Bargain hunters face lesser level of service

Airlines, hotels still offer deals, but cheap prices may mean more hassles


November 16, 2003|By Jane Engle | Jane Engle,Los Angeles Times

Hotels and airlines are finally making us pay for being so cheap.

These last two years have been good ones for penny-pinching vacationers -- maybe too good. If they click on the right dates, Internet surfers can land luxury rooms for less than $100. Airfares, although edging up, are the lowest in decades. Credit the bad economy, the battered travel business and the bargain-hunting possibilities of the Web.

But there are signs that the strapped providers of plane seats and hotel beds are losing patience with the cheap Charlies who erode their bottom lines. They're fighting back by handing out hassles to low rollers and giving perks to loyal, high-paying customers.

"Today there is definitely a caste system," says Peter Yesawich, managing partner of Yesawich, Pepperdine, Brown & Russell, Florida-based marketing consultants. "There's going to be a lot more of this in the future."

That means those of us who dredge up a bottom-feeder rate from the Internet may be "pretty much destined to a room by the elevator or the middle seat in coach," Yesawich says -- unless we booked on the hotel's or airline's own Web site. (More on that later.)

Bill Carroll, visiting assistant professor at Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration in Ithaca, N.Y., recently learned this firsthand. His joy at getting a great online deal for a five-star hotel wilted when, upon arrival, he learned he would be sleeping on a Murphy bed. He said the hotel told him he was put there because he booked on the Web. (Carroll declined to identify the hotel or the Web site.)

Some other recent dispatches from the tug of war between consumers and the travel industry:

* Penalty box for Web shoppers: First it was Hilton, which this summer began denying frequent-guest points for room stays booked on so-called third-party Internet sites. Rooms booked on the company's site, or those of its brands, or by phone or travel agents still earn points.

Then Starwood said that, starting Jan. 1, its frequent guests couldn't redeem points for upgrades or other perks during stays booked through, com, and other "prepaid channels." It already bars earning points through such stays.

Such efforts are aimed at driving consumers to the company's Web site, which is cheaper to staff than phone service. More important, it permits the company to pocket the markups that go to Internet sellers, gather marketing data on customers and discourage shopping for lower rates from other hoteliers or other sites.

You may still get a deal by booking on a third-party site, but you'll lose the frequent-guest points. And although Carroll's may be an extreme case, hoteliers such as Rick McCue, senior director for e-distribution (In-ternet marketing) for Hilton Hotels Corp., acknowledges, "You would not put your best rooms on another booking system." Hotels want to hold them back for upgrades, he says.

Web bookers may be treated differently in other ways too.

When three friends and I checked in at the Hampton Inn New Orleans-Downtown in May, we were told that the nonsmoking room with two double beds that we had paid for several months before was not available.

Upon hearing our complaints, the sales coordinator asked, "Did you book on Expedia?" Told that we had booked directly with the hotel, she soon returned with keys for the type of room we requested. When I asked her later, she said booking directly was "pretty much why you got the room."

Hilton's McCue says, "You're always better off booking on our [Internet] site," but adds that "it behooves the hotel to give excellent service to all its guests," who may, after all, be wooed to return. Third-party Internet sites sometimes oversell room types that hotels have allocated to them, he says.

Frederic Lalonde, director of supplier strategy for hotels and packages at Expedia, denies that it oversells. "We book no more than what was given to us," he says. There can be communication glitches, however, and Expedia maintains a 24-hour call center for customers who encounter problems, Lalonde said.

* Back seat for low-fare fliers: Two moves recently by Continental Airlines exemplify the industry's carrot-and-stick approach to getting passengers to pay more.

One day the airline launched a package of perks, dubbed EliteAccess, that gives frequent, first-class and business customers head-of-the-line treatment in boarding and retrieving their luggage. Coach passengers who pay the highest fares get these and another benefit: a guaranteed window or aisle seat. Discount fliers don't.

The next day Continental announced that, starting in 2004, it would cut in half the mileage that passengers on highly restricted (discounted) coach fares could count toward elite status. (They would still earn so-called base miles -- those that count toward a free ticket -- at the same rate.) Unrestricted (higher fare) ticket holders would get 50 percent more elite miles than they do now.

"The changes were designed to give more value to our very best customers," says Julie King, a Continental spokeswoman.

And perhaps a little less to bargain hunters?

Other airlines also have tinkered with linking miles earned to the fare paid.

These "new" initiatives by hotels and airlines, of course, hark back to an old-fashioned truism: You get what you pay for. That can be a shock to those who have what Yesawich gently dubs an "affluent attitude" and what others might call a sense of entitlement. It seems everyone these days thinks he or she deserves VIP treatment, even while paying $89 for a five-star room.

Time for an attitude adjustment?

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