That’s ridiculous! What you see isn’t what you get

When Virginia Vail made a reservation at the Yosemite Lodge at the Falls last month through a website called National Park Reservations, she assumed the $252 room rate would be the price she actually paid. She also thought she was dealing with the U.S. National Park Service, as the name of the website implied.

Turns out she was wrong on both counts.

National Park Reservations is a privately-owned company. What’s more, it charges a 10 percent fee on all of its reservations. Since Vail was booking a block of 10 rooms for her extended family, NPR sucked an additional $758 from her credit card.

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“I should have read the terms more closely,” she says. “I should have checked the online reviews.”

Had she done that, then Vail might have found a 2009 story I had written about the site. NPR is one of several travel businesses that aren’t what they appear to be.

Are they fraudulent? Probably not, at least in the legal sense. But they sure are frustrating to deal with.

Vail, for example, experienced some trouble completing her NPR reservation; in the end, she called the Yosemite Lodge directly to finish the transaction.

It didn’t matter to the company; it charged the 10 percent, even on the room tax. “It was an outrageous sum of money,” she says.

When she asked for an explanation, NPR sent her a form letter.

“The fee is not refundable,” it said. “You agreed to our terms and conditions, which explain our fee as we are a privately owned booking agency. Thank you.”

Ah, it’s not the length or tone of the form letter that stings, but the thank you. The message received isn’t “thank” you, it’s something else-you.

One of the worst examples of what-you-see-isn’t-what-you-get is airline codesharing. Keith Jones contacted me recently because he was confused. He’d booked a flight on Continental Airlines, but after the merger, it became a United Airlines flight. When he took a closer look at his reservation, it said “Expressjet Airlines Inc. doing business as United Express” — two completely new airlines.

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“Is that a codesharing flight?” he asked. “And if so, is it something I need to be worried about?”

Yes, it is. And yes, anyone who cares about the truth should be worried about it.

Airline apologist have done a pretty good job convincing regulators and the flying public that codesharing is good. They use meaningless buzzwords like “synergy” and promise customers nonexistent benefits.

Maybe I can share the passenger’s point of view on codesharing: It’s a lie.

If I buy a ticket on United Airlines, I expect to fly on United Airlines. Not Aer Lingus or Expressjet or Qatar Airways. If I’d wanted to fly on one of those airlines, I would have asked my travel agent to book a ticket on one of those airlines, wouldn’t I?

Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but when I make a reservation at the Four Seasons, I expect to stay in a building that says “Four Seasons” on it; when I rent an Avis car, I expect to pick it up from an office that says “Avis” on it; and when I buy a ticket on Delta Air Lines, I expect the plane to say “Delta Air Lines.”

What’s so hard to understand about that?

But the government has given the airline industry a license to lie, so they do it. Still, is it too much to expect the airlines to tell me up front that my codeshare flight is operated by a different airline? Even that disclosure is often lacking — stated as an afterthought, in small print, as if the airline is embarrassed that it doesn’t have the wherewithal to operate the flight and has to outsource it to another company that it should be competing with.

In travel, what you see isn’t always what you get. Yet another reason to always, always read the fine print.