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What Scams and Deceptions Will We Face in 2010?


A listener to a call-in radio show noted that all the travel mavens and pundits had recently chimed in about what’s likely to happen with airfares, hotel rates, and such, but they haven’t focused on one important subject:

“What deceptions and scams are we likely to encounter in 2010?”

The short answer is, “Generally, it will be ’round up the usual suspects,’ and more of the same seems more likely than something entirely new.” Here’s my take.

Mandatory Add-Ons

The mandatory add-on—a charge that isn’t included in the featured price—is the deception most likely to flourish in 2010. The most obvious current offenders are hidden “housekeeping,” “resort,” and other such fees that hotels and resorts add on to featured base rates. Clearly, those fees should be included in the base rate, but they often aren’t. They’re particularly prevalent in Las Vegas and in prime winter-sun destinations, and they’re more prevalent at upscale rather than budget accommodations, but you can run into them almost anywhere.

The big question is not just how many more hotels will resort to hidden add-ons this year—it’s also about how many different sorts of travel suppliers will do the same. I expect lots more of both. The primary incentive for suppliers to resort to this deception is the ascendancy of the Internet as a prime travel buying channel. More and more travelers rely on Internet-based—often automated—price comparisons, and posting a price that’s $10 to $30 less than the true price makes a hotel or other supplier look better in those comparisons. I suspect that it’s the difference between a sale and a pass in many cases.

What I find especially curious is the fact that the big online travel agencies, such as Expedia, Priceline, and Travelocity, don’t provide true all-up price displays for hotel accommodations that include those phony add-on charges. After all, they’ve been quite successful at posting all-up costs for rental cars, so I can’t understand why they can’t do the same for hotels and other suppliers. Maybe they will, someday, but I see no signs so far. Beware.

Airlines would do the same with add-on fuel surcharges, if they could. Fortunately, however, the U.S., Canadian, and most European governments prohibit separating fuel surcharges from the displayed total fares, so you needn’t worry. Unfortunately, nobody apparently has the same authority to oversee deceptions by hotels and resorts.

Free? Feh!

Another top deception will probably continue: fake “free” promotions, as in “free air on a cruise,” or “free fifth night” on a hotel promotion, or “free companion ticket.” As I’ve noted before, hardly anything is ever really “free.” Specifically:

  • Nothing is “free” if you have to pay for something else to get it, and
  • Nothing is “free” if it’s bundled into a package and you can buy the rest of the package, minus the “free” part, for less than the full package price.

At best, those “free” promotions are a deceptive way to make a price or a package look better than it really is; at worst, they’re outright lies. I see no relief in sight for 2010: Expect plenty of “free” promotions this year.

Half the Real Price

Two widespread pricing deceptions feature prices at half their actual cost:

  • “Each way based on round-trip purchase for airfares” has been around for a long time. The deception, of course, is that you can’t buy any ticket at that price; the harm is that a few lines actually do sell their cheapest tickets one-way and they may lose business to lines that use deceptive practice. According to industry sources, the Department of Transportation has upheld its ridiculous approval of this deception mainly because of the personal bias of one top official, and I see no reason to expect any change this or any other year.
  • “Per person double occupancy” has been around even longer, mainly for package tours and cruises. Although it’s equally deceptive, it’s so ingrained in the travel industry that nobody seriously expects it to change—and, fortunately, almost all of us have learned to live with it. There’s one case, however, where it can be pernicious: When a hotel prices individual rooms that way. Hotel rates are one case where almost all of us expect a per-room price quotation, and a per-person rate can distort a price search significantly.

The Outright Scams

Outright scams—where the perpetrator has no intention of delivering on what’s promised—have plagued the travel industry for decades. And some of them have been around for years, despite various sporadic enforcement actions:

  • You can blame the lousy economy for what is currently the most active of the old-timers: “We guarantee to sell your unwanted timeshare interval if you pay $400 (or whatever) for a listing” promises that take your money and then do nothing. Regular timeshare maintenance and tax assessments are squeezing lots of travelers who have seen their income and assets dwindle, and many of those folks are desperate to get out from under those ongoing bills. Unfortunately, buyers know that many timeshares are on sale for as little as $1, and if they understand and want to buy a timeshare, they know they can pick one up on the cheap.
  • I haven’t seen much of two other hardy perennials recently: Travel certificates that promise really cheap vacation packages but don’t really deliver and “card mills” that promise “huge travel agent discounts” if you buy their travel-agent ID that no supplier actually honors any more. I’m sure they’re still around, but fortunately they’re easy to spot and to avoid.

Beyond the obviously absurd emails from Nigeria (or somewhere), some of which involve buying air tickets, I haven’t seen any new widespread scams emerging. Maybe the crooks have found that outright crime, especially identity theft, is more profitable than running a complex scam.

“You Can’t Fix Stupid”

Sadly, we’ll probably continue to see instances where stupidity results in a de facto deception or other difficulty. Government certainly isn’t exempt, either—how about that eight-year old boy on the terrorist watch list? But you’ll continue to see complaints ignored, booking errors, incorrect items on your charge card, and the rest. In those cases, a combination of patience and firmness can usually resolve the issue.

Caveat Emptor

As usual, alert consumers are generally immune to most scams and deceptions. Stay alert—and remember, “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.”

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