Mark Hegeberg thought National would reward him with a lower price in exchange for his loyalty to the car rental company. So when he was looking for a car in Mexico, he clicked on the company's website and volunteered his Emerald Club number.
"I checked reservations using my Emerald Club number and thought the charges were high," remembers Hegeberg, who works for a packaged goods company in Mill Creek, Wash. A one-week, full-size rental in Los Cabos during August came to $246 with his membership, he says.
"Then I checked rentals without using my Emerald number and found them to be significantly less," he says. The site returned a rate of $126 for the week -- almost half the amount.
"Quite a difference," says Hegeberg.
What's going on?
Hegeberg emailed National, and it offered a cryptic response: "The Emerald Club is a U.S. and Canada-based program only," a representative said. "Therefore, when you are adding your Emerald Club number to an international reservation, the system does not recognize the Emerald Club program for international rentals and generates a higher rate."
I contacted National to see if I could get a few details about the price difference. It didn't respond.
Would a travel company offer you a higher price because it knows who you are? Actually, it's not only legal -- in the future, it may become common.
For years, travelers suspected online agencies of serving up higher fares and prices when they recognized your browser "cookies" -- those invisible electronic breadcrumbs that identify you. Even though nothing could be conclusively proven, I thought the cookie conspiracists had valid concerns.
This year, the discussion moved from tin-foil-hat territory to almost-reality when the International Air Transport Association (IATA) proposed establishing a new standard for selling airline seats called the New Distribution Capability (NDC). The NDC would allow an airline to collect personal information such as your address, birthday and frequent-flier information to offer you a special or custom fare based on what it knows about you.
Critics say that if the NDC is approved by the government, then it would essentially give airlines the ability and the license to do what they've denied doing for years: to offer you a "custom" airfare based on the information you share with it. You might not be able to compare prices between airlines, making airfare shopping virtually impossible.
If they can pull it off, this kind of Middle Eastern bazaar pricing could become common in travel. For you, we have a special price: more!
The right way
At the heart of the problem is this: The data used to make our purchase decisions is considered "proprietary" by travel companies. It's only released to reservation systems and through the company's own website, where it is subject to display bias and other shenanigans. And here's where the government can step in and do some good. The federal government could always tell travel companies to release this information to everyone.
If that happened, then it could allow other companies to search the prices to find the best one for you, as opposed to an airline showing you only what it wants to. For someone like Hegeberg, there'd be no doubt about where the least expensive car rental rates would be found, and every car rental company would know it. Displaying a higher rate to a frequent renter just wouldn't be possible.
Of course, that assumes that we can trust a company to give us the tools to search for the lowest fares. I'm not convinced any company is up to that challenge, not even Google. Been to Google Shopping yet? Then maybe you know it allegedly doesn't always play fair.
No, what we need -- and what doesn't yet exist -- is an open and unbiased platform that uses crowdsourcing to overcome the travel industry's DNA-level desire to ask you to pay more for less. It is also up to us to persuade our government to free the data, which will be a tough sell indeed.
Maybe it's up to us, the travelers, to find a solution.
After you've left a comment here accusing me of being a Socialist, let's continue the discussion on my consumer advocacy site or on Twitter, Facebook and Google. I also have a free newsletter and you'll definitely want to pre-order my new, amazingly helpful and subversive book called How to Be the World's Smartest Traveler (and Save Time, Money, and Hassle). Photo by Viacheslav Lopatin / Shutterstock.com