Bait-and-switched into booking a summer “bargain”? Then read this

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By Christopher Elliott

Now you see those summer travel deals. Now you don’t. Spike Spencer knows what that’s like. He just tried to book a four-night tour online from Icelandair, advertised at $1,073, including flights. But as soon as he selected his vacation, the price jumped to $2,600.

He complained to Icelandair, and it claimed the price was “neither a discrepancy nor a problem.” The company simply ran out of the $1,073 vacation packages.

“When you’re advertising something for a price and there’s a limited number of trips, it’s a bait-and-switch if you don’t have them,” says Spencer, a writer based in Los Angeles. “At least that’s my opinion.”

The elusive nature of promotions

Michael Raucheisen, an Icelandair spokesman, confirmed that some of the airline’s vacations were in short supply. “Our packages are very popular and they do sell out pretty quickly,” he noted.

Most customers know that when it comes to online sales, timing is everything. But crack open the hood on the travel industry’s deal-marketing machine, and you’ll uncover even more.

I know, because I caught a glimpse of it in the crossfire between two enormous online travel agencies and lived to tell the story. In fact, online bait-and-switch deals are often so elusive that you shouldn’t count on anything until you have a written confirmation.

What you see on the Internet isn’t always what you get. Who hasn’t clicked on a deal, only to encounter a pop-up window that says the deal is sold out, but you can book at a higher price?

Deceptive advertising and counter-claims

My adventure as a virtual war correspondent began with an e-mail from a large online travel agency. It claimed one of its competitors wasn’t playing fair. Its most incendiary accusation: that the competitor was advertising low but un-bookable airfares through Google ads. Clicking on the banner would take you to a search wizard, not the actual fare. Classic bait-and-switch.

Travel Leaders Group is transforming travel through its progressive approach toward each unique travel experience. Travel Leaders Group assists millions of travelers through its leisure, business and network travel operations under a variety of diversified divisions and brands, including All Aboard Travel, Andrew Harper Travel, Colletts Travel, Corporate Travel Services, CruCon Cruise Outlet, Cruise Specialists, Nexion, Protravel International, SinglesCruise.com, Travel Leaders Corporate, Travel Leaders Network and Tzell Travel Group, and its merger with ALTOUR. With more than 7,000 agency locations and 52,000 travel advisors, Travel Leaders Group ranks as one of the industry’s largest retail travel agency companies.

I asked the competitor about the charges, and it quickly fired back, insisting the accusations were “false and defamatory.” When the customer clicks on the link, it noted that they would be directed to the flight listing page, which would display flights offered at that price for that route.

The competitor then launched a counter-offensive, pointing out that the online travel site leveling the accusations against it was guilty of the same thing. It sent screenshots to prove it.

What’s more, the accused online agency added, its competitor employed hard-sell tactics to persuade you to book quickly. It would tell someone who just finished a search to “Book now and don’t miss out on the price.”

A call for better regulations

As I reviewed these allegations, it struck me that the bag of tricks online agencies use to entice you into buying a seemingly inexpensive ticket, hotel room or rental car are expanding, the typical bait-and-switch tactic. No wonder the Transportation Department is flexing its regulatory muscle with a new proposal to add a series of new rules that, among other changes, would require better disclosure of fees and surcharges from online travel agencies. (Here’s what you need to know about travel loyalty programs.)

Sure, a too-popular vacation package sold online by an airline and the day-to-day tricks online agencies use to persuade you to book a ticket are not exactly the same thing. But to travelers who often don’t know, or don’t care, about the difference between a direct booking and an agency booking, they are one and the same: frustrating.

I’ll hand it to Icelandair. Raucheisen says if Spencer’s package was completely unavailable, the airline “would have taken the Web page down.”

But is it asking too much to require that anyone selling an airline ticket, hotel room or rental car actually make good on its advertised price?

Should online prices be regulated better by the government?

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A few tips to get the best deals

Don’t be the last to know

Sign up for e-mail notifications or follow an airline or hotel on social media for real-time deals. Southwest Airlines offers an app called “Ding,” which alerts you to discounts at your home airport.

Don’t be indecisive

Discounted fares have limited availability, and once they’re gone, you can’t bring them back. Be prepared to act quickly to seize a sale.

Don’t count on it until you confirm it

Prices can change up until the last booking screen. Your “deal” isn’t a deal until you have a confirmation number.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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