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By Christopher Elliott
If you found a bargain airfare, you'd book it, right?
But what if you knew the price was a mistake? Would you still do it?
In an era of too-good-to-be-true prices, gimmicky discounts and even an occasional zero fare, travelers have to make that call every day.
Sometimes they get it right. Sometimes not.
Last fall, for example,
But a smaller subset of travelers spotted the $40 base fares and knew they were a mistake, but booked anyway, believing they could force
William Sannwald, a lecturer at
I've been thinking about what separates a frugal traveler from a thief, and although the experts I spoke to seem to agree on the big issues (you know, stealing is wrong) there's no unanimity when it comes to finer points of pricing snafus. By way of full disclosure, I thought the travelers who bought tickets knowing the fare was foul were morally challenged. In a blog comment, I referred to them as "bottom feeders," which may have been a little harsh. I probably just should have called them criminals.
When do you say "no" to a deal?
When it's too good to be true
Everyone knows when something just doesn't feel right. And if you've been around long enough, you also know when it probably isn't -- either there's a catch or it's a bait-and-switch or it's a legitimate error.
"If it appears to be too good to be true," says Charles Green, the chief executive of
If you know it's a mistake
Virtually all of the experts I spoke with for this story told me that knowingly booking an erroneous fare is wrong. The argument that airlines wouldn't be as understanding if the roles were reversed made no difference to them.
But what if you don't know? Jonathan Burgstone, an adjunct professor at the
If the company is wishy-washy
Obviously, having to wade through pages of fine print on a "bargain" can be such a turn-off that you would want to walk away. But if you see a terrific offer and make inquiries, and the answers are less than satisfactory, perhaps you shouldn't be making reservations.
"Check with the airline or with a travel agent," advises Joseph Pastore, a professor at
If it's a dramatically lower price than anyone else is offering
Ever heard of the saying, "You get what you pay for"? When it comes to pricing errors, that may be particularly true. A price that's far lower than those of competitors can be assumed to be either wrong or defective (or both).
"To manage your risk, you might buy another reasonable fare," says Rick Brenner, a consultant with the management consulting firm
I put the question to the ethicists: How should a
"Good common sense should prevail" after that, says Mark Zupan, dean of
"Mistakes like this do get made, and bearing the consequences of one's mistakes is part of the process which one takes to pay better attention in the future," he told me. "Where a firm's ongoing viability is threatened by a mistake however, then it's best for the company to fess up and find a way to make amends." Zupan says the $300 offer was acceptable, given the circumstance.
On the question of whether a travel company should honor an incorrect price, there was some agreement among the professionals. Michael McGrath, author of the book "Decide Better! For a Better Life," says a pricing error shouldn't put a company out of business. "Decisions like this need to be made with consideration of what is ethical and what is a good customer practice, offset by the financial impact," he told me.
But there's a significant disconnect between the rhetoric and the reality. I asked Stephen Martin, a professor at the
"They felt like the airlines always take advantage of them," Martin says.
At the same time, an equal percentage said they believed
In other words, we can talk about ethics until the cows come home. But once we're on a plane, many of us jettison our values right out the cabin door.
Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine.
© Christopher Elliott
Travel | Four Times You Should Just Say 'No' to a Airfare Travel Deal