Let’s hear it for this gas price bait and switch!

Cheaper isn’t always better.

On a recent trip to Bend, Ore., I discovered that cheaper can actually mean more expensive.

The scam was perpetrated by a service station selling unleaded gas that’s 10 cents lower than the other stations along the road. With gas prices pushing $4 a gallon, a 10-cent saving is nothing to sneeze at.

So I pulled in to the service plaza, and before I could whip out my credit card, an employee walked over said, “I’m sorry, but our credit card machine isn’t working.”

No problem, I thought. We’ll do this old school. I’ll just go inside and give the attendant my card.

And that’s when the scammy gas station sprang its trap.

A small sign near the counter informed me that this particular station didn’t accept any of the major credit cards — only a debit card, to which it added a 50-cent transaction fee.

By the time I’d done the math in my head, I was at the front of the line, at a less-than-honest gas station with an empty tank of gas and a family that needed to be fed lunch.

But the numbers worked out like this: The gas station was charging me a little more than its competitors, once you factored in the ATM fee. And after adding the transaction fee from my bank, I was overpaying for the fuel in a major way.

Ridiculous? Many of you will agree. Some of you won’t. Some of you will say, “Hey, that’s the free market. You could have gone somewhere else.”

To those of you who feel the gas station — which shall remain nameless because it doesn’t need any free advertising — was being completely ethical, I have just one thing to say to you: You’re wrong.

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It would have been one thing if the ATM fee had been clearly disclosed before I pulled up to the station. But instead, I was told the machine was “broken” (later I asked how long it had been down, and learned it had been many months). The signs warning of the ATM fee were small and inconspicuous, one inside the store and the other near the pumps, but in small lettering.

Now, to be clear, there’s nothing illegal about any of this. But unethical? Yes.

And this kind of absurdity repeats itself in other parts of the travel industry as well. It’s the party of five that eats at a restaurant, only to discover that a “tip” of 20 percent has been added to their bill. (Check the fine print on the menu, it’s disclosed there, and by ordering from the menu, you agreed to it.)

It happens in airlines and hotels, too, whether it’s the surprise $100 fee to carry on your bag or the mandatory “resort” fee your hotel failed to mention.

The smart customers among us might suggest that if we were just as enlightened as they are and read every contract more carefully, heeded all the warnings, then we wouldn’t fall for this nonsense. But I take a different view. I think anyone can fall for a scam, and I include myself in that group. I think that while we should always be on the lookout for businesses that prey on helpless travelers, we also deserve to be protected from them.

You might not share my point of view. But when you’re standing at a gas station in Bend and you’ve been conned out of a few bucks by a fast-talking gas station attendant, maybe you’ll change your mind.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at chris@elliott.org. Read more of Christopher's articles here.

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