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Why did Forbes Spike this Story about Creepy Chinese Ticket Website Trip.com?

If you’ve been reading Tripquake for any length of time, you know that we have much in common with our preferred spirit animal ’80s sitcom, The Facts of Life: because we take the good, we take the bad, we take them both and there you have what travel is really all about. Yeah there’s some inspiration type stuff, and the occasional good deal, but also a lot of strange and not great stuff that bears repeating.

When I was under contract with that sad bastion of cheap clickbait Forbes.com–which once published a site called Forbes Traveler (though that was long ago when there was still some hope), I had prepared a story about a seemingly innocuous newish travel website called Trip.com. The story of this was a quintessentially American one: American company (the one who created Trip.com) sells out to China. Website turns out to be the Jeffrey Epstein of online ticket sales—but requiring participants to sell only their souls, not their bodies—then rich, apparently Chinese-owned American media property (that would be Forbes) strongly advises journalist to quash a story critical of Chinese business practices on said website.

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But Americans should think very carefully before booking tickets with Trip.com. Following is a recap of the story that Forbes.com refused to run (I mean, even The New York Times has a few principles left).

You look forward to booking flights online about as much as you do your next root canal. Not a whole lot of fun, in other words, and with prices that can seem to fluctuate not only wildly but sometimes by the minute, the whole enterprise has become frankly unnerving at times. And they say trip planning is supposed to be fun!

Lately I’ve also found a strange sameness to checking out fares on the major OTAs (online travel agencies) like Expedia and Kayak. That algorithms are running much of the online show these days is hardly a secret, but recently when several repeat searches on various booking engines for the same itinerary—LAX to London Heathrow—turned up almost exactly the same fares, I had my “I’m done” moment. Google Flights has been consistently less than helpful. My European friends swear by Skyscanner, and I’ve found it to be better than Google Flights but haven’t found amazing deals there either. What about Momondo? Meh. Surely there must be some secret site out there that can best the prices I was finding? Probably not, I thought, and then by chance I landed at a site which, despite the simplicity of it name, I’d never heard of before called Trip.com.

Within minutes I was turning up airfares for flights to Europe that were cheaper—sometimes dramatically cheaper—than on any of the aforementioned booking sites. Yes, many were in the ballpark but when I looked for flights from Los Angeles to London in May things heated up: my search returned bargain fares on Virgin Atlantic that weren’t showing up anywhere else. The price differential was nothing less than shocking: about $205 on Trip.com vs. approximately $3200 on Virgin’s own site. A Kayak search did return a fare of $285 for the flight in question, but after it had vanished the lower fare on Trip.com was still there. I knew there might be comparable fares on low-cost long haul carriers like Norwegian, but Virgin Atlantic is a partner airline of Delta and members of Delta’s loyalty program, SkyMiles, can earn miles on Virgin Atlantic flights too. Not seeing that original low fare anywhere else but on Trip.com, I snapped it up.

This search was in late February. On March 6 when I checked on Trip.com for the same flight on the same date, tickets on Virgin Atlantic flights showed up at all. On Virgin Atlantic’s site, the flight was there and had decreased in price—to $2,381.40! So was my ultra-low (by any standard) booking actually valid? It appeared to be so, because when I entered the PNR code on Virgin Atlantic’s site, it checked out. Then I went back to Trip.com and read the company’s terms of use. Section 5, Rules of Use, includes the following:

“You must comply with relevant laws and regulations of the People’s Republic of China when using Trip.com services and shall agree not to use the services for any illegal or improper activities, including but not limited to the following:
1. Information that goes against basic principles set forth in the Constitution;
2. information that endangers national security, leaks state secrets, subverts state power and undermines national unity;
3. information that damages the honor and interest of the country;
4. information that instigates ethnic hatred, ethnic discrimination and undermines ethnic solidarity;
5. information that undermines the country’s religious polices and promotes cults and feudal superstitions;
6. Information that spreads rumor, disrupts social order and undermines social stability…”

On the one hand, how anyone in the U.S. could use a booking engine to undermine China’s constitution is quite beyond me. On the other hand top American military officials are now warning of Chinese attempts to weaponize capital. The Wall Street Journal recently reported the story of Marriott firing an employee for liking a tweet about Tibet that China didn’t like. As it turns out Trip.com, which was founded back in 2010 by former MySpace executive Travis Katz, was purchased last year by Ctrip, which is China’s largest travel booking company. It actually trades on NASDAQ with a reported market cap (according to Business Insider) of $25 billion, and it bought Skyscanner too, in 2016.

Also, according to Trip.com’s flight booking policies, part of your airfare is earmarked for China’s Civil Aviation Development Fund. For an American seeker of an online airfare deal to end up shoring up airport infrastructure in Communist China might seem as absurd as China trying to dictate terms about “national unity,” whatever that means, to American citizens living in the United States.

Strange times, you might say. For the traveling public, the bottom line when booking travel is often simply scoring the best deal. If compromising values enshrined in the American constitution,  even just philosophically, is what it takes to save potentially several hundred dollars on a ticket to London, what do you do? Saving money is, after all, a good thing. Selling your soul, maybe not.

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