one price to lure customers in, and then charge them another, higher price when it’s time to purchase the ticket. I wrote the company requesting an explanation, and will share with you any response I receive.

True, one can decline to purchase the ticket and start over again with another airline (if there’s competition for the route you need to take, which there wasn’t in my case), but that’s not the point. The point is the bait-and-switch, with the new, more expensive product being nothing more than the product offered at the come-on price. The customer may swallow it, but I can at least say for myself that I won’t go out of my way to do business with that company again.

When booking my hotel, I encountered another scam – only upon receiving an e-mail confirmation of my telephone reservation, where no mention of it was made, did I notice that, in addition to the quoted room rate and taxes, I would be assessed a four per cent “resort fee” to cover various amenities that either should have been included in the rate or offered a la carte.

Why does business operate this way? I know the pressure to grow revenues and profits is intense, but is it really worth the negative reaction – and possible loss of – the customer who feels had after making the transaction? Maybe companies feel that if their competitors are doing it and getting away with it, they have to, also. And if everyone does it, consumers really can’t vent their frustration by patronizing a company that doesn’t do it.

Maybe the transition from dealing with known merchants, often members of our own communities, to impersonal national corporations, and from face-to-face interaction in many cases to telephone or web transactions, has removed the inhibitions of the actors in these little dramas, and I know customers can be as ruthless and unreasonably demanding as businesses. In a dispute with a neighbor, we might give a little to preserve the relationship; no such consideration is in play when dealing with a mail order company. It shows how little businesses and customers have come to value civility and forthrightness, which is a shame.

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