Whenever some consumer advocate suggests need for a new regulation to mitigate some obvious traveler pain point, the industry’s primary suppliers — airlines, hotels, cruise lines, and the others — almost always reply that a new regulation is not necessary: Instead, they proclaim “The market will solve that problem.” Really? Evidence doesn’t support that conclusion. Price advertising is a prime example.
The primary suppliers in the travel industry doa not and will not abstain from deceptive price advertising on their own. Period. Instead, they follow a sort of Gresham’s rule: “Bad price advertising drives out good price advertising.” We’ve seen that scenario carried out time and again over the decades, starting with the phony “tax and service” tour price cutouts that International Weekends posted in the 1980s. I remember talking with a competitor, who said that he knew the practice was deceptive, but claimed he had to adopt it to remain competitive. We see it now with mandatory hotel “resort” fees. And the airlines are lobbying the Department of Transportation (DoT) to eliminate the full-fare advertising requirement it initiated in response to egregious phony surcharges. It’s pretty clear to anyone who knows the industry that those industry players will not eliminate deceptive price advertising: Even the few that would prefer honest advertising can’t hold out because they’ll lose business. Once one big sleaze operator does it, everyone else does, too.
But primary suppliers aren’t the only players in the marketplace. And that realization raises a fundamental question I’ve asked for more than a decade — and have never received a plausible explanation: “Why don’t the online travel agencies (OTA) and metasearch or search aggregators solve the problem?” Clearly, the gold standard of price advertising is, to update a buzzword from early word processor days, WYSIWYP — what you see is what you pay. OTAs and metasearch engines can do this — they’re doing it in a few isolated cases. But the record is sketchy.
Currently, the DoT requires WYSIWYG price advertising for airfares, and everyone involved is complying. But today’s price comparisons often don’t reflect what travelers actually pay. Consumer advocates have been asking for airfare postings that reflect the full cost of a trip most travelers would buy, but nobody can settle on just what formerly inclusive “options” should be included in such a requirement: Checked bag? Carry-on bag? Seat assignment? Meal? A supposed search for the “lowest” fare is less than useful if some “lowest” fares include a checked bag while others don’t. As Gary Leff points out in a recent blog (viewfromthewing.com), the biggest OTA actually distorts the price comparison when the lowest fare on airline A omits some important options that airlines B, C, and D include in their lowest fares.
OTAs and metasearch websites could easily remedy this problem by modifying the initial trip entry system. Beyond the usual names, dates, destinations, and times, travelers could check off which options they want to include: checked bag, carry-on bag, seat assignment, meal, extra-legroom seats, and such. The search system could then display each airline’s total price for whatever combination of options travelers want, and the price comparisons would be true comparisons. So far, the closest approach I’ve seen to this problem is on Qtrip (qtrip.com), which automatically displays up to six different fare groups on each search. Even then, however, it doesn’t show which specific options each fare group includes.
The hotel case is a bit better, in that at least one metasearch website, Kayak (kayak.com), actually gives you the option to do a complete comparison based on prices that include fees and taxes. It’s not automatic; you have to select it, but once you do, you’re looking at what you really have to pay throughout the entire process.
It beats me why other OTAs and metasearch sites haven’t done anything more that parrot what the suppliers give them. Surely, aggressively offering WYSIWYP pricing would be a game-changer in the struggle for market share. Meantime, for now, consider checking Qtrip for airfares and Kayak for hotel rates.
©2020 Ed Perkins. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
Need to get away?
Start exploring magnificent places with our weekly travel newsletter.