WHAT YOU PAY FOR

Airfare Busters, Busted

Airfare Busters, a Houston-based airline ticket consolidator with a 22-year track record, folded last month, stiffing consumers for $200,000. The firm had been troubled for a year, says bankruptcy lawyer Allan Lazor.

The firm closed its K Street D.C. office in 1998. It advertised in The Washington Post until September. At least two area customers are among those who paid for but did not receive tickets. We were alerted to problems by e-mail from a CoGo reader unable to get a refund.

When complaints to the Houston Better Business Bureau rocketed in November, investigators found a locked office. Files and computers were seized by the Harris County, Tex., district attorney. Company president Yosseff Zahran left the United States for Saudi Arabia in late summer and has not returned.

That Airfare Busters operated for years with a decent reputation illuminates again how volatile the low-margin low-fare industry can be.

Consolidators are facing new competition from Internet discounters.If you use a consolidator, pay with a credit card (you can dispute a charge for undelivered tickets) and check with the BBB (or BBBonline.com) in the firm's home city.

CRUISE NEWS

Voyage Into Your Wallet

Royal Caribbean's Voyager of the Seas--the cruise industry's latest biggest-ship-ever--boasts many unique features, like a rock climbing wall, ice skating and in-line skating rinks and cruisedom's first chain eatery (Johnny Rockets). Passengers may never be bored, but they may go broke, as Voyager is stretching the term "all inclusive" to new lows.

"You'll be reaching for your wallet everywhere," says Mike Driscoll, editor of Cruise Week newsletter. While most lines charge for "extras" like spa services, shore excursions, liquor, sodas and gambling, Voyager is dunning passengers who take advantage of the very features that have lured them on board. At Johnny Rockets, cruisers will pay $2.50 for a malt. Ice and inline-skating rinks charge $6 an hour (per person, including rentals). The rock-climbing wall is $8 for 90 minutes. An hour on the golf simulator is $25. Voyager is even raising the price of spa services; a 60-minute massage costing $79 on any other Royal Caribbean ship is $99 here.

Many lines charge on-board fees; keep this in mind when computing final costs of that "$699 per person Caribbean cruise." When booking, inquire about extra charges.

ELECTROLAND UPDATE

Expedia vs. Priceline II

Expedia.com has thrown down a second gauntlet at Priceline.com, the inexplicably popular name-your-price Web site selling airline tickets and hotel nights. Undaunted by Priceline's patent-infringement suit (filed after Expedia launched a name-your-price hotel feature), Expedia has rolled out a similar you-bid service for air tickets. It differs from Priceline in two key ways: It doesn't tag on Priceline's $5 service fee, $12.50 paper ticket mailing fee or taxes and airport fees (with Expedia, your bid includes fees); and, because it's integrated in Expedia's fare booker, the site will protect you if it finds a published fare lower than your bid, and sell you the lower one.

In another, um, "innovation," Expedia has released a Fare Calendar tool--which shows on a calendar dates a fare may be available--startlingly similar to Travelocity's calendar feature. This creates feature parity between The Big Two, with Travelocity (and mergee Preview Travel) forming an alliance to share customers with Priceline next year.

Bargain of the week

Holiday Special

US Airways is offering holiday sale fares when you book through its Web site at www.usairways.com. You must depart Tuesday through Dec. 29, and return Dec. 25 through Jan. 1. Tickets must be booked no later than Tuesday. To confirm that you have received the Internet sale fare, pick an itinerary and hit the "Hold" button, then look for a fare code that ends with WN or WNJT.

Help feed CoGo. Send travel news, road reports and juicy tattles to cogo@washpost.com. Fax: 202-334-1069. Mail: CoGo, Washington Post Travel Section, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071. Include name, phone number.