How travelers are tricked into booking

Derrick Lawson had been looking far and wide for an airline ticket from Atlanta to Bangkok when he contacted me in exasperation.

No sooner did he find a reasonably priced flight than the online site showed the fare was no longer available or that the new price was significantly higher.

“This is so frustrating,” he told me. “I honestly can’t believe these companies can get away with this.”

But they can. The fare-no-longer-available trick is just one of many perfectly legal travel industry ploys designed to convince you to make a booking decision now and to pay more. Travel companies use methods that range from decoy prices to creating the perception of product scarcity to persuade you to push the “book” button.

And travelers keep falling for it, which makes you wonder: Are we willing participants? Do we accept being deceived?

Industry analysts say travel companies must engage in these pricing shenanigans. Travel products — and this is particularly true of airline seats and hotel rooms — are considered “perishable” products, which is a fancy way of saying you can’t make money off an empty airline seat or hotel room. So the industry created a sophisticated system to ensure money isn’t left on the table.

“Airlines are maniacally focused on squeezing every penny they can out of their travelers,” explains James Filsinger, president of Yapta, which can track price changes in airline tickets. “This approach is known as yield management.”

And that’s why you see such dramatic price differences on many travel products, depending on when you buy them. A complex algorithm, not a linear pricing structure, determines how much you’ll pay. More often than not, you fall for it.

But the games don’t end there. Here are a few other schemes they use to make you buy:

They make you think they’re about to run out. You know those warnings: “Only three rooms left!” Be skeptical, says Vassilis Dalakas, a marketing professor at Cal State San Marcos.”This is a simple way to create the perception of a deal and a sense of urgency for the consumers that will motivate them to make the purchase soon,” he says.

They make you nervous. Travel companies know that changing prices plus or minus 20 percent can make consumers uneasy, according to Aleksei Udachny, the founder of Airhint, a site that helps consumers find cheaper fares. Often, they’ll raise or lower prices in order to prod you into a purchase. “Customers buy because they’re afraid that the price will increase even more,” he says.

They send a decoy. This happens when a company wants you to make a particular purchasing decision. It’s a lot like labeling something “popular choice,” except that the company will offer a less appealing choice — a more expensive seat or room — knowing it’s likely to pressure you into buying the one they really want you to purchase. “Travelers are more likely to be swayed in one direction or the other,” says Mariah Menendez, a spokeswoman for Travglobe.com, a travel agency.

Maybe the worst pricing trick is what the Federal Trade Commission calls “drip” pricing. That’s when you find what appears to be a low price — rooms for $99 — but then, as you go through the booking process, it adds taxes and mandatory “resort” or “parking” fees. In the end, the same room costs $139 a night.

Here’s the interesting thing. As reprehensible as creating a bogus offering, obscuring the number of rooms they have in their hotel, randomly raising or lowering their prices to make you uncertain, or showing you a low, and unbookable, initial rate may be — we keep falling for it.

When the government, which is supposed to be protecting consumers, rolls over and allows these tricks to happen, it makes you wonder: Do we want to be lied to?

Perhaps, says Dalakas, the marketing professor. “I think we want to be deceived into thinking we make rational decisions even when, in reality, we don’t,” he says. “The tactics used by the travel industry all cleverly capitalize on that desire by framing the decision in a way that will make it seem more rational.”

Reason has nothing to do with it. If it did, then none of these methods would work. In the end, you’re better off walking away from a company that plays games with you. That’s what happened to Lawson, the county worker flying to Bangkok.

“I never found a reasonable ticket,” he says. “Ultimately, I decided to cancel my trip.”

How to avoid pricing tricks

Watch for price changes. The price you’re quoted initially will almost certainly change as taxes and fees are added. If it’s too much, click off the site and find a company that will quote a complete and gimmick-free rate.

Mind the nines. Pricing experts know that nines can push you into a purchase. For example, a $199 hotel room will get three times as many bookings as a $200 one, according to Tim Brady, a pricing strategist with Mondo Mediaworks. “We don’t really know why,” he says. But you can resist this so-called “charm” pricing by becoming aware of the nines. If you see them, chances are you’re being manipulated.

Just say “no.” The only way these pricing lies will end is if you stop falling for them. So the next time a company offers an attractive rate or fare, but you end up having to pay more, walk away — but first, don’t forget to send a note to the FTC (ftccomplaintassistant.gov) letting it know about the deceptive price you found. It’s the only way things will change.

Underwritten by

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Cavalry Travel Insurance

Cavalry takes the worry of out travel by providing 24/7 access to medical and security professionals combined with the best medical evacuation and security extraction services. Cavalry gets you home safely when you need it most. Learn more at Cavalrytravelinsurance.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Seven Corners

Seven Corners has helped customers all over the world with travel difficulties, big and small. As one of the few remaining privately owned travel insurance companies, Seven Corners provides insurance plans and 24/7 travel assistance services to more than a million people each year. Because we’re privately held, we can focus on the customer without the constraints that larger companies have. Visit Seven Corners to learn more.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Sodexo North America

Sodexo North America Sodexo North America is part of a global, Fortune 500 company with a presence in 80 countries. Sodexo is a leading provider of integrated food, facilities management and other services that enhance organizational performance, contribute to local communities and improve quality of life for millions of customers in corporate, education, healthcare, senior living, sports and leisure, government and other environments daily. Learn more at Sodexoinsights.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travelex Insurance Services

Travelex Insurance Services is a leading travel insurance provider in the United States with over 55 years combined industry expertise of helping people dream, explore and travel with confidence. We offer comprehensive travel insurance plans with optional upgrades allowing travelers to customize the plans to fit their needs. Compare plans, get a quote and buy online at Travelexinsurance.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by AirHelp

AirHelp is the world’s leading flight delays compensation company, helping passengers apply for compensation following a delayed or canceled flight or when boarding has been denied. It is AirHelp’s mission to fight for passenger rights by holding airlines accountable for flights disruptions that are out of passengers’ control. AirHelp has already helped 5 million people, taking the stress out of applying for compensation and making it as hassle-free as possible for travelers around the world.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Allianz Travel Insurance

The Allianz Travel Insurance company has built its reputation on partnering with agents all around the world to provide comprehensive travel insurance for their clients. Contact Allianz Travel Insurance for a comprehensive list of coverage.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Chubb

Chubb is the world’s largest publicly traded property and casualty insurance company, and recognized as the premier provider of insurance for successful individuals and families in the U.S. and selected international markets, offering coverage for high-value automobile, homeowners, recreational marine/aviation, valuables and umbrella liability coverage. As an underwriting company, Chubb assesses, assumes and manages risk with insight and discipline, and combines the precision of craftsmanship with decades of experience to conceive, craft and deliver the best insurance coverage and services to individuals, families and business of all size.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Fareportal

Fareportal’s portfolio of brands, which include  CheapOair and  OneTravel, 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.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Insuremyrentalcar.com

An independent provider of low cost CDW/LDW insurance for use with rental cars. Up to $100,000 cover with no deductible. Policies available on a per day, per trip or per year basis. Also works with overseas rentals. Try  Insuremyrentalcar.comnow.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Mediacom Communications

The nation’s fifth-largest cable operator, serving the smaller cities and towns in the Midwest and Southern regions of the United States. We are a high-performance broadband, entertainment, and communications company that brings the power of modern technology and quality customer experience to life inside the connected home by combining ultra-fast gigabit speeds with personalized local and over-the-top entertainment choices that fit your lifestyle. Details at  Mediacomcable.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Arch RoamRight

Arch RoamRight is one of the fastest growing, most-highly rated travel insurance companies in the United States. Travel advisors love working with us, and travelers feel protected with our trip cancellation and travel medical insurance coverage. We also make it easy to file a claim online with our fast, paperless claims website. Learn more about RoamRight travel insurance.

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.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by VisitorsCoverage

As a company that is constantly striving to simplify travel insurance, VisitorsCoverage, is on a mission to help travelers make the better decisions about purchasing travel insurance, quickly. VisitorsCoverage has helped millions of travelers globally to buy the suitable travel insurance and explore the world with confidence. Get insurance for your next trip at  VisitorsCoverage. Lowest Price Guaranteed.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by MedjetAssist

Medjet is the premier global air-medical transport, travel security and crisis response membership program for travelers. With a MedjetAssist membership, if you become hospitalized more than 150 miles from home, we will get you from that unfamiliar hospital all the way home to the hospital you trust. All you ever pay is your membership fee. MedjetHorizon members add 24/7 personal security and crisis response benefits. Elliott.org readers enjoy discounted rates. Travel safer with  MedjetAssist.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Southwest Airlines

The mission of Southwest Airlines is dedication to the highest quality of Customer Service delivered with a sense of warmth, friendliness, individual pride, and Company Spirit. We are committed to provide our Employees a stable work environment with equal opportunity for learning and personal growth.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by TravelInsurance.com

TravelInsurance.com makes it fast and easy to compare and buy travel insurance online from top rated providers. Our unbiased comparison engine allows travelers to read reviews, compare pricing and benefits and buy the right policy with a price guarantee, every time. Compare and buy travel insurance now at  TravelInsurance.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Squaremouth

Squaremouth helps travelers easily and instantly compare travel insurance policies from all major providers. Only companies that meet the strict requirements of Squaremouth’s Zero Complaint Guarantee are available on the website. Compare policies on  Squaremouth.com to save over 70 percent on your next purchase.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travel Leaders Group

Travel Leaders Group is transforming travel through its progressive approach toward each unique travel experience. Travel Leaders Group assists millions of travelers through its leisure, business and network travel operations under a variety of diversified divisions and brands including All Aboard Travel, Andrew Harper Travel, Colletts Travel, Corporate Travel Services, CruCon Cruise Outlet, Cruise Specialists, Nexion, Protravel International, SinglesCruise.com, Travel Leaders Corporate, Travel Leaders Network and Tzell Travel Group, and its merger with ALTOUR. With more than 7,000 agency locations and 52,000 travel advisors, Travel Leaders Group ranks as one of the industry’s largest retail travel agency companies.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travelers United

If you’ve been mistreated by the airlines, Travelers United is your voice in Washington. Join the #1 travel advocacy organization working with Congress to improve and protect travelers. Plus, get $400 of annual benefits you can use for travel for only $29/year. Add your voice to ours. Make travel better.  Join today.

Send this to a friend