Can this trip be saved? “We feel cheated as tourists”

By | March 7th, 2011

Before Steven Barlow returned his rental car at Orlando International Airport in December, he did what most rental customers do who are trying to avoid a fuel surcharge: He found a gas station and topped off his tank.

Then he looked at the digital display on the pump at the Suncoast Energies station, which seemed to be moving faster than normal. Then he looked up and saw the prices were nearly twice the going rate for gas in Florida — an incredible $4.89 per gallon.

We could see no signs advertising the price. The clerk told me that they could charge this price as the station was close to the airport, and offered no other reason as to why they didn’t need to advertise. Basically, too bad you stopped and thanks for being stupid and giving us your money.

Actually, Barlow and his family were probably among the last victims of this scam. A new Orlando city ordinance went into effect late last year requiring clear disclosure of gas prices near the airport, and the stations he visited, which primarily cater to time-strapped car rental customers, had yet to comply.

Barlow’s wife continues,

My husband stopped pumping the gas at $15 and we went across the street to the Shell Station.

To our surprise, it also charged $4.89 per gallon. We had based our timetable on the gas station location provided to us and didn’t have many options other than to purchase the gas or risk being late by looking for another station.

10.497 gallons of gas cost $51.42 at the Shell station along with the $15 from Suncoast Energies. Mind you, the 20-some dollars did not break us, but it was the feeling that we had been scammed or gouged.

The Barlows sent a letter to Florida’s attorney general.

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The answer? A form letter saying, “One of the best ways consumers can participate in our market economy is to patronize those fuel stations that offer more competitive prices.”

“Apparently she missed the point,” he says. “We didn’t know what their prices were because there was no visible sign indicating it. Who would have thought that they would be charging $4.89 versus $2.97?”

True enough.

The Barlows should have looked before they pumped, of course. But when you’re on a tight schedule, who has the time to pay attention to gas prices? I mean, that’s how Suncoast and Shell were able to charge twice the going rate to their customers. They had ’em over a barrel.

Mediating this type of case might be difficult. I could contact Suncoast and Shell at the corporate level, giving them an opportunity to make things right. But I can predict the response: either none (most likely) or a form apology and a gift card that they may or may not be able to use (less likely).

I’m not opposed to trying.

But before I do, there’s the question of whether I should even get involved. The Barlows willingly visited these overpriced gas station and they paid for the fuel without disputing the price.

Did they fall into a tourist trap? Absolutely. But no one forced them.

At the same time, I think these gas stations’ actions are predatory and reprehensible. I live in Orlando, and they give our tourism industry a bad name. I’m grateful for the city ordinance that will make it illegal to conceal the real price of fuel, and am only sorry it didn’t come soon enough for the Barlows.

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“We didn’t mind all the money we spent enhancing Florida’s economy,” says Steven Barlow. “We feel cheated as tourists.”

What do you think? Should I mediate this case?

(Photo: Hy Ku/Flickr Creative Commons)

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