Unfair fares: 5 secrets for avoiding the bait-and-switch

Andy Daniel thought he had found a terrific airfare from San Francisco to Miami for Christmas. Instead, he found a terrific disappointment.

When Daniel tried to book a $400 ticket advertised on Expedia, the price suddenly more than doubled.

“I called Expedia and a very polite, helpful agent apologized for the problem and found my $400 fare,” says Daniel, a microchip designer from Palo Alto, Calif. “She tried to book it for me — and then informed me that the fare had changed to $900 ‘because fares can change in seconds as tickets are purchased.’”


Bait-and-switch offers are one of the oldest — and popular — tricks in the travel trade’s book.

Maybe that’s one reason why customer ratings for online travel agencies such as Expedia are on the skids even as e-commerce companies as a whole are getting their highest marks in history. The authoritative American Customer Satisfaction Index earlier this year found that grades for the three major online travel sites dropped, with Expedia slipping almost four percent to a score of 75 out of 100 and Travelocity and Orbitz both receiving a 73.

That’s a low “C,” in case you were keeping track.

This isn’t limited to the three big online agencies, of course. Airlines, hotels and car rental companies have suffered similar declines in customer-service ratings. It would be unfair to pin this poor performance entirely on their slippery price displays. But it would be equally unfair to claim these fluctuating fares had nothing to do with it.

Travelers don’t trust their Web sites any farther than they can throw their desktop computers. Which isn’t very far.

I asked Expedia about its fare displays, and specifically about Daniel’s problem. Turns out the online agency has two systems that track airfare availability: one for shopping and one for booking. “While uncommon, the two systems will rarely return disparate fares, as appears to have happened in this case,” says Expedia spokeswoman Katie Deines. “It speaks to the highly dynamic nature of pricing and availability. Expedia works throughout the booking process to verify pricing and availability so we are showing customers the latest information.”

But travelers don’t care about the highly dynamic nature of pricing and availability. When they see a low fare one minute and a higher price the next, they call it a bait-and-switch. So do I. The price you’re quoted should be the price you pay. Every time.

Not everyone agrees with this simple assertion. One of my colleagues took me to task for referring to Delta Air Lines’ fare displays as a “bait-and-switch” a few weeks ago, claiming that it revealed my ignorance about the highly dynamic nature of pricing and availability.

I wish I was wrong about this, but I’m not. Calling these illegal sales tactics by their correct name reveals my indignation with the system — a system, I would add, that lot of so-called “experts” not only accept, but also defend, even as the customers whose interests they’re supposed to represent are foiled when they try to buy a ticket.

But wait. Aren’t travel companies — particularly online travel agencies — just victims of this scheme, like us? Not really, says Chris Lopinto, a partner for a site called ExpertFlyer.com that lets you connect directly to the computer reservations systems used by airlines. Without getting too technical, here’s what you need to know about how prices are set: Fares and rates are loaded into these reservations system and adjusted by the minute in order to maximize revenues for the travel companies. Companies use a team of math whizzes to predict demand and instruct the systems how to set the prices. Think of it as a game of “chicken” on a grand scale. And it’s played by nearly everyone in the business.

“The average person doesn’t understand what’s happening behind the scenes,” Lopinto told me.

We may never fully comprehend what’s commonly known as “yield management” in the travel industry, but there are a few ways of making sure you don’t become a victim of these deceptive pricing practices.

Always read the fine print
Beware of terms like “as low as” and “starting at” — as in “rates as low as $99” or “fares starting at just $49.” They’re almost always followed by “taxes not included”, “based on a roundtrip ticket” or “based on double accommodations” in four-point type on the bottom of the page. Perhaps the worst offenders today are airlines. They’ve begun a practice called “unbundling,” which is a sophisticated bait-and-switch tactic. By removing the cost of meals, luggage and advance reservations, they are making their prices seem artificially low. But when everything is added up, the ticket often costs much more than you expected. Incidentally, airlines love unbundling. In a recent earnings conference call, a Delta Air Lines executive declared, “a la carte pricing is where we need to go as an industry.” Do yourself a favor. Next time you hear the word “unbundling” just substitute the word “bait and switch.” It’s much easier that way.

Don’t count on a price until you have a confirmation
Most travelers believe a price quote from a travel company is like seeing a price tag on merchandise in the store. They couldn’t be more wrong. The price you see is almost never the price you actually pay, because at best, taxes, fees and surcharges are added to it. And at worst, the price changes between the time you get the quote and the time you click the “buy” button. Incidentally, why is it that you never hear of a fare going down during the reservation process? If prices are so highly dynamic, why can’t they be dynamic to the downside every now and then? Just something to think about. Bottom line: don’t count on a price until you have the confirmation e-mail and your credit card is charged.

Avoid the worst offenders
If you’re unsure about a travel company’s offer, you might want to consider what the Federal Trade Commission has to say about it. The government agency publishes an archive of case files going back to 1996 that could shed some light on the company you’re thinking of booking a trip with. Unfortunately, the worst offenders change their names, move and start another questionable business until they’re slapped with a “cease and desist” letter from the government. Another good place to look is your local Better Business Bureau which keeps files on businesses, including any recent complaints from consumers.

Use a travel agent
Competent travel advisers can spot a bait-and-switch offer from a mile away. It’s what they get paid to do. But not every agent is competent. Christine Austin, a homemaker in Louisville, Ky., swore off her travel agent after she fell for one of those “now-you-see-it/now-you-don’t” fares. “She called, told me the fare and ten minutes later called back and said the lower fare had disappeared while she was talking with me,” she remembers.

Since timing was important, Austin felt she had no choice but to buy the more expensive ticket. I think a good agent would have handled the situation differently — either by explaining that the first price was just a quote, and that prices could change, or by waiting until she was ready to buy before offering a price.

If it looks too good to be true, it probably is
Perhaps the easiest way to spot a bait-and-switch offer is to ask: Does this look too good to be true? If it is, then run, don’t walk. Reader Marianne Ventruella received one such offer in the mail last year that offered everything but the kitchen sink.

It included a travel voucher in the amount of $1,600, a cruise, resort visit and theme park tickets. She phoned the company and was connected to a salesman who insisted that she make an immediate purchase. “I knew it was a scam,” she says. Others aren’t so lucky.

I can’t cure the travel industry’s bait-and-switch epidemic in a single column. It takes concerted action by consumer groups, government regulators and fellow travelers like you.

But with just a little research, a skeptical attitude, steering clear of the worst companies and finding professional help, you won’t just minimize your frustration. You also won’t fall for the oldest trick in the book.

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