I got started on my latest check last week when I received a press release from an operator of Catholic tours touting a "pilgrimage to Paris" for a highlighted figure of $1,199 per person. Sure enough, the fine print said "add $146 Departure Taxes, $420 Fuel Surcharges and $189 for Optional Travel Insurance." Now, adding the departure taxes separately still conforms to DOT rules -- at least for another two weeks -- and the insurance is carefully labeled "optional," but reducing the real airfare by that $420 "surcharge" violates the rules.
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After examining this release, I checked a dozen other niche tour operators, and found two more of them presenting airfares the same way: a preposterously low base fare plus a hefty fuel surcharge. One operator specialized in tours of Israel for Jewish travelers, the other in travel to Russia. The Russian tour site was especially flagrant: It featured "Special winter fares" as low as $199 to Moscow, St. Petersburg, or Vilnius, specifying "fuel charges ... not included" but without even stating how much the surcharges were. Most of the other agencies I checked avoided the problem by featuring land-only prices and asking potential travelers to contact the operator for airfare options.
I found three bad actors out of a dozen checks, so I have no idea of how many total niche operators are also using the fuel surcharge scam. Presumably, quite a few.
My checks also raised the question of whether continuing to use the fuel surcharge scam is particularly prevalent among operators of religious tours. This may be a gambit based on an assumption that folks interested in religious tourism are more likely to fall for a religious operators' claim: "After all," potential customers might think, "How could an organization that works with priests, ministers, and rabbis possibly be running a scam?"
Lest you think tour operators aren't the only organizations continuing to use the fuel surcharge scam, I note several other places:
-- On foreign-based airlines, "free" companion tickets typically require that the companion pay a fuel surcharge. On a program like the AmEx Platinum Card business-class companion ticket deal, that charge could well hit the "free" ticket with an added $1,000 to $2,000.
-- Also, most foreign lines add the fuel surcharge on "free" frequent flyer award tickets when you use mileage in their own programs, although generally not when you use mileage in their U.S. partner lines' programs. Go figure.
-- And I've noted a few cases where foreign lines say that discounts such as those for children are based on the phony base fare, not the surcharge. Presumably, then, on that $520 Paris fare, instead of paying the normal 10 percent ($52) an infant would instead actually pay $430 (10 percent of $100 plus the full surcharge).
I hope that, before too long, the enforcement folks at the DOT will get around to dealing with these outfits. Meanwhile, always stay vigilant for a fuel surcharge scam -- it just doesn't seem to die.
Send e-mail to Ed Perkins at eperkins(at)mind.net. Perkins' new book for small business and independent professionals, "Business Travel When It's Your Money," is now available through www.mybusinesstravel.com or www.amazon.com