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.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Virtuoso. The leading global network for luxury and experiential travel. This invitation-only organization comprises over 1,000 travel agency locations with 17,500 advisors in over 45 countries, and holds preferred relationships with 1,700 of the world’s finest travel companies. Virtuoso advisors collaborate with their clients to create personalized itineraries featuring exclusive perks, while also providing advice, access, advocacy, and accountability. For more information, visit Virtuoso.com.

“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.

“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.

44 thoughts on “That’s ridiculous! What you see isn’t what you get

  1. Personally, I think you are barking up the wrong tree on codesharing. I’ve never booked a single code-shared flight where it was not made crystal clear, well before checkout, that the operating airline was different from the booking airline. In fact, airlines do a better job disclosing this than just about any other industry. That isn’t to say they don’t routinely screw up the implementation, but adequate disclosure is not a problem for anyone paying an ounce of attention.

    Re-branding the output of another company is not exactly some strange practice confined to the airline industry. In fact, I cannot think of a single industry that does NOT do so. Foods, Pharmaceuticals, Computers/Electronics (everything from $15 MP3 players to IT equipment costing $0.5M+), Automobiles, Entertainment, Hotels, Rental Cars, Appliances, Clothing, Housewares, Shipping, Banking, Government Services, Recreation, Software… the list is virtually endless.

    1. It is an interesting phenomenon, but that doesn’t mean you much of a choice in the matter, depending on the route. It’s not quite the same as booking a United flight and showing up and flying a Lufthansa plane. And you can usually get some sort of clue from the flight numbers what you’re dealing with.

    2. Airlines DO plainly show that a flight is a codeshare. And if there is a change from the booking airline to a codeshare flight afterwards the airlines will let you change the flight.

      Re-branding is indeed ubiquitous and not always indicated. When have you ever bought a Kenmore product which was manufactured by Kenmore? And who DID manufacture it … you can’t tell even after you purchase.

      1. Actually, you CAN find out who made your “Kenmore” or “Craftsman” product; look at the first three digits of the full model number. There are oodles of sources online that will decode that number into a manufactuer name.

        1. Kenmore is simply a brand. Sears has very little to do with it other than selling it and providing a logo for the manufacturer to slap on. There are tons of model numbers and they change every year. I remember buying a Kenmore refrigerator for my new house. The label said it contained technology that won some efficiency contest along with patent numbers. I knew that Whirlpool had won that contest and the patent numbers also belonged to Whirlpool. That was pretty easy.

          Not sure about Craftsman though. The name itself is applied to lots of different products, and some are actually made overseas now. However, they have some classic tools that use a specific Craftman design and that have never gotten a new model number even when the supplier changed. I own a Craftman

          44811 ratchet (3/8″ w/ 7″ handle and a quick release) that has a design that’s at least 30 years old. The same design has been manufactured by Stanley, and currently Danaher. This is one case where Sears Holdings probably owns the complete rights to this design and reserve the right to change suppliers without the customer being able to find out short of looking for minor manufacturing differences.

    3. You forgot Journalism…. How many different places do Chris’s articles appear? I have yet to see Chris labeled as “freelance” or “independent.” Almost always it looks like he works for them full time.

  2. I voted no, they are not any more honest or dishonest than any other industry. Check out the fine print on any item advertised these days. How many products are sold with prices from..

    As far as code share whenever I have booked the website usually has some wording like ..operated as ACxxx or UAxxx.

    As far as the 10% fee on a room with NPR, what’s up with that?

  3. I remembered being annoyed by the National Park Service’s website when I was trying to set up a stay at Grand Teton. The link to the private company that handles lodging is buried deep within the website.
    I tried Googling Yosemite Lodging, and found the National Park Reservations website at the top of the page one time, Expedia another time. Easy to see how Ms. Vail chose that site. I went back and read your 2009 story and it has a link to the (then) official company used by Yosemite. The current link is now this: http://www.yosemitepark.com/lodging.aspx
    BUT! When I went to nationalparkreservations.com, I found this paragraph right on the entry page:
    “For this service, National Park Reservations charges a 10% non-refundable reservation fee based on the total dollar amount of reservations made. This reservation fee will be billed separately to your credit card and will be billed under the memo “National Park Reservations”. By using National Park Reservations, the customer authorizes National Park Reservations to charge their credit card the 10% non-refundable fee.”
    NOT in tiny print, not visible only when booking, but right up front. I find that my sympathy for Ms. Vail has lessened.
    I live in a community not served by a hub airport. I’m pretty used to seeing oddball names associated with the airline I’ve booked through. My reservations *always* say “Big Name Airline” dba “Little Podunk Airline” for the leg that connects me to a hub city. Guess my sense of the ridiculous on this topic is absent.

    1. It’s Grand Teton Lodge Company. I’ve booked with them when staying at Colter Bay. They’re a large company with a well developed website, even before Vail Resorts bought them out.

  4. Maybe I misunderstood things here, but prior to charging her card anything, she would’ve had to agree to the charges. They would’ve had to have been calculated out and presented to her for the OK.
    So, if she simply clicked through the OK screen without actually reading the charges that she had agreed to, shame on her.
    BUT, if the company simply presented the total room charges and stated there would be a 10% fee added to her credit card, without actually disclosing that total for her approval, I have an issue with that…

    1. Travel agents and online travel booking services ALWAYS earn a fee. That’s why they’re in business. And it’s always paid, in the end, by the customer (I mean, who else is putting money INTO the deal? Only the customer, so it must be coming out of their pocket)

      So it seems the complaint is that NPR isn’t hiding the fee in the rate and taking a fee back from the hotel but, rather, is disclosing it separately. So…. what’s the problem? Too much honesty and disclosure?

      1. The other issues is that these guys don’t actually add any value to the reservation. They don’t aggregate hotels in the same area like Expedia or Travelocity. They don’t offer any sort of discount. They don’t book large blocks of rooms in advance to resell. They just act as an electronic middleman for lodging that’s still available.

        I’ve reserved directly with NPS concessionaires, and I have yet to experience any that are any more difficult than navigating a normal hotel chain’s website.

      2. I think the difference is she was SUCKERED into paying 10% (fee) over what it would cost the general public to book the same rooms with Recreation.gov.

        Usually, travel agents book rooms at the hotel’s published rate and do not charge an extra fee to book a room for their clients. The hotel pays the travel agent a commission.

        1. Responding late again.

          Recreation.gov doesn’t typically handle lodging reservations with maybe a few exceptions such as some cabins. They primarily handle camping, tour, and special permits (like the Half Dome cables).

          Every concessionaire lodging is probably handled on a separate website. Over the years I’ve stayed at Yellowstone, SEKI, Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, and Grand Teton. They all have separate websites, although the ones owned by Xanterra do allow one to use a single username/password.

          Yosemite’s official concessionaire is Delware North Companies, and their official website for Yosemite is at Yosemitepark.com.

        1. At first glance, NPR’s Yosemite Lodge page looks more like a hotel website than the real one, and it even uses the National Park Service website’s color scheme and a very similar logo.

          http://www.nationalparkreservations.com/yosemite_lodge.php

          “Who am I dealing with” is a great question to ask, but to answer it — once you’ve landed on that page — I believe requires noticing the terms, questioning the URL, the red flags, etc.

        2. The hotel’s page on National Park Reservations looks more like a hotel website than the real thing. And it uses the National Park Service website’s color scheme, and a very similar tree logo:

          http://www.nationalparkreservations.com/yosemite_lodge.php

          “Who am I dealing with” is a great question to ask, but once someone lands on that page, I’m not sure how they answer that question other than by reading the terms, questioning the URL, the red flags, etc.

    1. Yep … If she agreed to the fee, there’s nothing to see here. Same thing on the code share. I can’t remember the last time I made a reservation that I didn’t know it was a code share… Even on the phone I get to listen to “itty-bitty airlines doing business as big airlines express”

  5. Lying and sleight of hand is the new brand of customer service. I think I expect to be misled by the companies I do business with and it doesn’t surprise me any longer to find out they’ve used smoke and mirrors and pretty words to stick it to me.

  6. Again, for the thousandth time, every real live travel agent knows about service charges. Act as your own agent, don’t read the fine print, pay the money. As far as code share is concerned, it is to be blamed on Jimmy Carder, the man that deregulated the airlines, and every ASTA agent will advise you what is going on with your flights. We even help the people with knowing the airport gates.

  7. The headline is a bit given to hyperbole and inaccuracy it would seem. The 10% of total amount service fee charge to the requester’s credit card is clearly disclosed. What was there is exactly what the OP got. As for the tenuously connected segue to code shared flights, such code share are clearly disclosed in any Internet or GDS presentation of the flight as is required by law. Curiously, we often find that booking a code-shared flight means a lower priced ticket for our client. Selling a ticket on British Airways that is actually on American Airlines hardware or United that operates on Qantas that prices less expensively than a ticket issued by the operating carrier is not at all uncommon.
    Those that wish not to fly on code shared flights and that book themselves on line have every opportunity to avoid code shares. Those that book with a travel agent will be advised of the code share prior to authorizing the ticket purchase if the agent follows proper procedures. In most (maybe all) of the cases where I have had client push-back on code shared flights for which there were alternates not involving code share or commuter aircraft, the higher cost or more inconvenient schedule suddenly made code shared flights not such a bad thing after all.

    1. “The headline is a bit given to hyperbole and inaccuracy it would seem.” Most here are. It’s what gets us here. But I do enjoy the tales that accompany.

        1. Would never. I open my email and think… what now?! lol The only thing better than the headlines are the comments. I usually wait a day or two before clicking to an article so as to get the complete commentary through line experience.

          Keep up the good work and entertainment, you and everyone!

    2. I don’t mind code-shares. I think they give someone the opportunity to collect frequent flier miles as well as the opportunity to serve airports that certain airlines have abandoned. I think it might also help with connecting flights where the luggage is automatically routed.

  8. Actually, United Express is a REGIONAL JET, NOT a codeshare – it is still ticketed as United, but the jets are going to be smaller ones – and anyone travelling from PODUNK knows the difference.

    1. Actually Linda most are codeshares… United Express is the dba name of a number of carriers including ExpressJet, Mesa, GoJet & Trans States (just to name a few). If you look in a flight information database like flightstats you’ll see that each UA Express flight has a flight number for their primary line (Easyjet 5XXX) and a UA codeshare flight number (UA 5XXX).
      They maybe ticketed be UA and have their flight schedules dictated by UA but they are codeshares.

    2. Here’s a screen shot of the Dayton Airport (DAY) to show you what I mean. Since almost every flight out of DAY is a RJ, you can see the primary flight number (JIA 2428) and the codeshare flight number (US 2428)

      1. Again – NOT a true codeshare – I have years working with United (and we Always had to specify United Express to satisfy FAA requirements as to regional jet services). When we booked a codeshare with Lufthansa, then it was a true codeshare, as LUFTHANSA actually could issue a ticket for the same flight. (I know, semantics – but a big deal with FAA rules)

      2. The “strict” definition of codeshare means the MARKETING carrier is selling the flights of the OPERATING carrier and the marketing carrier is also using its own flight numbers (not the operating carrier’s flight numbers). The OPERATING carrier is operating the flight for itself and is also selling seats for itself. Below is a sample:
        1*A#US 722 PITPHL- 545P 658P 734 0E
        2*A#UA3127 PITPHL- 545P 658P 734 0E
        UA3127 OPERATED BY US AIRWAYS
        The passenger can buy a ticket for US722 or UA3127 and be on the exact same flight. US Airways is operating [and selling] the flight. United is only marketing the flight.

        The UA flights Linda is talking about are operated by Regional Airlines FOR United Airlines. However, these Regional Carriers are not selling seats for their own flights since the whole flight is intended for UA passengers. Below is a sample:

        1*A#UA3586 EWRBUF- 329P 508P DH3 0E
        UA3586 OPERATED BY /COMMUTAIR DBA UNITED EXPRESS
        2*A#UA4462 EWRBUF- 635P 807P N ERJ 0E
        UA4462 OPERATED BY /EXPRESSJET AIRLINES DBA UNITED EXPRESS

        Neither Commutair or ExpressJet sell tickets for these flights because they are simply operating these flights FOR United.

        Furthermore, if you ask UA pilots, they will tell you that codesharing sucks for them since this is one way their jobs are being outsourced. Read http://www.theunfriendlyskies.org/the-facts/jobs-outsourced/

  9. this article about a woman booking a hotel quickly devolved into a rant on airline codesharing and then a survey about “travel companies” being shady (really? which ones? ALL of them? Greyhound, Amtrak, Holiday Inn, Southwest, Carnival, Dollar, travel agents, Sbarro at the airport, Flying J truckstops — hey, those ARE companies associated with travel????).
    not your best work, Chris.
    c’mon man.

  10. Hmm we have the same system here in Australia between JetStar and Qantas. The thing is, some areas are too small a population to have the bigger carriers go there, so they take their smaller and cheaper flights, Jetstar, to those destinations. So it is quite normal to fly Qantas then Jetstar, but it is always mentioned which operator it is, before you buy your tickets.
    I can understand how frustrating it would be to find you are on a different carrier to what you thought you would be on.

    I do have a question though. I have found good tickets with United Express to fly from Denver to Calgary. Can anyone here tell me their review of United Express airlines? Being from Australia I know very little of the cheap, dodgy airlines to watch out for. The only one I know is good, is united airlines or american airlines. Thanks 😀

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