Tis the season for giving — and for taking from givers, as far as Greyhound, the poor man’s coach service, is concerned.
Once again my buddy Sean, who lives hand-to-mouth, wanted to go back home to Michigan for the holidays. Once again he couldn’t quite scrape together the fare in time to buy an advance ticket, so he called and asked if I’d order it online, and he’d work off the difference helping me out around the yard.
And once again, when I ordered the ticket, Greyhound tacked on an $18 “gift” surcharge, assessed when the purchasing cardholder is someone other than the passenger. However long or short the trip, when you buy a ticket for your kid to come home from college, or for your aerophobic mother to visit for the holidays, that will be another $18, please.
Now maybe, when airlines charge extra for everything from leg room to sawdust sandwiches, it’s only fitting that Greyhound extort one extra fee. But there’s still something particularly grating about this, and not just because it’s so Scroogish — a generosity tax, especially at this time of year! — but because it’s Greyhound. Riding the buses was always slow and never particularly comfortable (though better than airline sardine class), and pray no one left the door to the loo in back open. But it was always there, like an old shoe. It was cheap, and blessedly unburdened with the hassles and indignities of flying.
The bus is there where planes and trains aren’t. The United States has just 503 commercial airports. Greyhound says it serves more than 3,800 destinations in North America, making it the only ride out of many small cities and rural areas. But it isn't quite so free-spirited as it used to be; you can ride the trains across Europe, but you can’t board an intercity bus in this country without showing I.D.
And it ain’t so cheap. Sean’s discounted one-way ticket to Michigan was $207, before the gift tax; Greyhound’s worst fares are much better than the airlines’ worst, but its best are higher than their best.
And now it adds $18 worth of insult and injury that the airlines haven’t thought of yet. (I hope they’re not reading this.) I called Greyhound headquarters and asked media relations manager Tim Stokes why the company charged the fee when second-party purchases ought to cost no more to process. “It’s for fraud prevention,” he replied. “It protects the credit-card holder as well as the company” when crooks try to buy tickets with stolen cards.
I could see how the extra fees might help Greyhound recoup any sums lost to fraud. But how do they prevent it?
And how, I asked, do they help cardholders, who just get stuck with another $18 in fraudulent billing? “Uh…. I don’t have anything on that here. I’ll have to get back to you.”
So far he hasn’t. As untold cons have already taught us, watch your pocket anytime someone says he wants to protect you from fraud.
UPDATE, Dec 13: This response arrived today from Greyhound's Tim Stokes:
A Gift Ticket Order surcharge is added to the ticket price for web and phone purchases ($18) when an individual purchases a ticket for someone other than the credit card holder.
A Prepaid Ticket Order surcharge is added to purchases made at the terminals ($15) when the recipient is not the card holder. The location of departure is a different location from the point of purchase, and the ticket is held at will call.
The surcharges counteract fees incurred by the company for credit card fraud. They also serve as a handling fee for providing the ticket to the recipient at will call.
To avoid surcharges, a customer should purchase the ticket at a terminal or agency and mail it directly to the recipient.
The Gift Ticket Order surcharge is a convenience fee associated with Greyhound’s handling of the ticket.