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

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By 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.

This morning, the Transportation Department imposed a $200,000 fine on Unique Vacations for promoting “free” airfares in connection with its Sandals packages, when, in fact, customers would sometimes have to pay airline fuel surcharges.

Here’s the consent order (PDF).

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

Unraveling the fine print

Unique Vacations specializes in offering travel packages. It include air fare, hotel, guided tours, and related amenities, particularly to Sandals and Beaches resorts in the Caribbean. According to the consent order, the company actively promoted its “free” air travel packages through printed advertisements in newspapers like The New York Times, trade magazines, television, flyers, other mailers, outdoor advertising. It also publishes ads on various online sites, including its website.

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 labeled fares as “free” when consumers received only a limited dollar credit toward an airfare. They had to pay additional airline costs and fuel surcharges imposed by carriers. Second, the government considers it an unfair and deceptive trade practice as it failed to give consumers adequate notice of the taxes and fees required to obtain a “free” fare.

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Unique Vacations’ response?

The firm states that its use of the phrase “free” airfares in connection with those air plus land packages and the suggestion that consumers might have to pay an amount that ostensibly represents “airline costs,” including “fuel surcharges,” was inartful. (Here’s how to survive a long flight in economy class and avoid jet lag.)

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. (Related: A reader rushed to book a 12-day cruise for $1,559 per person after his travel agent labeled it a “flash” sale.)

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.

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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. He is based in Panamá City.

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