An unconventional deal

by Christopher Elliott on March 28, 2004

Q: I’m attending a convention in Las Vegas, and I found a good package deal on the Southwest Airlines Web site. I’ve always booked a package rather than paying convention rates for a hotel because it’s cheaper.

But when I received my confirmation from Southwest, I noticed a disclaimer that the trip can’t be used in conjunction with a convention.

Is that legal? Also, why have I never noticed this in the past, when I’ve booked a package? Is this something new? Is it just a scare tactic – or do I need to fess up before my arrival date?

– Doug Kinney

A: The travel industry – specifically the airline industry – is full of silly rules. On some tickets, for example, you have to use both portions of the ticket. If you don’t, you’re guilty of “throwaway” ticketing, a practice that can save you money but makes the airline industry lose millions every year. (I’m not going to get into details about it, but ask your travel agent about “throwaway” or “back-to-back” ticketing some time.)

But is this a silly airline rule, or someone else’s silly rule? I asked Southwest, which as far as airlines go, is normally a straight shooter. OK, so they do charge overweight people for two seats, and there’s that whole reality-TV show that sometimes makes it look petty. But compared with other major carriers, well, let’s just say there really is no comparison.

“The hotels don’t want convention business from us because they usually sell it at a higher rate, and they don’t want to dilute their revenue,” explained spokesman Ed Stewart. “They write that it can’t be sold for convention purposes and that we must disclaim that in our contract with them.”

Apparently, the disclaimer has always been there. But it’s something of a paper tiger, because hotels can’t effectively enforce it.

“They don’t always have a good way of figuring out who is attending a convention versus who is not,” Stewart added. “Although sometimes they can and do check convention attendee lists and if they do find out they have the right to charge the customer more upon arrival or checkout. If they don’t catch it by then and find out later they can not pursue.”

Needless to say, I think it’s stupid to charge conventioneers one rate and vacationers another. It’s discriminatory. It ought to be against the law.

My recommendation is that you take the package deal from Southwest. If you’re traveling with someone else, check in under that person’s name to prevent your hotel from finding out you’re part of a conference. I highly doubt you’ll get caught, but in the unlikely event your hotel asks you to pay up, you can at least rest easy that what you’re doing isn’t illegal.

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