If the consumer-unfriendly ticketing restrictions quietly added by the three major domestic airlines this year don’t win the Worst New Travel Rules of 2016 award, they’re definitely strong contenders.
This spring, you might recall, American, Delta and United changed the way they price multicity tickets online, displaying dramatically higher fares than they used to. Airlines claim they were just closing a little loophole, but advocates cried foul.
You can’t leave your home without encountering a stupid travel rule these days. Fixes are a little harder. But as we head into 2017, there are a few possibilities. Here are the most absurd rules of the year — and their chances of being repealed.
Wacky multicity ticket restrictions. Odds of dying in 2017: 0%.
Airlines say their move to raise ticket prices, made virtually at the same time, is nothing more than a routine system change dictated by a competitive marketplace. There’s no law against raising ticket prices, and since the government didn’t take them to task for collusive behavior, the increases have stuck.
Turns out there may be a way to reopen that loophole and save money. A new travel start-up called SQYGL (sqygl.com) promises a way to beat the system. “We’re effectively bypassing the airlines systems and still allow travelers to book — in seconds, not hours — complex multicity itineraries,” says Ron Ben-Zeev, SQYGL’s founder. The service, which is still being tested, launches in early 2017.
Resort fees. Odds of dying in 2017: 20%
Airlines have their funny pricing rules, hotels have theirs. They’re called resort fees, and they’re mandatory charges added after you get a price quote for your room. Tricky, isn’t it? Since the beginning of this year, resort fees have surged 9% to an average of $19.74 per night at the hotels charging them. The markets with the biggest increases: Panama City, Fla. (24%), the Florida Keys (22%), followed by San Diego., (21%) and Miami (20%).
“Travelers are often blindsided by a mandatory fee they are forced to pay when they show up at their hotel,” says Randy Greencorn, publisher of the site Resortfeechecker.com. “Hotels are generally unwilling to waive the fee, leaving little recourse for consumers.”
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has signaled that it’s about to change its disclosure requirements for resort fees, which would effectively kill these dishonest charges. (Hotels would be required to display the total price at the beginning of the booking process.) Of course, that assumes there will be an FTC in 2017.
Non-cancellable rooms. Odds of dying in 2017: 0%.
Hotels have always had restrictions on room cancellations, but lately those restrictions have become even more restrictive. For example, if you need to make a change close to your arrival date, you can’t do so without losing your room. In extreme cases, your reservation is completely non-refundable. These prepaid rooms offer a modest discount in exchange for giving up the ability to cancel and receive a refund. Result: more money for hotels, while guests sometimes walk away with nothing.
“One way around this rule is to call the hotel and ask to have your reservation moved further into the future, rather than canceling,” says William Beckler, co-founder of the hotel site AllTheRooms.com. “Then, later on, call again and try to cancel, which is less likely to be blocked since you’re outside of that no-cancellation window.” The strategy doesn’t always work, but it’s worth a try.
Antique, outrageous protectionist laws. Odds of dying in 2017: 5%.
Cabotage laws were created more than a century ago to protect American shipping interests. These archaic rules prevent foreign carriers from offering domestic service and foreign-flagged vessels from making more than one domestic stop before heading out to sea.
“Today, nearly every cruise ship is operated under a foreign flag,” explains Tanner Callais, founder of the cruise website Cruzely.com. “That means they can’t pick you up in say, New York, and let you leave the ship permanently in Miami.”
With ostensibly pro-business Republicans in control of Congress and the executive branch, it’s possible that cabotage could go buh-bye, if not next year, then soon. These obsolete laws don’t help consumers, and removing them would significantly increase competition.
Of course the thing that really needs to go away in 2017 isn’t an old law or a new policy (although that would be nice), but rather the travel industry’s outdated and often consumer-unfriendly loyalty programs.
David Cumpston is fed up with ridiculous points schemes. He just tried to redeem his frequent-flier miles for a “free” British Airways ticket and had to pay an additional $600 in taxes and fees. Then the airline asked for another $95 for a seat reservation. So much for “free.”
“There’s no common-sense reason for that,” says Cumpston, who works for a marketing agency in San Francisco.
Then again, there’s no common-sense reason for any of these rules. They’re just there because no has said “enough.” Maybe it’s time for travelers to say it.
How to get stupid rules reversed
Complain. Companies listen when you speak up, and if they believe enough customers might take their business elsewhere, they’ll change their unfriendly policies. Tip: Put your grievance in writing and make sure you receive a written response. If you don’t, forward it to an executive to ensure it’s viewed promptly.
Let the government know you’re unhappy. In travel, two agencies are responsible for the bulk of regulations: the Department of Transportation and the Federal Trade Commission. You can complain to both online, and in writing. Tip: If you want to have a real voice, be on the lookout for proposed rulemakings, where public comments are invited. They’ll be taken into account when regulators make a final rule.
Vote with your wallet. The most persuasive way to effect change is to stop doing business with a company. That’s difficult with an airline, since we’re down to just a few, but far easier with hotels. When there’s a resort fee on your bill, tell them you’re taking your business elsewhere and never coming back. Then watch what happens to the fee.