Travel agency whacked with $200,000 fine for offering “free” flights with Sandals vacations

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Christopher Elliott

The best things in life may be free, but that apparently doesn’t extend to the airfare on your all-inclusive vacation, at least according to the government.

The Transportation Department this morning fined Unique Vacations $200,000 for promoting “free” airfares in connection with its Sandals packages, when, in fact, customers would sometimes be required to pay airline fuel surcharges.

Here’s the consent order (PDF).

That’s illegal, says the government. Any advertising that states a price for air transportation or an air tour is considered to be an unfair or deceptive practice unless the price stated is the entire price to be paid by the customer to the air carrier or ticket agent for such air transportation, tour or tour component, according to the Transportation Department.

Unique Vacations specializes in offering travel packages, which include air fare, hotel, guided tours, and related amenities, particularly to Sandals and Beaches resorts in the Caribbean. The company promoted its “free” air travel packages through printed advertisements in newspapers such as The New York Times, trade magazines, television, flyers and other mailers, outdoor advertising, and by means of advertisements that are published on various online sites, including its web site, according to the consent order.

Here’s an example of an ad that it ran in The New York Times. It’s an air-inclusive package called “Fly Free. Love is in the Air.” The fine print states:

*Fly Free offer is . . . fulfilled as credit toward land portion of booking based on double occupancy, minimum 3 night stay, $350 airfare per person for travel to Jamaica or Bahamas, $450 per person for travel to St. Lucia, $550 per person for travel to Antigua. Maximum two-person limit for offer. In some cases, offer may not cover all airline costs, taxes and fuel surcharges. Cancellation penalties, deposits and other fees for airfare may apply.

The fine print violated the law in two ways. First, it advertised fares as “free” when consumers received only a limited dollar credit toward an airfare and would be required to pay additional airline costs and fuel surcharges imposed by carriers. Second, it failed to provide consumers adequate notice of taxes and fees that had to be paid in order to obtain a “free” fare. That’s considered an unfair and deceptive trade practice, according to the government.

Unique Vacations’ response?

Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection covers consumers and their travel dreams, backed by Berkshire Hathaway Specialty Insurance Company’s financial strength and security. Choose travel insurance designed specifically to your trip and travelers, plus the fastest claims payments in the travel insurance industry. Get more information at Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection.

Its choice of the phrase “free” air fares in connection with those air plus land packages and the apparent statement that consumers might be required to pay an amount ostensibly representing “airline costs,” which could include “fuel surcharges” were inartful, the firm says.

It adds,

No customer of Sandals Resorts was actually charged any additional airline surcharges, costs or fees other than government-imposed taxes and fees. The firm did not receive any customer complaints regarding the challenged advertising.

Well, that’s comforting.

What’s the lesson here? Always, always read the fine print. And maybe, there’s no such thing as a “free” flight.

It’s good to know our friends at the DOT are.

(Photo: IM lv/Flickr Creative Commons)

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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 weekly columns for King Features Syndicate, USA Today, Forbes and the Washington Post. He also publishes 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 Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter. Read more of Christopher's articles here.

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