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Traveler Beware: Fuel Scams Ahead!

SmarterTravel

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Unless the price of oil suddenly drops, you can expect to see higher travel bills in coming weeks and months. And, all too often, those increases will be disguised as “surcharges” and hidden during most or all of the purchase process.

Airfares

You’ve already seen reports about the five rounds of airfare hikes the big lines announced since the first of the year. Most final increases were a bit less than originally announced, because some of the big low-fare lines didn’t go along with the full amounts. But the fact is that fares this summer are likely to be a lot higher than they were last summer.{{{SmarterBuddy|align=left}}}

The good news about airfare hikes—if anything about them is good—is that government rules require that domestic airlines include any fuel surcharge in the prices they post online and display in newspaper ads. Thus, when you buy a regular ticket, a fuel surcharge won’t come as a surprise late in the purchase process. Any extra will be there from the beginning.

However, a scam potential still exists. Even though their websites have to show the full fares, including fuel surcharges, some lines still divide the real fare into a phony list price and then add a surcharge. Where that hurts is that writers sometime get hold of those phony list prices and report them as “great deals.” I’ve seen that sort of misrepresentation coming from otherwise respected travel writers, and apparently some travel agents also quote fares that way. Consolidator agencies, too, may still omit fuel surcharges from their promotions.

You may find it tough to avoid a price gouge, but you can avoid a scam: Compare fares and buy tickets only through an online system or agency that openly posts fares that include “all surcharges.” Occasional airfare sales will probably continue to provide relief from the worst fare gouges, but you have to stay on top of the market and act quickly when you spot a good deal.

Cruise Fares

If you look at a current cruise brochure, you’ll almost certainly see fine print that allows the cruise line to impose a fuel surcharge. Typically, the line limits itself to something like $10 per person per day, with a total-cost cap. As far as I can tell, so far, only a few lines have actually imposed surcharges, but you can expect them to spread among most lines very soon.

You can avoid an extra charge by getting into the market before all the lines have imposed the charges. If you do, just make sure to avoid any line that claims the right to make fuel surcharges retroactive. And act quickly—I expect more big lines to pile on the surcharges within a matter of days.

Hotel Rates

Hotels “energy surcharges” are the ultimate fuel surcharge scam. Hotels can easily compensate for changes in the cost of energy—which, in a hotel, are very small compared with the costs to an airline or cruise line—by raising the rates. Why, then, are they likely to add surcharges? For the same reasons they tack on separate, mandatory “resort” fees and fees for housekeeping, spa access, and such. They want to keep their true prices unrealistically low in order to mislead you when you’re searching for deals online. Widespread use of online search engines means that showing a rate even a few dollars higher than a competitors’ rate can often mean losing a booking. To be sure, the hotel will likely disclose the extra charge(s) sometime during the buying process, but typically not before you’re well into the process.

The best way to avoid a scam is to stop the buying process as soon as a hotel shows any extra charge other than the usual state and local taxes. And avoid buying from any hotel—or through any agency—that says, “extra charges may apply.”

The sad fact of the travel marketplace is that, except in the case of airlines, no agency is really diligent in protecting consumers from deceptive price promotions. More than ever, caveat emptor!

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