Upsold Down the River

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Travel agents argue that upselling can in fact be good for their clients. "If we put customers in the absolute cheapest room at a hotel in the Caribbean, they're going to come back annoyed with us because they got the worst room at the resort," says William Caldwell, president of Caldwell Travel in Nashville, Tenn. "If we get them to spend a little more on a great room with a view, they'll come back happy."

Certainly, travelers want to know what the various options are, and what they cost. What you may not know is how the incentives work--and how they affect the pitch you'll hear.

Earlier this year, to give just one example, Marriott registered the 100,000th member of an online training program that teaches agents how to talk clients into buying spa treatments and other extras. Agents who complete the course see their commissions raised from 8 percent to 10 percent.

You can't really blame a company for trying to get its customers to spend more. But some agent programs involve underhanded price manipulations, and all the spin in the world won't make them look like good news for the consumer.

Last fall, Enterprise Rent-A-Car began registering agents for a special program in which client cars can be reserved at a discounted price and a 5 percent commission, or at a higher price and a commission of up to 15 percent. About 4,000 agencies have signed on, and there's no requirement to clue customers in.

With US Airways Vacations' Commission Choice program, agents can likewise receive larger commissions for packages sold at inflated rates. In the Travel Agents section of the company's website, a hypothetical Las Vegas booking demonstrates how, at a standard $300 price, the agent receives an 8 percent commission, or $24. By opting for Commission Choice and charging the customer $330, however, the agent receives 15 percent, or $49.50.

The website even acknowledges that there's something to be ashamed of: "Commission Choice was built so that the increase in price does not appear on either your customer's itinerary or their credit card. Your customer will only see one final package price."

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