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  • Writer's pictureDoug Weiss

The Grinch

We are nearing that time of the year when spirits benign and malevolent tend to make their presence known.  Perhaps you think me Grinch like for suggesting that ill intentions are afoot this season but let me explain why before you call me a grouch and paint me green.

Like many of you I prefer to do much of my shopping including my travel arrangements online.  There is nothing I enjoy less than a shopping mall on a good day, and in the season the travails of finding a parking spot anywhere within the same county are unlikely unless you possess the driving skills of a Nascar competitor, the instincts of a barracuda, and the patience of a Tibetan monk .  And that's only the beginning of the torture.
 
If you should be so fortunate as to still have any breath left after your hike through the parking lot you are greeted by a crazed horde, hell bent on finding the perfect gift for aunt Susie or uncle Milt pillaging their way from store to store through stacks of garments and towers of small appliances. Heaven help you should you approach a store specializing in games, toys or electronics—life is too short to put oneself through such insanity. So, with the exception of a furtive visit to one or two local merchants I choose to shop from the comfort of my office with my trusty laptop as my sole companion. 
 
Having settled in with a nice cup of tea and my list in hand I set forth on my journey this year determined to avoid the crowds and stress only to find that the virtual experience is just as awful as the physical.  In the day, when I lived in NY and frequented those quaint things called department stores with their wonderful window displays, I was accustomed to seeing the appearance of Christmas immediately following Thanksgiving.  As we can all attest, Christmas now begins the day after Halloween.  The same holds true online. 
 
The craziness begins with the coming soon--pre-Black Friday sales, followed by the almost Black Friday sales, the Black Friday sales, The Cyber Monday sales and the extended Black Friday and Cyber Monday sales, all of which continue until the stroke of midnight December 25th. Huzzah, and don’t be alarmed, in case you missed out, December 26 is Boxing Day; no fisticuffs just more of those amazing sales that extend right into the New Year with January White sales, President’s day sales and so on ad nauseum until we are right back where we began. 
 
Now, not to be jaded, but I think we know that all these sales are an invention and the prices and deals offered are with few exceptions not really deals at all. Underneath the price stickers in the stores showing terrific discounts are the hidden pre sales prices—usually the same or even less than the sale price.  It is the same online. How do I know, you might well ask?  I keep a list of things I might wish to purchase over the course of time and on several shopping sites I subscribe to a notification app that alerts me to price changes.  I can faithfully attest that, while there are occasional discounts that last a few days, you must be quick and wily to catch them. Most of us are too busy and frankly pre-occupied with life stuff. We don't spend our days prowling around in virtual markets waiting for a chance to grab a deal.

Should you actually manage to snag a deal online, you might find that your good fortune is disappointing. Taking a leaf from the explosion of AI technology, marketers have begun using AI image software to conjure up products that don't really exist. Purchase one and it will never ship, or if it does, according to NPR's Planet Money, it will look nothing like the item you thought you'd purchased. You can, of course, dispute the charges with your credit card company but all this does is pass along a cost of business that Fintech firms will recoup in increased charges to legitimate merchants and ultimately to consumers down the road. There is no free lunch in the virtual world, or if there is it is made of papier mache.
 
As deceptive as all this scammery and nonsense is, it pales by comparison to the real bait and switch-craft of travel purchases, especially during busy seasons.  It really does not matter whether you begin by searching for a hotel, air travel or a car rental, they are all tied into a web of cross marketing arrangements that promote fantastic deals but more often than not disguise the true cost you'll end up paying. Worse yet are the aggregators that claim to save you a pile of money if you book everything through them.  You know who I mean, the ones with cute names and eye popping offers. It does not matter much because half of the sites you’ll visit are actually just a façade on a single search and pricing engine. You'll find that they are either 'powered by' a competitor, re-skinned to look different or simply regurgitating a compendium of offers that differ in price by very little.

Despite marketing that makes it seem as if consumers have a dizzying array of choices, most aggregator sites are a portal to a sophisticated bait and switch scheme. Trust me on this, I have spent hours on these sites to try to find the best deal only to find that the best deal varied by less than $100 across seven different nationally recognized brands.  The same holds true for airlines—think there’s a real difference in fares?  Not really.  If you want to travel on a given date and at similar times of day you’ll find that across the major airlines fares vary by less than $50. But that is not the only surprise you are in for in shopping travel--the skull duggery begins when you actually figure out the deals they offer are based on bundling up what retailers call excess inventory. Time really is money--especially in the hospitality industry. The room you fail to book, the flight that departs unfilled, the cars sitting on the lot generate no revenue just on-going cost for their corporate owners. So companies allow aggregators to re-sell their least desirable inventory at a discount to try to recoup what otherwise would be a loss.
 
Now don’t get me wrong, you can save a lot if you want to fly for a day and a half, starting at midnight or at some hour of the morning when no one is awake in order to go to a destination that would normally take 5 hours, but who actually wants to do that except under duress?  And you should know that those super low fares advertised are for something known as Basic Economy—no assigned seats, no cancellations, no refunds, and no bags not even carry-on unless you pay an upcharge.  If you want to upgrade to what we used to think of as Economy –now known colloquially as Main Cabin and bring a carry on to your assigned seat that’s typically an extra, costing tens to hundreds of dollars more per person—and even then, forget about any refund or accommodation if you need to change flights.  You won’t find this out till you have already invested 20 minutes of browsing. Worse yet, you don’t even get to this part on an aggregator site until you’ve been through the ordeal of choosing a hotel and room type.
 
And speaking of hotels, they have their own little bit of marketing tom foolery.  The price shown is not what car dealers call the Out The Door price, no siree.  There are resort fees, taxes and all manner of incidental fees not included in the advertised deal that you find out about just before you hit the button to book your reservation, or worse when you arrive at your destination.  Don't expect any rewards either--when you book through an aggregator some hotels treat you like a steerage passenger on the Titanic. The best offer price quoted, it turns out, is for the room next door to the elevator and overlooking the scenic parking garage. But thankfully you can upgrade for just a few more dollars per night per person. Did I say a few? Not really. By this time the advertised deal is a distant memory as you are nickled and dimed with upcharges and upgrades that keep adding a pound of flesh at each stage of your reservation.
 
If you manage to get to the car rental stage with your wallet and sanity still intact you aren't quite done with the tricks .  I counted no less than 11 different car sizes available from 9 different companies advertising rates as low as –well practically giving it away.  Don't be fooled, it's downright impossible to find the advertised 'as low as' rate--especially if you happen to be under the age of 25 or over 65. Don't forget to select the prepay option for the gas because the cost per gallon if you fail to return with even an ounce of petrol less than when you left is about $47 when you add in the taxes, airport and convenience fees.  And then there is insurance and travel protection –another $10-$25 a day or so. All of which adds up to a decision.  Rent a car that actually holds two people and their luggage for anywhere from $50-$75 a day or get a clown car that is suspiciously identical to the one from Rent a Wreck. Did they forget to mention that the advertised price is for an off airport agency just a short 30 minute shuttle ride away? Thankfully you can always upgrade.
 
We try to take a long weekend trip when winter seems like it will never end and we've had all the gray sky we can eat.  This was my recent experience trying to book a 5 day trip.  Despite advertised deals for the hotel of our choice, roundtrip airfare and car rental the only way to actually get the advertised deal was to fly for 11 hours each way leaving at an ungodly hour of the morning and arriving in the evening on both ends of the trip with no assigned seats and no baggage included, then enjoying a little jaunt to the off-site car rental site to pick up the clown car.  Due to the flight arrangements our trip would require two long days, over 14 hours of travel, to get to a place less than 4 hours away by air. All of which means that 5 day trip is actually a 3 day ‘vacation’ arriving late in the day and leaving at the crack of dawn in both directions. All in, with just the upgrades to arrive and a depart at a decent hour, sit together in assigned seats and bring a bag along, stay in a room with a view of something other than a garage, and rent a compact car to get us around would actually cost about $900 more than the advertised price based on the seven different sites I visited. Does that seem reasonable to you?
 
I grant you this is a first world issue but pardon me if I am grouchy about the disingenuous manner in which these sites work.  There are really no deals.  The least costly option by the way is to book the hotel, flights and car rental directly which in this example would save you about the same as all those upgrades.  You'll have to be your own travel agent, however, and it takes some time and effort which is why folks go to the aggregator sites I guess, believing that the advertised savings are genuine.  And they are, really, if you just don’t care about enjoying your trip and have all the time in the world. 
 
Is my time worth the savings, of course, but that isn’t the point.  I’d cheerfully pay a little bit more than the best rate I could find on my own for the convenience of a one stop reservation, but the onion peeling surprises left me feeling abused and not exactly in the mood for celebration.  The sad truth is that nothing these days is what it seems, and all of us I warrant are fed up with the endless bait and switch, the lies, the come-ons and the scams. The only upgrade I want this Christmas is to a more transparent, honest, respectful experience whether it is in the physical world or the virtual. How about you?
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