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Travelers Should Check Small Print Before Believing an Advertisement

May 11, 1986|PETER S. GREENBERG | Greenberg is a Los Angeles free-lance writer

Beware the asterisk. You can find it in almost every travel advertisement or company guarantee.

The star-shaped reference symbol is usually very well hidden, but once you find it, there's a strong probability that it will tell you something you don't really want to know, an opportunity for the advertiser to more or less disclaim what it has claimed in the first place.

An asterisk will quietly tell you some unfortunate things such as:

--The special discount fare you thought you could finally afford only applies on Tuesdays after midnight, and only if your first name is Sheldon.

--The beautiful suite advertised at that great price is only available if no other English-speaking person has asked for it in the last 12 months.

--The super-saver airline seat is available, but not only do you have to agree to fly for at least a week, but you must also agree to stay on the plane for seven days.

Skeptical Public

These examples are exaggerations, of course, but anyone who has traveled knows that they are not that far from the truth. A Gallup Poll once showed that the public held advertising 19th on a list of 20 professions for honesty and ethics.

In a world where a Motel 6 room now costs at least $18.95 a night, it's no wonder that the public has become more than a little skeptical about travel advertising.

Not too long ago a major airline boldly advertised that it was the best on-time airline in the Southeast, "based on the latest Civil Aeronautics Board statistics." What the airline conveniently forgot to mention was that the CAB had stopped keeping specific route-by-route on-time performance statistics nearly two years earlier. The ad was technically correct, but also misleading.

Then there was the time when two airlines claimed, in differently worded quantity versus quality advertisements, that each was the favorite U.S. airline.

Based on Survey

The first airline based its claim on an independent survey conducted by the Airline Passengers Assn. The results indicated that it was the members' favorite airline. The second airline claimed that it was/is "America's Favorite Way to Fly," and based that assertion on the fact that it carried more passengers than any other domestic carrier.

Both statements are correct. But, is a survey of a passenger association whose members didn't even come close to the number of people who fly valid?

Or is the second airline's claim any more valid, because it simply flew more people? The answer is that both airlines clearly cannot make such poorly supported unilateral statements.

Some advertising is in the teaser category, and some seemingly attractive "bargain" offers can sometimes be more expensive than if the consumer bought a cheaper unadvertised or less-advertised fare or rate.

Another ad once caught my attention with what seemed to be a great promotion: Fly X-Airline on a coach round-trip flight with a minimum of 300 air miles in each direction, and that airline would sell me a round-trip ticket to Hawaii for an incredible $100.

Offer Had a Catch

I did some quick calculations, and realized that the promotional minded carrier calculated the distance between Los Angeles and San Francisco at 349 miles. Perfect, I thought.

And too good to be true. The catch was that the ticket had to be a full-fare coach ticket to qualify. At the time, a round-trip coach ticket between the two California cities could be purchased for as little as $78. However, the airline's official coach fare was listed at more than $220.

That fare, coupled with the Hawaii "bargain of $100" brought the real cost of the Hawaii trip to $320. A discounted coach round-trip ticket to Hawaii, on at least two other airlines, was then being sold for $178. Even X-airline's cheapest round-trip coach ticket was $290.

Many ads can also be misleading once you're on the ground, and separating fact from fantasy with travel brochures can also be an almost impossible task.

What's your definition of a package tour? Sometimes it can mean you're "packaged" into an awful hotel room. Ever hear of something called a "run of house" room? "If you see it in a brochure," warns Ron Letterman, who runs travel operations in Hawaii for American Express, "beware. What it means is that you stand an excellent chance of getting the worst room the hotel has to offer."

'Bait and Switch'

Letterman also warns about brochures that promise "ocean view" rooms. "Don't count on them being on the beach," he says. "In fact, don't be surprised to find that your ocean view room requires a taxi ride to get to the ocean."

One of the frequent problems encountered by travelers taking Hawaii package tours is that in many cases (especially in the economy hotel range) only 10% of the operator's inventory is available in that range. "It's an unfair bait-and-switch problem," Letterman says. "You make your reservations to Hawaii and find there were only six rooms available in that price category, and they've been sold.

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