I Agreed To WHAT?

I just bought one of those new 42-inch plasma TVs. I first saw one five years ago at Harrod’s in London, going for a mere 25,000 pounds. But now they can be had for under $4,000, so I scooped one up. I even bought the extended warranty.

Which made me wonder: What kind of warranty do you get when you purchase travel online?

The answer is: None whatsoever.

In fact, when you purchase travel online, you’re not guaranteed that you will get what you pay for, or that the price you paid will be the price you pay in the long run. Your hotel room, plane ticket, or rental car may be subject to any number of surcharges, rate changes or unannounced restrictions, and you can’t do much about it — because you’ve agreed to them all in advance. What? (Or, as the chat-room crowd says, WTF?)

It’s all in the Terms of Service (TOS), End-User License Agreement (EULA), and Terms and Conditions — those fine-print disclaimers that appear in pop-up windows or at the bottom of a booking screen. All are basically the online provider’s rules for using its software and websites.

Typically, there is an obscure link that makes the terms and conditions available for review; your use of the website constitutes acceptance of those terms. We have one for Tripso, and another for the Tripso Forums (this one dictates acceptable behavior). It should be no surprise that online travel sellers have a similar document.

What may come as a surprise is that when you agree to purchase travel online, you essentially give up all rights should something go wrong. Let’s look at the Terms and Conditions of Orbitz — one of the largest online travel sellers. The link to their Terms and Conditions is at the bottom of the home page. Really small letters. I’m talking tiny. By using their site, you agree to the following (this is only several small sections of the agreement, and the emphasis is mine):

Any aspect of the Site may be changed, supplemented, deleted, updated, discontinued, suspended, or modified at any time, and without prior notice to you. However, we make no commitment to update the information contained on this Site. You agree that Orbitz shall not be liable to you for any delay or other damages that might result from such modification, suspension, or discontinuance. … The Content is intended for information purposes only. Although we exercise reasonable efforts to ensure their quality and accuracy, there might be errors, or the information provided may not be complete, current, or applicable to your particular situation. Further, information provided regarding the service, amenities, products, etc. have been provided to us by the vendor. We assume no liability or responsibility for any errors or omissions. You are responsible for evaluating the accuracy, completeness, and usefulness of any opinion, advice, or other content available through the Site or obtained from a linked site. …

Here’s the part about the warranty – or rather, the lack of one.

Orbitz and its Providers make no warranty of any kind regarding the Site, Content, Products or Services, all of which are provided on an “as is” basis. Orbitz and its Providers expressly disclaim any representation or warranty that the Site will be free from errors, viruses or other harmful components, that communications to or from the Site will be secure and not intercepted, that the Services and other capabilities offered from the Site will be uninterrupted, or that its Content will be accurate, complete or timely. The fact that Orbitz is including or offering any Product or Service on the Site is not an endorsement or a recommendation of the Product or Service. … Orbitz and the Providers’ liability will in no event exceed, in total, the sum of US $250.00.

In other words, you could purchase a ticket on Orbitz and find that the times, dates, airline and even the destination are all wrong. Sure, you will get your money back, but if this misinformation causes you to have to rent a car to drive from point A to point B, you have just agreed to a $250 cap.

The other travel sites have very similar disclaimers, and I would bet most consumers don’t ever read them.

Do you? Take our poll, and see if you are among the 50 percent of respondents who rarely or never read these things. Sometimes to their regret. Take a look at some of Tripso’ ombudsman columns to see what I mean.

I’m as guilty as anyone — I click the “Accept” button without reading a word. I’m sure that with all the software I’ve purchased, I have somewhere agreed to a stint as Bill Gates’s personal cabana boy.

To be fair, these online travel sites will waive these rules more often than not. After all, like any retailer, they want your business. So more likely than not, they will bend the rules for you to retain your loyalty.

But why chance it? When your trip is important, you should think about calling a real, live travel agent. When you work with a travel agent, he works on your behalf, so there is some implied liability. That’s what “agency” means. When you work with an online travel seller, you act as your own agent, and the liability is placed right back on you.

Real travel agents are knowledgeable and experienced; they know how to prevent the kinds of problems that typically come up, or they can at least work around them. For that reason, they stand by their services. I have owned a travel agency and have been in many others, and I have never seen a disclaimer like the ones you get online.

We live in a world of CYA — and it is unfortunate. But I’ve come to the realization that I probably can’t change it, so I’m going to kick back on my couch and watch the Red Sox kick some butt on my new 42-inch plasma TV. And I think I’ll sip a cold Heineken. Oh, but wait …

By opening this beer you agree that we make no representation that the liquid contained herein is indeed beer, that it is from Holland, or that it contains any alcohol at all. Consumption may or may not get you drunk but, in either case, we are not responsible. If you purchased this beverage at a McDonald’s drive-through, be advised that it may be cold, and you may suffer a wet cooling feeling should you spill it, either by accident or by design.

Nah, we haven’t gone there yet.

Batter up!

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