Monday, September 21, 2009

Expedia, You, and Me

You may have heard about a recent class action settlement between Expedia and you, the traveler. Expedia, it seems, was overcharging customers and labeling those charges "tax recovery charges" and "service fees." That means that if you were booking a room at the Auberge de Stowe through Expedia, you may have overpaid and not known about it. Here are a couple of links to the story: ABC News and NPR.

In light of the reckless behavior of large private institutions over the past several years (Enron, AIG, investment banks), some may chalk this up to the evils of capitalism, or at least another good reason for much needed oversight. But legislating ethical--or at least responsible--behavior rarely works. What we're seeing is a fundamental breakdown, something that begins way back in childhood and manifests itself later in life when the issue of character becomes relevant. In the case of Expedia, there appeared to be some attempt at misrepresenting what the consumer was being charged.

In fact, travel consumers rarely understand the mechanics of what they're paying. Everyone's heard of the two travelers on a plane sitting next to each other: One paid $500 for a ticket, the other paid half of that. Something similar happens when you book a room at the Auberge. Let's look at an example.

In regular season, a room with two double beds and a private bathroom at the Auberge goes for $89. You can go to our website and book directly from there, or you can call us and do it over the phone, or you can go through a travel site such as Expedia.com. Your choice will determine not only how much you pay, but how much we, the innkeepers, will collect.

If you call us directly and book the room, you'll pay $89, plus 10% tax, for a total of $97.90. We will keep the $89 and give $8.90 to various governments. We'll also pay taxes on that $89 at the end of the year as taxable income (we and you both pay a tax on that $89).

If you book the room online through our website you'll still pay $97.90, but we'll collect slightly less than $89 because we use an online service to manage that feature. But if you book through a big travel site, you'll pay significantly more, and we'll collect significantly less. That's because you have to pay a fee--perhaps one of the misrepresented fees that Expedia just settled for--which brings your total up as much as another 10-15%. And we have to pay a fee for being listed on that site--as much as 30%. That leaves a difference of almost $40 up for grabs.

I'm not complaining about the service I get from Expedia and other sites; it's the cost--which feels like gouging--that troubles me. More than that, it's the notion that these business models are predicated on the ignorance and deception of the consumer. Simply invoking the old caveat emptor line isn't a valid excuse. What ever happened to dealing honestly with your customers? What if I charged people extra for a third cup of coffee in the morning, shrugging my shoulders while I explained that the $89 only covers the first two cups, and they should have read the fine print? Caveat emptor wouldn't fly then, would it?

As I teacher I feel it's my duty to try and educate whenever I can. Travelers shouldn't have to be research geniuses in order to feel like they're not getting swindled. But how can they be sure? I'm not sure what the solution is in the Internet age. If something feels easy, you're probably paying for that comfort. That doesn't mean that calling the Auberge directly is hard work--we're nice folks who'd like to talk to you, even if that means answering questions before you book your room somewhere else.

So travelers, be aware of secondary sources when you pull out your credit card. If you want to be sure that your money is going where you want it to go, go ahead and use the Internet for some research, but go to the source when you're ready to buy.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Seriously September

The weather this week to a turn for the perfect. With the contemptuousness of July and August retired, we're left with September, which seems to go out of its way to the best month of the year. A long string of excellent days--highs in the 70s under bright sunshine during the day, lows in the 40s under passionately clear starry skies at night--stretches out before us. Even the light is different, with the sun changing its slant. Just the other day I came around the bend by the new fire and police station and was momentarily blinded by the light--the sun lower in the sky than it had been since last spring.

I just checked in some guests from Houston and remarked how consistently good the weather is during September. And yet the first half of September usually represents a lull in the business, and for logical reasons: summer vacations are over, it's back to school, and the peak of fall foliage, one of the busiest times of the year for us, is still a few weeks away.

All those things make early September a great time to travel. There are fewer people in town, and the prices are still at the summer level. There's the aforementioned weather, and there's a livelier energy flowing. All good reasons to experience Stowe.