By Harry McCracken | Monday, March 2, 2009 at 10:45 am
I’m planning a business trip to Las Vegas for the CTIA Wireless Show at the end of this month. After starting my research at the wonderful Kayak travel search engine, I ended up at Orbitz, which offered some attractive-sounding package deals for a flight and hotel room. I started clicking my way through to buy.
A few pages into the purchase–Orbitz makes you burrow through a lot of stuff to book–I noticed something over on the right-hand side of the page:
Orbitz had added a $14 bus pickup and dropoff to my order. One I hadn’t asked for. And it told me it was doing it “for my convenience.”
Excuse me? My convenience? The fourteen bucks pales in comparison to the insult to my intelligence–Orbitz had tacked it on to grease its profits on the deal, and it was telling me it was doing me a favor.
I paged back and found that Orbitz had shown me a box showing the ground transportation option, and had helpfully selected it for me:
Aha! Well, that’s not so unreasonable, is it? It was there in front of me, and I had the option of unchecking it. My own fault for not being more attentive, right?
Well, maybe…except for the fact that the bus ticket was one of forty-six (!!!) optional upgrades on that page, none of which I cared to pay for–others included a topless show, Carrot Top, a magician, an impressionist, a ventriloquist, five Cirque Du Soleil variants, a Hoover Dam tour, a Harley-Davidson rental, The Phantom of the Opera, and a $355 wedding package in which “Elvis will escort the bride down the aisle to give her away and then sing three songs; before, during, and after the ceremony.” The bus offer was the only one that was opt-out rather than opt-in, and I’ll bet I’m not the only Orbitz customer who didn’t notice that.
It’s sort of as if McDonalds stopped asking you if you wanted fries and just added them to your order unless you said you didn’t want them.
At the bottom of the page is some legalese which talks about anything added on this page being nonrefundable. If Orbitz is claiming that failing to delete the bus offer constitutes adding it, it’s using a new, passive definition of “add” that’s unfamiliar to me. As far as I can tell, though, it’s saying that if I don’t notice it’s added busfare to my order, it’s my own tough luck and I won’t get my $14 back.
I nuked the bus ticket from my order and proceeded on. Whereupon I got this:
Yup, Orbitz had opted me in for another extra I hadn’t asked for and didn’t want: a $19.50 travel insurance plan. This time, it didn’t have anything to do with my convenience, apparently–it was an Orbitz “recommendation.” (Odd how these recommendations never involve choosing not to pay for something.)
Orbitz failed to tack a total of $33.50 of extras on to my order, but it did accomplish something: It left me feeling like it thinks its customers are patsies. Which I’ll remember next time I need to book travel.
Anyone out there want to defend the company’s upsell techniques. Or even explain why it would be unreasonable for the FTC to prohibit Web merchants from adding items to orders unless the shopper proactively requested them?
[UPDATE: An Orbitz representative called to respond to my gripes. Here's what she told me.]