A worst rate guarantee

by Christopher Elliott on May 8, 2004

Q: I am writing in regards to a recent experience with Hilton’s “Best Rates Guaranteed” program. I am a loyal Hilton HHonors member, and I rarely seek a hotel other than one under the Hilton umbrella. When I was booking a recent business trip, I came across a competitive room rate online and decided to file a claim under the guarantee.

A company representative I spoke with referred me to the hotel property to process my claim. When I contacted the property directly, the staff had no idea of how to process my request, and in fact disputed the rate I presented as being competitive. The hotel property agent referred me to the hotel general manager. I left a message for the general manager but never heard back.

So I went to the Web site and filled out the online claim form. My claim was denied because, “reservation booked on the Hilton website was for a Triple A – Hilton Guest room type”, compared to the “Run of the House/Park & Fly room type” that I provided as a competing rate. I was unaware there was a difference between the two room types, and will be certain to inquire with AAA – “Triple A” why rooms at their rate are not equal to the standard rack room type.

I rebooked a room, selecting the “standard/rack rate” and resubmitted my claim. During this process my only concern was to receive the matching rate, and the opportunity to book the room through Hilton. After rebooking at the standard/rack rate, I received no response to my second Web site claim for your “Best Rates Guaranteed.”

After more than my fair share of attempting to remain loyal and booking my room through Hilton, I proceeded to book at the lower rate-competitor. Is Hilton’s best-rate guarantee for real?

– Richard Dickerscheid

A: Hilton’s “best rate” guarantee looks like a sure bet (you can check out the details at its Web site). It promises that if you do find a lower rate on another booking channel, it will match that rate, plus either give you $50 American Express Gift Cheque or take $50 off your bill, depending on where the booking was made.

Sounds almost too good to be true – and in your case, it certainly was.

But if you check out the fine print on the offer, you’ll understand why hotel chains have had to process so few of these best-rate claims. You have to book through certain Web sites, in certain places, and within a certain amount of time. One of the lines of fine print specifically addresses special rates, such as the one you negotiated through AAA.

Tamiko Carter, a Hilton spokeswoman, said AAA rates don’t count. “Under our offer, we ask that you match the confirmed booking to the viewed booking channel,” she said. Which is exactly what you tried to do. Problem was, according to Hilton, that rate was also a special rate – what it referred to as a Run of the House/Park & Fly room type booked through Lodging.com.

“These were not a true match,” she added. “This would not be considered as a valid claim.”

You disagree, and told Hilton that you believe you booked a qualifying rate. But since I don’t have the level of access to the hotel’s booking system and am not qualified to say what is and isn’t a legitimate rate, there’s nothing I can do.

Hilton may be technically correct in denying your claim, but it didn’t make a good business decision. The manner in which it handled your first and second query so upset you that you’ve vowed to take your business elsewhere. “We are now devoted Starwood members and thank Hilton for helping with the decision,” you said afterwards.

So even though Hilton’s actions may have been entirely on the up-and-up, it might have considered letting your request slide – and kept your business.

My problem with the best-rate guarantee isn’t how Hilton enforces it. Rules are rules after all, and customers shouldn’t have them bent just because they contact me. I have some trouble with the number of loopholes, asterisks and clauses in the best-rate guarantee. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say the hotel’s lawyers were let loose on it and told to make it watertight. Which is exactly what it is.

Best-rate guarantees like Hilton’s may be for real – I’m sure the hotel can send me the names of some guests who have taken advantage of it – but it is primarily a marketing tool. It’s a way of saying, “Hey, our Web rates are pretty low, too.”

But the devil, as always, is in the details.

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