By Harry McCracken | Wednesday, March 4, 2009 at 2:32 pm
A couple of days ago, I bought an airfare-and-hotel package for a business trip to Las Vegas, and was annoyed by the way the travel merchant tried to slip a $14 bus ticket and $19.50 travel insurance plan into my order even though I hadn’t asked for them. An Orbitz customer-serve representative (who asked not to be named) saw my complaints and gave me a call. She didn’t make me happy–because she couldn’t explain, really, why it’s appropriate to put unasked-for things in a customer’s shopping cart. But she did provide some background.
The automatic addition of a $14 bus fare, she told me, is a recent addition–and it’s one that Orbitz is only tacking on for Vegas and a few other destinations. She said that those locales have been singled out because most hotels don’t offer shuttle-bus service. (Which explains why you might offer bus pickup and dropoff…but not why you’d charge a customer for them unless that person specifically asked otherwise. After all, I don’t know of a single hotel anywhere that tacks a shuttle-bus fee onto your bill.)
“I can understand why you wouldn’t like that–‘hey, I didn’t even want this,’ said the rep sympathetically. But she told me that Orbitz has received very few complaints about the Las Vegas bus fee, and that some of the company’s competitors were similarly adding charges.
As for the travel insurance, the rep said that it’s mostly offered on highly restrictive plane tickets which are hard to make changes to without penalty–often international flights. The insurance allows travelers to get refunds even if the airline won’t oblige. Again, fair enough–except for the part about having to notice the fee and sidestep it if you’re not interested.
“I don’t like it myself,” she said of the automatic insurance. And she added that travelers should read the policy carefully, since it doesn’t cover some stuff she thinks it should, like airline bankruptcies.
I was irritated in part because the Orbitz site has fine print telling you that you can’t get a refund on the items you didn’t ask for in the first place. But the rep said that if you accidentally ended up paying for them and called right away, Orbitz would help you get a refund.
She also told me that she felt my pain, but that Orbitz wasn’t trying to scam anyone (note: I didn’t say it was) and that the policies I found so offensive weren’t going away. And then she backpedaled a little–she said that Orbitz appointed a new CEO in January (Barney Harford) and that he was a “high-tech” guy who wanted simplify the process of buying travel from the company. Who knows, she said–maybe he’ll change things.
We can only hope–but I still think that maybe it should be the FTC, not Web merchants, who get to decide what’s appropriate here.