Just about anyone who sells travel (or almost anything else) frequently promotes a "sale," usually including some sort of percent-off or "regular price" claim. By and large—with a few deceptions—the sale prices are accurate; after all, the sellers have to comply with a variety of truth-in-advertising laws. But no law I know requires "truth" in percent-off or regular-price claims. And you often see claims that are wildly out of line.
Here's a current example. A flash sale website recently hyped a deal of $129 per night for a junior suite in an all-inclusive Caribbean resort during November, claiming it was a 55 percent discount from the "regular" price of $281. Really? When I checked, I found that Expedia listed that same room at the same time for $132 per night. Yes, the flash sale price was discounted, but $3 a night off hardly squares with the 55 percent claim.
This wasn't an isolated incident, either. In my work for SmarterTravel, I regularly check flash sale deals. And I quickly learned to ignore the posted discount or regular price claims; instead, I check through Expedia, Hotels.com, or some other third-party source. And all too often, I see repeats of the example experience: Last week I spotted a claim for a discounted room at $299, compared with a "regular" price of $689, only to find the same room through a third-party OTA at the same $299. As I look at these flash sale websites, I find no general pattern of accuracy or deception. Any one site can and often does post really good deals and phony deals at the same time.
Any time I've challenged a suspicious discount claim, the supplier or agency usually has some rationale to justify the claim:
- Some resorts or hotels base their "regular" rate claim on their high-season price, even when the sale price is limited to off-season visits. That well may be the case in my example: The high-season price for a junior suite at the Caribbean property involved (in mid-February) is actually $306 per night. But November is the middle of the slowest quarter of the year for all Caribbean destinations, and just about everybody there is pushing very low off-season rates.
- In other cases, hotel discount claims are based on a phony "rack rate" that nobody actually pays. I used to find that on several occasions with those "half price" hotel programs. Yes, the deals were sometimes the best you could get, but even then they were usually just a few dollars less than you'd pay through an OTA such as Expedia or with an AAA or AARP rate, not half price.
Obviously, "discount" is a word that the travel industry throws around a lot without much discipline or regard for accuracy. At one point, the big airlines hyped their restricted excursion fares as "discount" fares, compared with full-fare coach. Sure, some travelers actually sometimes have to pay full-fare coach, but the restricted excursion fare is really a completely different product, and you can't compare it with unrestricted full fare. Thankfully, airlines no longer do that, but the industry still often refers to "discount fares" when it really means "promotional fares." And lots of travel writers still refer to Southwest, Allegiant, EasyJet, Spirit, and other such lines as "discount" airlines or "discounters," which, of course they are not. They sell their unique individual products at their own list prices, with no discounts involved.
The conclusion for consumers is obvious. Nobody out there is policing false discount claims, so you should never accept a claim of a discount or percent-off at face value. Instead, check prices for the same product, same dates, through one of the big OTAs. If it's still a good deal, go ahead and buy. But if the discount is phony, buy somewhere else—and be wary of anything else you see from the same source.
(Editor's Note: SmarterTravel is a member of the TripAdvisor Media Network, an operating company of Expedia, Inc. Expedia, Inc. also owns Expedia.com and Hotels.com.)