A bait and switch on Priceline?

by Christopher Elliott on July 7, 2003

Q: I recently tried Priceline for the first time to make a hotel reservation in Pensacola Beach, Fla.

Its Web site provided a very good map of Pensacola that was easy to read. Since I have been visiting Pensacola for the last 19 years, I am very familiar with the city and knew exactly the area where I wanted to stay and had no reservations about choosing the Pensacola Beach zone that was one of the choices.

I specifically selected Pensacola Beach and made a bid for a room. The fist bid was rejected, so I increased the bid by $10, initialed the little box again and hit “enter.”

My second offer was accepted. But to my surprise, Priceline had added an additional area – Pensacola North – which is the least desirable part of town and has the worst selection of hotels. I immediately called its customer service number and presented my situation.

I was informed that I had entered a contract by initialing the little box and the reservation was absolutely non-refundable, non-cancelable or non-changeable. After at least a half dozen each telephone conversations and e-mails over the next few days, I am still stuck with a motel room in an awful part of town with a resort price tag.

I have done lots of research since then and have read countless dozens of similar complaints posted to various consumer-complaints oriented Web sites. After pleading my case all the way to the executive office level with no success, I now fully believe that Priceline deliberately added this zone without my consent to book a room at an enormously inflated rate for a one- or two-star hotel, and that there are probably hundreds of other consumers that get ripped off the same way.

Basically, what they have done is lost a potential repeat customer for the sake of a one time transaction. I am in sales for a materials handling company which sells forklifts and construction equipment. I can not imagine treating our customer base with such lack of respect.

– George Inderbitzen

A: Bait-and-switch tactics are all too common in the travel industry, and if Priceline is using them, I would certainly be the first to condemn it. But I’m not sure if the dot-com is guilty as charged.

I asked the site to review your file, and its records reflect a somewhat different version of events than yours. According to the Web site, this isn’t the first time you’ve used it. In fact, Priceline’s information suggests that you’re a savvy bidder who has made several bookings or attempted bookings in the past.

Priceline’s file also contradicts your claim that it treated you with a lack of respect. Before you booked the Pensacola hotel, it had already bent one of its rules on a hotel room purchase in another city. The site didn’t have to do that.

Did you get ripped off? That’s also subject to debate. Your first bid for a hotel in Pensacola for $49 a night was rejected. The second, for $59 a night, was accepted and booked at the Holiday Inn Pensacola. Room rates for the nights you requested were running between $49 and $79 a night on its own Web site.

“Priceline delivered exactly what Mr. Inderbitzen requested,” said spokesman Brian Ek. “His initial offer was not successful. In order to submit another offer immediately, a customer must change something other than the price, such as adding a zone or changing the star rating. We do not do that.”

Ek says his records show that you expanded your search by adding a zone, which gave you the reservation you now have in Pensacola. He offered to show me a screen shot – the proverbial smoking gun.

I know you must be disappointed, but I’m having a difficult time taking your side. You left out important details about your Priceline grievance when you contacted me – including the fact that the company had already waived some of its rules for you.

Next time you make a booking online, pay attention to the forms that you’re filling in. If it helps, de-select the option on your browser that fills in text fields automatically. That may prevent you from filling in a form you didn’t mean to.

After this article appeared, Inderbitzen responded: “Priceline’s spokesman Brian Ek was incorrect and didn’t present an entirely truthful response to this inquiry. I hardly call booking two reservations back to back, within 24 hours of each other, for consecutive nights, as making ‘numerous or attempted reservations.’ Making an educated bid for a room doesn’t qualify me a ‘savvy traveler’ either. Priceline’s notorious reputation for saying ‘no’ to customer complaints prevailed in my situation. If it had spent one-tenth of its efforts in saying ‘no’ to actually help correct this booking problem, I would have gladly used its site again. However, I have since used a more reputable travel site to make the balance of my journey and Priceline has only landed another black eye to the online travel industry.”

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