Some of the big airlines have adopted low-fare guarantees so that bargain-hunters will look no further for cheap seats than the airlines Web site. We picked up Americans for a little light reading and soon found ourselves in uncomfortably familiar territory.

The guarantee proudly proclaims, We guarantee that youll find the lowest fares available. Heres how it works. The consumer books and pays for a flight on AA.com. If the consumer finds a fare that is more than $5 lower on another Web site, American will refund the difference and issue a $50 voucher.

Thats the big print.

In the real world of fine print, the consumer must find this better fare before the end of the day, and it has to be for the exact same flight, cabin, class of service and fare rule as the original booking. The claimant must notify AA.com by midnight and provide copies of the competing sites itinerary/confirmation and fare rules.

It gets better. 

If a consumer books on AA.com and later finds a lower fare on AA.com, the guarantee doesnt apply. Nor does it apply to wholesaler or consolidator fares, opaque fares or fares reduced by promotional discounts.

Further, the guarantee only applies to fares on Web sites operated by an accredited distributor of AA Airfare (whatever that is), and it doesnt apply to lower fares that cannot be purchased on AA.com, a loophole that, the more you think about it, sort of ends the whole ballgame anyway.

Its apparent that this guarantee was written by the same folks who write other airline customer-service rules, policies and procedures.

These guys are very good at what they do.



Easy go?

The British venture known as EasyCruise, a corporate cousin of budget airline EasyJet, is taking bookings for a new a la carte cruise product in the Mediterranean beginning this spring. We observed in this space a year ago that this could be an experiment worth watching, and we think the cruise industry will be watching.

The idea is to attract independent travelers by cruising back and forth between St. Tropez and Portofino, stopping at various ports in between. Passengers can arrange to get on or off where they choose, so long as they book at least two nights. Meals are pay-as-you-go.

In addition to spawning a new entry-level product, EasyCruise could make some Riviera destinations seem a little less out of reach for budget-minded travelers, and that could be a good thing, too.

But the ship has a mere 170 berths and it will be marketed primarily to Europeans, so the impact on the U.S. market will be approximately zero -- for now.

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