Last week, the province of Ontario, where I live, passed a new rule that addresses one of my longstanding travel pet peeves. It forbids travel agencies and online retailers from advertising a package vacation without including all the taxes and fees in the headline price. The change was long overdue, but there’s still work to do in order to make the travel business truly fair to the downtrodden traveller.
For some time now, both Canada and the United States have required airlines to include all the taxes and fees in the prices they advertise. But in Canada at least, a lot of travel agencies and online sites have still been free to offer vacations for prices that look too good to be true – because they are. If you looked closely at that low, low $699 price, you’d see another little price just beneath it: $420 in taxes and fees.
That $700 trip was actually going to cost you more than $1,100. But the agencies were counting on the fact that once you got involved in booking the trip and thinking about those sunny beaches, you’d pay up and go anyway.
The reason it took so long to fix this problem, apparently, is that airlines are under federal jurisdiction, while travel retailers are a provincial responsibility. For once at least, the feds were quicker to act than the local authorities.
So one of my pet peeves is no more – at least, for those of us in Ontario. But there are a few more that should be dealt with before the travel business is really playing fair with its customers. Here are a few problems that are still out there, tripping up travellers as they try to make their winter getaway.
Hidden hotel fees
Airline taxes and fees aren’t the only trickery that exists in the travel business. In this recent post, I complained about the extra fees many higher-end hotels charge customers these days. Their room rates are hefty enough to start with, but they still feel the need to make a few extra dollars or euros by charging you for your internet use and local phone calls. These fees have become a big source of revenue, and they’re growing all the time.
The worst example, in my opinion, is the “resort fees” some hotels add onto the room rate for the use of facilities like their pool, gym and spa. (The big Las Vegas hotels are the worst offenders for this.) You pay these fees whether you use the facilities or not. Worse, they often don’t appear on the invoice when you book the hotel online – unless you’re smart enough to root around in the fine print at the bottom of the page. If hotels are going to hive off their resort facilities – a dubious proposition to begin with – they should be up front about it, and give you the option of declining and not using the facilities.
You booked a direct flight, so the plane you board will be flying straight to your destination, right? Not so fast. It will stop at least once along the way, very often at the airline’s hub, and you may or may not be asked to change planes. This will add time to your flight, and if there’s a problem at the stopover airport, you could find yourself delayed for a few hours more.
Why is this called a “direct” flight? According to airline industry rules, it’s because all your flights have the same flight number. If you actually want to board the plane in your home city and get off at your destination, with no stops and starts in between, you need to look for a “nonstop” flight. Here’s an idea: how about getting rid of these misleading labels and calling a “direct” flight what it is – indirect.
This is one of my Canadian-specific pet peeves. Most of us use multiple online sites to book our travels, and for Canadians, that often means both Canadian and U.S. sites. So it can get hard to tell whether you’re booking your trip in loonies or U.S. dollars, especially with retailers that have sites in both countries. I’ve been caught on this a couple of times, and only found out later that my bargain fare actually cost me 30 percent more because I was seeing U.S. dollar prices.
I know, it’s not the U.S. travel sellers’ fault if Canadians get their sites mixed up. But since they’re allowing us to shop at their marketplace, they should designate the currency for their prices. Putting “US” beside each price wouldn’t take much doing, or waste much space, and it would make things a lot easier for us – call it a cross-border courtesy. Yes, some sites do allow you to designate a currency, but the little widget is usually small and easy to miss. A suggestion: could the site recognize where people are booking from, and flash a message to change the currency?
It’s been widely reported that some airlines and travel sites will show you different prices depending on who you are. For example, they may boost your price based on what you’ve bought before, using your browser history. Or, they may charge you more if you book from another country. The Wall Street Journal even reported in 2012 that the Orbitz booking site was charging higher prices to people using Apple computers. Since these people were willing to pay more for a computer, they’d pay more for travel too, right?
I might dismiss all this as urban legend, except for an experience a couple of years ago. My friend Brian and I decided to book our trips to Beijing simultaneously in order to make sure we were synchronized. We booked the same flights and the same hotel, on the same dates, at the same time, using the Expedia booking site. And when the total for the trip came up, his was $4 more than mine. What? This kind of “dynamic pricing” is becoming one of my new pet peeves. If they’re going to change their prices for every customer, they should let us submit an offer and bargain for the best price.
My colleague Marie-France, of the Big Travel Nut blog, says one of her pet peeves is disappearing air fares. You spend hours finding the flight you want, for the price you want, on an online booking site — maybe it’s even a nonstop flight. But when you go to book it, you get a message saying, “not available”.
This can happen because the number of seats is limited, and with thousands of people shopping at the same time, the seats can go quickly. But I suspect it’s sometimes because the online seller just doesn’t program its computers to delete the fares quickly enough when they sell out. After all, having a great air fare or a bargain vacation on your site draws customers – why not let it hang around a bit? I’m betting a little added code in the software could fix this problem.
There’s five more pet peeves that the travel industry needs to fix. I don’t have much confidence these things will change any time soon: the companies involved are making too much money doing it this way. But if enough of us complain, sooner or later governments will respond and bring in rules to outlaw some of the worst practices. If it can happen in Ontario, it can happen anywhere.
If you have any pet peeves of your own related to travel industry practices, leave a comment and add it to the list. As I said, the more voices, the better. And hey, sometimes it feels good just to get it off your chest.