Sunday, March 15, 2009

Bait & switch airline ticket offers

UPDATE: Click here to see the response I received from the Massachusetts Attorney General's office. Classify it as “nonresponse” or “pass the buck.”

* * * * *

What would you do if you saw a flat screen television set, regularly priced at $799—on sale for $599—but at the checkout stand, credit card in hand, the cashier said “That’ll be $799?”

I’m guessing you’d point to the big red sale tag and insist on the $200 discount. But when you motion towards the tag, it vanishes into thin air. Hold it a second. You look back at the aisle filled with the same on-sale TVs and every one of those tags also disappears.

Now you’re thinking Twilight Zone, or Candid Camera. When you look around the room for Rod Serling or Alan Funt, what you see is a giant store sign that reads: Travelocity.

Substitute an airline ticket for the television set and this is exactly what goes on every minute of every day. An email entices you to purchase a ticket at a great price. You then wade through the obligatory five or six screens to select your flight and seat, followed by the summary page which, at the very bottom after all of those rental car and hotel options, displays the magic “Book Your Flight” button.

In the blink of an eye, the next screen appears letting you know there’s a problem. “The new lowest available price is listed below,” it says. How about that? It’s now $200 higher. But wait. The old lowest price was just on the screen less than a second ago. How can things change in an instant?

What’s happening is that these online travel companies are allowed to sell one or two seats on these flights at a heavily discounted price. They then send out hundreds of thousands (maybe millions) of emails touting the lower prices. By the time you get in line, online, the chance of picking up a ticket at this price is worse than winning the Daily Pick 3.

Travel companies are counting on attracting a lot of people to their websites and ultimately settling on a different, more expensive ticket. When I was growing up, that was called bait and switch. Nowadays, this happens via a convoluted myriad of computer programs and an infinitely variable database of ticket prices.

No doubt that there are reams of CYA documentation in the possession of the travel companies to ward off the inevitable probes by the states’ attorneys general, but I was so incensed recently trying to book a trip to El Paso, I documented this bait and switch and sent a letter to Massachusetts’ Attorney General, Martha Coakley.

Click here to see it.

I’ll provide an update if I hear anything.

P.S. Perhaps I’ll retreat to doing things the old fashioned way. I’m going call my local travel agent, if there are still any of them out there.

Copyright 2009 Randy Hunt


  1. I wish you luck with this. It's maddening.

  2. Yup, welcome to the 21st century, same as the 20th century. You just get scammed quicker and for more money.


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