The travel industry wants you back.
But before you say "yes," listen to Laura Salisbury, a teacher from San Jose, Calif. She mistakenly typed the wrong return date when she booked a vacation for her and her mother through Expedia.
"All I wanted to do was give my mom a trip of a lifetime to celebrate the successful end of her cancer treatment," she says. The two women planned to visit Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming.
When she asked Expedia for help, it deferred to Delta Air Lines. "A representative at Delta said that the tickets were nonrefundable, but that the company would change the flight dates for me for a $200 fee per ticket," she says. "I said the flight change charge is more than what the tickets even cost, and that new tickets would be cheaper. I was then told that I was welcome to order new tickets if I did not wish to pay the fees."
Before all of you airline apologists pounce on Salisbury for booking a nonrefundable ticket -- and on me for being naive enough to give her a platform (what part of "nonrefundable don't I understand?" I can almost hear you saying) -- let's take a minute to think about this.
The vacation package she bought didn't offer a prohibitively expensive, fully-refundable airfare. But more to the point, why couldn't Expedia go to bat for her? Why couldn't Delta change her ticket if she made an honest mistake? Is the $400 it would pocket in change fees worth the lifetime of business it will probably lose from her?
There's no better time to be asking "why" than now. That's because things probably can't get any worse for the travel industry. Hotels are in foreclosure, airlines are once again on the verge of bankruptcy, tour operators are selling their products at ridiculous discounts, and destinations are resorting to publicity stunts to attract visitors.
For example, Southwest Airlines held a two-day blowout sale a few weeks ago, in which tickets were offered for less than it costs to fill the tank of an average SUV. The Copley Square Hotel, a luxury hotel in Boston, was hawking rooms for less than the price of a cab ride to Logan Airport. And in a move that can only be described as utter desperation, the notoriously unfriendly Parisians, in an effort to "show that Paris loves its tourists and knows how to welcome them," strapped on rollerblades and formed an enormous human smile at Place Vendome.
I'll give you a few moments to ponder that image.
The fare sales and sideshows may lure some of us back in the near term. But over the long haul, they do nothing to fix the real problem. Basically, we've concluded that the travel industry is largely comprised of money-grubbing opportunists, and no fire sale is going to fix that.
But here are a few things that might:
1. Try "Yes"
Instead of gimmicky sales and two-for-ones, why not just stop saying "no"? For instance, why can't you change the name on airline tickets? Well, airlines insist it's for "security reasons." So why do carriers like Allegiant Air allow name changes? Granted, there's a $50 fee, and Allegiant throws an obscene amount of other surcharges at its passengers. But why not allow the name on a ticket to be changed? Simple thing, really.
2. Roll Back Recent Rule Changes
Some of the recent rule changes, which appear to be designed solely to make a quick buck for travel companies, need to be nullified in order to make us come back. For example, why did car rental companies abbreviate the one-hour grace period for late rentals to half an hour? Why did some of them eliminate it altogether? Answer: They wanted to make more money. But it only made customers upset. Are these ridiculous new policies worth the frustration they cause? Short term, yes. They do boost revenues. Long term, no. They'll drive us away.
3. Enough With the Fees, Already
It's time to say it: A la carte fees are a failure. Sure, they bring in lots of money -- just look at how much the airlines have made this year from luggage fees -- but a closer look reveals an often-negative correlation between fees and profitability. In other words, the more an airline charges in fees, the less profitable it is. Put differently, travel companies aren't just killing us with their fees. They're killing themselves.
4. Common Sense, Please
Why does a one-way airline ticket cost more than a round-trip ticket? Why is changing a ticket sometimes more expensive than the ticket itself? These rules make no sense whatsoever to customers, even when you explain the apparent logic behind them. Believe me, I've tried. People like Katerina Naumenko, a medical student in Grenada who missed her American Airlines flight and had to pay $544 for the last leg of her flight -- which was more than the cost of the entire round-trip ticket -- don't buy it. (Here's more on her experience.) "I explained the situation to them and they still insisted that I had to purchase another ticket," she told me. How about a new rule? The change fee can't be more than the value of the ticket.
5. No More Double Dipping
Ever canceled a hotel room or cruise, and forfeited the entire value of your reservation because of a nonrefundability policy? If you have, maybe you've wondered if the travel company ever resold the room or berth, and effectively cashed in on the room twice. It's a legitimate question: Should a company be able to collect the money two times, or should it offer a refund if it can find someone else to fill the room? Giving the money back, particularly when the room is resold, would go a long way to restoring the goodwill between travelers and the travel industry.
6. Show Some Compassion
Here's a summer travel paradox: Travel companies are bending over backward for your business, yet at the same time, they're throwing the book in our faces when we run afoul of one of their "gotcha" rules. Let's say you're delayed by a flight problem and arrive a day late for your vacation. Don't even bother asking your hotel to adjust your rate. It probably won't. What if you missed the flight? You'll lose the value of your ticket, plus you'll have to pay for a new one. Ditto for your rental car, if you've pre-paid for it. But when the tables are turned -- when the hotel is oversold, the airline can't take off because of air traffic control problems, or a hurricane shuts down your hotel -- travelers cut the companies a lot of slack without demand for compensation. Why shouldn't those same companies give us a break? It's only fair.
I can almost hear those of you in the travel business saying, "Never. We're not running a charity." (And a note to the travel agents reading this -- take a deep breath. I don't think of you as being part of the travel industry for the purposes of this discussion. You're on the traveler's side when it comes to fighting these silly policies. You are often victims, too.)
To those of you who think hotels are just lodging and airlines are nothing more than transportation, I have just one thing to say to you: You're in the wrong business. There's a reason they refer to the hotel industry as the hospitality business, and it's a reason you've apparently forgotten.
Only now, in a moment of desperation, are travel companies rediscovering what their customers want.
And it's simple, really. We want a reliable product at a fair price. We don't want to be taken advantage of. And we want to feel loved.
Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the host of "What You Get For The Money: Vacations" on the Fine Living Network. E-mail him at email@example.com.
(c) 2009 Christopher Elliott. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.