American travelers fear they’ll be left to fend for themselves when they hit the road this year – and for good reason.
The incoming presidential administration has signaled that it intends to undo a wide range of federal regulations, many of which protect consumers. Although it hasn’t yet targeted any rules that affect tourism, Donald Trump’s campaign trail pledge to require that for every new federal regulation, two existing ones must be eliminated, has spread uncertainty among travelers. Federal regulation touches every aspect of the travel industry – some more than others. Removing even one rule could have lasting negative consequences.
“I suspect you’re going to see regulations disappear,” says Bonnie Salt, a travel agent from Newburyport, Massachusetts. “I don’t think it will take long.”
Travelers, consumer advocates and industry insiders are also worried about the fate of several initiatives started during the Obama administration. Those include efforts to eliminate hotel resort fees and improve price disclosures on airline tickets.
During the waning days of the last administration, government officials sent a number of unambiguous messages about the need for increased traveler protections. In December, a report by the National Economic Council detailed what it termed a “growing trend” of hidden fees and their effect on the economy, including travelers.
“The real prices of things are now being hidden or muddied by the addition of mandatory fees,” said Charlie Anderson, senior adviser to the director of the National Economic Council, in a blog post on the White House site. “Quoted prices don’t reflect what things actually cost – the real prices are hidden by fees.”
Just a few days later, the Federal Trade Commission took an important step toward eliminating one of those hidden charges: resort fees charged on top of a hotel room rate after an initial price quote.
A research paper, written by an FTC staff economist and released this month, concluded that the hotel industry practice of disclosing resort fees separately from room rates without first showing the total price is “likely to harm consumers.”
The hotel and gambling industries, which could lose billions of dollars if resort fees become illegal, have doubled down on their opposition to regulatory action. Some industry observers say that the likelihood of phasing out resort fees, which looked like a real possibility this fall, decreased after the election.
FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez issued a statement saying that she hopes the findings will prompt the hotel industry to change the way it prices its rooms. But acting on the findings will be up to the agency’s next chair.
Other such works in progress are new rules being considered by the Transportation Department, most notably a regulation that would require airlines to give customers a full and inclusive ticket price at the time a fare is initially quoted. Today, many services or products that airlines previously included in the price of a ticket, such as checked baggage, advance seat assignments and priority boarding, are sold separately.
If these rules take effect, it will be easier for airline passengers to make an apples-to-apples comparisons between ticket prices. At the same time, discount airlines that strip away these extras could be put at a competitive disadvantage, because they would have to quote the price of their tickets with luggage and seat reservations included.
“For a Republican administration – Trump’s included – regulation is a dirty word,” says Anthony DeMaio, a former airline lobbyist who now works for the Washington lobbying firm O’Neill and Associates. “The increasingly powerful airline industry will not accept more fare-transparency regulation.”
With the future of these initiatives uncertain, consumers must learn to be their own advocates.
“Be vigilant,” says Randy Greencorn, publisher of the site Resortfeechecker.com. “Look for resort fees and other hidden costs before reserving a hotel room, or simply call the hotel directly to ask about fees.”
Laurie Sherwood, a partner in the California law firm Walsworth LLP, says knowledge is the key to protecting your rights. “Travelers should fully educate themselves about their destinations, the companies with which they’re traveling, travel requirements and the potential risks of their travel,” she says.
Perhaps the only certainty is that nothing is likely to happen in the near term. There are other legislative and regulatory priorities, so travelers will just have to take a back seat and wait.
And that’s OK – we’re used to it.
Christopher Elliott is the author of How to Be the World’s Smartest Traveler. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.