It may be cheaper to travel by bus instead of flying, but watch out for sneaky fees — especially if you're buying a ticket for someone else.
Paul Kleibrink was hoping to save some money when he went online to buy a ticket from Greyhound Lines Inc., the country's largest intercity bus operator. His grandson's girlfriend needed to return home to Oregon, and Kleibrink, 81, had agreed to spring for the cost.
"I guess I'm a soft touch," the Santa Cruz resident told me.
A one-way ticket on Southwest Airlines would have cost about $160. Greyhound was charging roughly half that amount.
During the online purchase process, Kleibrink was asked whether the ticket was for him. He truthfully answered no.
So Greyhound slapped an $18 "gift ticket fee" onto the price.
Suddenly that approximately $86 bus ticket cost $104 — a 21% increase.
"What's a gift fee?" Kleibrink asked. "Did that mean my grandson's girlfriend would get a gift of some food or something? No. Nothing. It's a gift to the company, that's what it is."
And why should it matter whether he was buying a ticket for himself or someone else?
"A ticket is a ticket," Kleibrink said. "I shouldn't have to pay $18 more just because someone else is traveling."
Greyhound begs to differ.
"The ticket fee is a fraud-protection fee," explained Maureen Richmond, a Greyhound spokeswoman. "It counteracts the costs that we incur for protecting the customer and the company from credit card fraud."
She said the fee also represents a handling charge because the recipient of the ticket will have to pick it up at a Greyhound bus depot.
"You could always buy it yourself and then mail it to someone else," Richmond said. "That way you can avoid the fee."
That's nice, but it also shows how Greyhound's gift ticket fee doesn't hold up under scrutiny.
First of all, if the fee reflects the company's anti-fraud efforts, then shouldn't it be applied to all customers? Anyone who purchases a ticket with a credit card or online faces (and poses to the company) the same risk of fraud.
And how is Greyhound's exposure to fraud decreased by a customer buying a ticket online and then mailing it to someone else?
Clearly, then, the gift ticket fee is applicable more to the company processing a ticket order so that the actual passenger can pick it up at a Greyhound office.
There's undoubtedly a modest cost involved with such a transaction, but charging $18 for what can only be seen as a routine part of Greyhound's business is simply price gouging. There is no way this service merits such an exorbitant charge — in Kleibrink's case, a more than 20% surcharge.
On top of that, Greyhound's website makes none of this clear. It merely asks during the ticketing process whether the credit card holder is the one doing the traveling.
If you're buying a ticket for someone else and answer truthfully, you'll face the gift ticket fee, even if you intend to mail the ticket to the passenger, as Greyhound advises. The company is thus encouraging ticket buyers to lie if they want to avoid the fee.
And if you're using a stolen credit card, you'd likely answer that the ticket is for yourself, thus avoiding the fee and mitigating Greyhound's anti-fraud efforts.
I put all this to Richmond. She had no explanation for why some tickets merit a fee for anti-fraud measures and others do not, saying only that "this is just one of the components" of the gift ticket fee.
As for the ticket-processing aspect of the fee, Richmond was unable to say whether the $18 reflects Greyhound's actual costs or why this relatively common service requires such a hefty surcharge.
"That's just the fee we charge," she said.
Kleibrink was right: Greyhound's gift ticket fee is a gift to the company, nothing more.
And it's a gift the company has neither earned nor deserves.
Next, a cautionary tale for all you users of iPhones, iPads, Kindles and other digital media devices.
Los Angeles-based Napster, one of the pioneers of digital music downloads, has sent e-mails to subscribers warning that the company will no longer be responsible for any tunes purchased before May 2008.
Napster, now a subsidiary of electronics giant Best Buy Co., switched its technical format in 2008 to the more widely used MP3 from Windows Media Audio. But for the last couple of years, it has continued to deal with any Windows Media-related issues, such as providing backup copies of lost files.
That ended this month. As of Sept. 1, Napster services only MP3 files purchased after May 2008. The company recommends that older files be backed up on CDs for future enjoyment.
The format switch and abandonment of support for an older technology reflects the risk all digital media consumers face: Today's gee-whiz gadgetry could be tomorrow's Betamax.
That's not to say you shouldn't download a little Lady Gaga from iTunes or some Stieg Larsson from Amazon. Just remember, nothing lasts forever.