Saturday, August 4, 2012

A concerning travel blog development

I admit my relative rookie status when it comes to travelling, and travel blogging, but I've noticed a couple of posts over the last few days by some of the large travel bloggers that leave me scratching my head.

1. Using hidden city and throwaway ticketing to save big money on airfare, Gary Leff, View from the Wing

Airlines often price tickets from one city to another through a hub cheaper than flights that terminate at the hub. Flying United New York to Milwaukee through Chicago is often much cheaper than just flying New York to Chicago.
But if you get off the plane in Chicago and don’t board your connection to Milwaukee, you’ve potentially saved yourself a lot of money. This is called hidden city ticketing.

The post goes on to say that this is in explicit violation of the contract of carriage.

2. How to game elite status matches. Scottrick, Hack my Trip.

As with all travel hacking, there is a range of ethical dilemmas. Using free status and a single hotel night isn’t exactly the same as earning that status the hard way. But if it works, it works. You could also *cough* outright lie. Adobe makes products that can be used for good and for bad. It would be difficult but possible to use Photoshop to digitally edit your account statement pixel by pixel. 
It’s even easier to just print your account statement to PDF and then alter it using Acrobat Professional. The PDF will be divided into art and text, and the text remains fully editable in the same font and size, making it not that hard to delete “Silver” and write in “Platinum” or turn 0 points into 100,000. I’ll leave you to decide how far you want to take this. For my part, I’ve been able to avoid such extreme moves thus far.
By any measure this bit of "advice" is shocking.

I've had (brief) discussions about this with "real life" friends and we all agree that both of these examples are beyond the pale when it comes to giving out travel advice.  In the first, you're explicitly violating the contract of carriage between yourself and the airline.  You may not like those terms, but when you purchase a ticket you explicitly agree to follow them.  In the second the blogger is describing a way to blatantly commit fraud.

To my mind there's a big difference between "playing the miles game" and engaging in behavior that you know is unethical or illegal.  When an airline mistakenly loads a $62 R/T fare from IAH to ORD, you know they've made a mistake, but it's not fraudulent to take them up on an offered price, even IF that price is ridiculously low.  If anything it suggests a need for them to add some redundancy into their price loads each week.   I feel the same way about fuel dumps, or 3rd strikes, which utilize a loophole in the airlines software to induce a lower fuel surcharge.  Unlike the 1st example above, these are NOT against the contract of carriage and (because of their ability to shave hundreds of dollars of Intercontinental flights) are a loophole that the airlines are working mightily to close.

One thing that neither blogger mentions are the potential ramifications that could stem from following their "advice".  In the first situation you could be banned from an airline.  Gary says this is not a big deal because many flyers have no loyalty anyway are are "looking for the best price".  This logic is flawed because, if you disqualify yourself from an airline, you lose an awful lot of pricing power.  Depending on your residence this could be disastrous. (getting banned from UA would be very detrimental to someone who flies out of IAH or EWR for example) Secondly, there's the problem of losing any frequent flyer status and the corresponding hard-earned (for the most part I'm assuming) miles.  Airlines are within their rights to shut down your accounts, revoke any and all status and strip you of your miles.  They remain (and always will remain) the property of the airline.

The last drawback is the most obvious:  Fraud, committed knowingly, is a FELONY.  I'm not sure of the actual jurisdiction but I would imagine if you cross state lines this becomes a federal felony. (Possibly one of my attorney readers could correct me in the comments?)  Are you sure you want to take that risk to save a few bucks?

Irrespective of the legal ramifications I find it incredibly unprofessional of these bloggers to write in this manner. Advocating for travellers (in some cases, novice travellers) to behave in this manner doesn't advance travel writing in any way.  If anything it erodes credibility.  On all levels this is worse than the "LOOK AT THIS CREDIT CARD DEAL" that travel bloggers are constantly posting (sometimes with very weak acknowledgement that they profit from these arrangements) because, at least, those posts are 100% legal.

I'm a firm believer in the art of leveraging miles and points to save money on travelling, and to work as hard as you can to qualify for the highest status possible while spending the least amount of dollars.  My one caveat is that you have to conduct your business in an ethical and legal manner.

What I'm seeing on the travel blogs lately does not clear either of those hurdles, and that's disconcerting.


After I wrote all of this (but before publishing) this surfaced:

Travelocity cancelling reservations made with $200 off coupon. Gary Leff, View from the Wing

Commenter Mad Mad Mad shares the text of Travelocity’s cancellation email:
Recently you booked a vacation package at http://www.travelocity.com using the promo code NFB2012. Based on our review of the details of your reservation, we have determined that you were not eligible to use the promo code and, therefore, we have cancelled your reservation.
If you received the promo code when you attended the 2012 National Federation of the Blind National Convention in Dallas, and feel you have received this message in error, please contact us at 1-866-211-1731.
Sincerely,
Travelocity Customer Care Team

Except that nowhere in the terms and conditions does it say that one would have to have received the promo code by attending a Dallas event.
And in fact, that wasn’t Travelocity’s position when the coupon was introduced. They even tweeted publicly about it! Here’s a Google cache of their tweet:

This certainly doesn't fall under illegal and I'm not even sure it's unethical, but it sure feels gross doesn't it?

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