The rise of the insincere travel offer – and what to do about it

Before Brenda Galindo retired to Winterville, N.C., Continental Airlines made her a promise: The frequent flier miles she’d earned from her business travel wouldn’t expire.

But after United Airlines merged with Continental a few years ago, the new airline changed the rules of its loyalty program without telling her, she says. One day, when she logged on to United.com, she discovered her 178,058 miles had vanished. The reason? She had stopped flying, and after 18 months of inactivity on her account, her miles expired.

“I had been banking my miles to use for something special,” she says. “What a horrible way to treat people they want as customers.”

Insincere offers aren’t confined to airline loyalty programs, although they can be among the worst offenders. Another class of disingenuous deal is the postcard that says you’ve won a “free” cruise or vacation. Check your mail, there’s probably one there now.

“The catch is that you have to stay at a time-share facility and agree to be barraged daily with too-good-to-be-true offers to buy into the development,” says Harlan Platt, a professor of finance at Northeastern University.

Whether you’re collecting worthless airline miles or attending a captive time-share presentation, experts like Platt say travelers should be on their guards for more of these fake offers. They tend to multiply during the summer months, when infrequent, inexperienced travelers hit the road.

Carefully reading the fine print is sometimes enough to determine whether an offer is on the up-and-up, but not always. The halfheartedness of a deal might not become apparent until you check in or until you try to redeem a benefit. Only then do you discover that the company has cleverly re-interpreted an offer to leave you empty-handed. But travelers aren’t powerless to stop these little scams.

In Galindo’s case, the terms of the new mileage program supersede the previous policy, so Continental could zero out her account and was under no obligation to warn her. I asked United about Galindo’s missing miles, even though the airline was clearly within its rights to allow her rewards — and her loyalty — to expire. “We made a one-time exception and waived the charge and reinstated the customer’s miles for another 18 months,” airline spokesman Charles Hobart told me.

Thanks, United.

Dubious offers come in all shapes and sizes, like the “family package” Tom Siebert, a communications consultant based in San Diego, recently booked at a Hawaiian resort. It turns out the hotel was just using it to lure families, but didn’t really offer a “multitude of dining options” where kids 12 and under could eat “for free” with a paying adult.

“When we got there, we discovered there was one dining package,” he remembers. “That was it. Nothing else. The package was a complete lie.”

A hotel representative forked over vouchers for “family deals,” most of which had already expired, and when he sat down to eat dinner with his 11-year-old son, Boyd, a manager openly doubted his son’s age. Siebert complained to his travel agent when he returned to the mainland, who negotiated a $71 refund from the property.

Unfortunately, travel companies don’t always mean what we think they say. Consider Helen Whitesides’ recent Turkey vacation, a package that promised five-star hotels and a personal tour by a leading expert on folk history. But the “five-star” hotels were shabby and offered limited services, and the expert showed up only occasionally. What’s more, the tour company extracted a mandatory 5% gratuity to cover guides, baggage handling and hotel wait staff — a fee they neglected to tell her about before she left.

Whitesides, who lives in Albuquerque, might have been able to find out about this disappointing tour by reading some online reviews before booking, but that is by no means a guarantee. Her grievance, like so many others that I field as a consumer advocate, was essentially unfixable.

Adopting a narrow definition of “all-inclusive,” “free” or “lifetime” is an old travel-industry trick, as are quietly moving the goal posts on a loyalty program. Nothing new here, except that it’s being done more often, according to travelers and industry experts.

But you don’t have to accept it. Read the fine print meticulously, ask probing questions and when you get an answer you don’t like, take your business elsewhere. Short of imposing new government regulations, that may be the only way to make the travel industry say what it means and mean what it says.

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HOW TO COUNTER SHIFTY DEALS

• Travel with a straight shooter. Many travel companies, from hotels such as Ritz-Carlton to airlines such as Southwest, have well-deserved reputations as companies that don’t engage in word games.

• Make a polite appeal. Getting a company to interpret its program rules or offers in a way that’s more advantageous to you may be as easy as asking. Ticket agents often have that power.

• Reach out to regulators. If you’re the unlucky recipient of an insincere offer, you have options. Contact the Transportation Department or Federal Trade Commission to voice your concern. The “deal” may violate laws forbidding an unfair or deceptive practice.

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