Best rate? No guarantee

by Christopher Elliott on November 24, 2004

Q: I was looking for a room rate on a one-night stay at the Niagara Falls Knights Inn in Ontario, Canada. I went to the hotel Web site and saw a button with a “manager’s special” with a good price, so I booked the room.

Then I started to wonder about the best-rate guarantee that companies such as Cendant offer through their Web sites. If I couldn’t find a better price on the Cendant site, would they offer me a free night, as promised?

I followed the instructions provided on how to claim on their guarantee. I expected it to be quite straightforward – I even sent them a copy of my reservation confirmation that demonstrated the better rate.

Needless to say, they didn’t cover my room. Instead, I got a line about how they must be able to make a reservation themselves at the better rate before they would honor the guarantee.

I returned to the Knight’s Inn site and would you believe, the “manager’s special” link had gone dead. A coincidence, I’m sure.

What do I have to do in order to get Cendant to honor its best-rate guarantee?

– Mike Martin

A: Filing a claim is the right first step. Cendant’s guarantee stipulates that it must be able to verify the rate independently. In other words, you can’t just print a screen shot of the manager’s special and send it away for a refund. A Cendant representative has to confirm the price.

“As you know, rates are fluid and change frequently,” said Emanuel Naim, a spokesman for Cendant. “Mr. Martin’s lower rate couldn’t be verified because it couldn’t be found.”

Makes sense, right? Well, yes – and no.

Yes, it makes sense because rates do change. Plus, a business would lose its shirt if it didn’t have strict rules in place for a guarantee. A screen shot can easily be doctored, and you really would have chaos if guests were allowed to file claims any way they wanted to.

And no, because verifying rates “independently” is a huge loophole. What’s to stop a Cendant representative from calling the hotel and requesting the removal of a “manager’s special” after a claim is filed?

Indeed, hotel chains predicate their best-rate guarantees on the fact that their hotels won’t offer special rates that undercut their Web prices. When a renegade property cuts its prices, then it is sure to hear from someone in the chain’s compliance department.

So what happened here? Did someone at Cendant jump the gun and order the removal of the button before they tried to verify the rate? Or had the rate actually “fluctuated” to a higher price?

I don’t know.

But I do know this: 80 percent of Cendant’s claims under its best-rate guarantee are rejected. That suggests its guests are either incapable of filling out a successful claim form or that Cendant is working hard to avoid a payout.

Maybe it’s a little of both.

According to Naim, guests sometimes ignore the fine print on the guarantee. “Claims must be filed within 24 hours of booking on our Web site,” he said. “For a claim to be valid, it must be for the same hotel, at the same time, for the same room type and the same number of guests. Believe it or not, we’ve received claims for different hotels, sometimes different brands. We’ve also received claims for different dates and different room types.”

But I also think it’s undeniable that Cendant has created rules that make it difficult to file a claim, as your case shows.

Cendant offered a refund on your one-night stay at the Niagara Falls Knights Inn as a gesture of goodwill. That’s a generous offer, but I’m not sure it addresses your frustration about the price promises you believe Cendant made.

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