In travel, what you see isn’t always what you get

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By Christopher Elliott

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. This is what we call codesharing.

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.

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

Unraveling the realities behind sites like NPR

Had she done that, then Vail might have found a 2009 story I had written about the site and codesharing. 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.

Fareportal’s portfolio of brands includes CheapOair and OneTravel. We are dedicated to helping customers enjoy their trip. Whether you want to call, click, or use one of our travel apps, one thing is clear: We make it easy to take it easy.

“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.”

Deciphering the deception

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. (Here’s our ultimate guide to using airline credit.)

When airlines don’t deliver what you expect

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.” (Related: I have a seat but I don’t have a seat assignment.)

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.

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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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