Saturn and Beyond
By Ralph Hood
Back in the years BS (Before Saturn), buying a car was rated alongside a root canal among those things we most hate to do. A good part of the problem was the haggle factor.
You couldn't get a good deal unless you were a master haggler, and most of us weren't. A Lebanese rug merchant with the knowledge of Buddha might come out okay, but the rest of us suspected we got took. Saturn, with its no-haggle deals, helped change all that.
(It is important to note that the industry changed to suit customers, not to suit the guvment or Ralph Nader.)
In other words, the auto industry is moving from roughneck to genteel. The air travel industry, it seems to me, is moving in the opposite direction.
Back in the ’60s, when I first started riding the airlines, tickets were bought and sold by ladies and gentlemen. Most fares were pretty much the same. You picked the airline that fit your schedule, and got a fair deal. Saturday night stays were not required, and you might ride on several different airlines on one trip.
Believe it or not, you could call Delta and end up riding Eastern. If the Delta person found out Eastern had the best schedule, she would book you on Eastern and sell you the ticket herself. Or, she might book you for the first leg on Delta, the second leg on Eastern, and the return on United. I swear, young folks, that is true, and it didn't cost a penny extra.
Furthermore, if you were traveling on a $342 ticket to Megalopolis, you could pretty much bet that the person seated next to you didn't pay much more or less.
It really was a no-haggle situation. And fares were based pretty much on mileage, not on the basis of, "If you want to go there, we've got you." (Right now, it costs about $800 to go weekday round-trip from Huntsville, AL, to parts of North Carolina. On the other hand, I just bought a weekday ticket from Huntsville to Tampa to Gulfport, MS, and back to Huntsville for $311. Go figure.)
Nowadays, there are umpty-ump different fares for the same trip, and, no matter what special you bought, chances are the person in the next seat paid less. You really can't get a bargain without a computer and the instincts of Blackbeard the Pirate.
Car rentals are worse. Even if you do get a bargain, you can't let up for a second. You have to watch them like a hawk, or they will sell you some special deal. It is a fact that you can buy "discounted" gas deals that will cost $10 a gallon or more for gas used, and insurance at an annual rate of over $5,000. The wise get the best deals; the ignorant get took.
Hotels? Don't even ask. It's deja vu all over again.
Now, ask me if I would go back to the genteel days of the ’60s. Not no, but hell no. Today's nitty gritty, haggled prices are a lot lower than yesterday's polite prices. On the other hand, I do believe that the industry — without the help of Nader or the guvment — will react to customer complaints by becoming a little nicer than a drug pusher in a bad neighborhood. In the meantime, as we say down South, ’Caveat emptor, good buddy.'