The California attorney general has moved smartly to force an Illinois tour operator to stop using what he considers to be misleading advertising in this state.
"Round-trip air fare between the West Coast and Hawaii, only $29." That was the screaming headline in the ads in Northern California newspapers recently. Then the ad noted that "some restrictions apply."
Some restrictions? I'll say.
The restrictions were that after you had bought your voucher for the $29 fare you could only convert it if you bought a seven-night hotel package in the Islands priced from $400 to $1,200.
The company making the offer, World Travel Vacation Brokers of Chicago, argued that the attorney general's interpretation of "misleading" differed from its own.
Nevertheless, without admitting any wrongdoing, it has agreed to a rather novel settlement of the complaint filed against it by California law enforcement officials.
First, it will pay a $50,000 penalty. Then it will buy advertising space in the same newspapers in which the Hawaii promotion was carried, specifically offering refunds upon request.
World Travel claims that refunds were always available. The attorney general just thought that it might be better to have the company spell that out very clearly, using the same media that it used to make the offer in the first place.
The attorney general's representatives offered to write the wording of the refund ads but, in the end, agreed simply to review the wording after it was written by World Travel. The ads must run for seven days, including the Sunday travel sections where appropriate.
The ads that caused the offense were primarily in newspapers in the San Francisco Bay area. Authorities believe, though, that the plan called for them to appear in other parts of the state later.
The attorney general thought it prudent to jump in quickly, before they did appear elsewhere.
Even so, by the time the department reached a court-approved agreement with the tour packager, several thousand Californians had bought the $29 vouchers.
The problem arose because many of those who responded to the too-good-to-be-true offer were Hawaii condominium owners who didn't need hotel rooms in the Islands. Their complaints triggered the attorney general's investigation.
A source at the attorney general's office said that World Travel's total price (air and hotel) was in line with those being charged by other Hawaii packagers. But he added that he was "outraged" by the manner in which it was presented in the ads.
Disregarding, for the moment, the question of whether the tour company was right or wrong, in the strictest interpretation of its advertising, the incident points up a growing problem in the travel industry.
Poorly Explained Offers
Too many offers are made on the basis of "restrictions." Conditions apply that are not always well-explained by the seller or, as a result, understood by the buyer.
The situation has become so widespread that the Department of Transportation has announced plans to develop guidelines to "articulate (the difference between) acceptable advertising and misleading advertising."
The DOT will hold hearings soon and expects that the outcome will eliminate the need for states to be as actively involved in policing travel advertising as they are now. The guidelines should be in place by the end of this year.
Hotels offer "free" air fares or other goodies for room nights bought, but only if you pay the full regular (rack) rate for the room, often higher than some of the promotional rates available.
Airlines offer seats at a ridiculously low price, restricted by capacity. In other words, on some flights the seats at the low price probably don't exist.
Or airlines promote "companion fares" that seem to suggest that it would be economical to take along a friend. Then you discover that to qualify, one of you has to pay the regular published fare . . . no discount.
Often you find that the deal costs you every bit as much as two discount tickets would cost.
Or there's the airline in huge type that offers "L.A.-New York . . . $89," with an asterisk alongside. The asterisk below carries the notation that the fare is based on round-trip purchase only.
If it's a round-trip fare, why don't they just say "L.A.-New York-L.A. $178." Why offer the fare for one leg of the flight when you can't buy just that one leg?
Great Savings Promised
Or perhaps you see an ad for a travel club that promises great savings on vacation arrangements. Only when you investigate do you find that you are required to pay for a companion as well, and/or that you have to pay a hefty membership fee.
The list goes on and on.
The California attorney general apparently is determined that the spread of restricted travel offers is going to be slowed. In the end, though, the onus is on you, the customer.
Let the words "restrictions apply" or any variation thereof be a warning beacon. Before you part with a penny, find out exactly what the restrictions are.
If enough people ask enough questions, maybe those involved in the business of selling travel will start to be a little more open in their advertising.