No, this isn’t a Hotwire bait-and-switch (or is it?)

by Christopher Elliott on October 31, 2012

Kim Gandy is an experienced traveler, and she’d like to think she wouldn’t fall for a scam. But when she tried to book a rental car through Hotwire recently, she thinks she may have been duped.

This case — and Hotwire’s explanation — lift the veil on an often misunderstood world of electronic reservations. And it offers some guidance for those of us who make our travel reservations online.

Gandy’s troubles started when she booked a rental car through Hotwire in New Orleans.

“The price was a really excellent $10.95 per day, which totaled just over $86 for the three days, plus two hours,” she says.

Gandy filled in her name, address, phone, credit card, and other details. She double-checked her rate, which appears immediately above the “agree and book” section, checked the required terms and conditions box, and then on the “book” button.

And then Hotwire confirmed her rate for $125 instead of $86. That’s right, the rate had changed after she clicked the “book” button.

And Hotwire’s rates are fully nonrefundable.

Efforts to fix the misunderstanding were unsuccessful.

To condense the following hour on the phone with two people at Hotwire, they said too bad, it’s not refundable, you were told about the change in rate, it happens when our inventory of cars goes down, and there’s nothing wrong with our system, and there’s no one here that you can talk to.

But it gets better.

After I fumed for a half hour or so (and wrote a negative review on Hotwire and Tweeted my experience), I went back to Hotwire at 1:43 a.m. and input the same trip dates and times again, just out of curiosity to see whether it had gone above $18.95 in the hour since my “purchase.”

Yep, you probably guessed it — it was $10.95 again, for both economy and compact, and only $11.95 for midsize and $12.95 for the standard size! No more $18.95.

Gee, at 2 a.m. their inventory was magically restored?

The more time she spent online, the more frustrated she got. She would click on the $10.95 economy car and the confirmation screen would say, “We’re sorry, the rate has changed from $11 to $19.

“Methinks there is a pattern here,” she says.

Is Hotwire bait-and-switching? Here’s the company’s response to Gandy’s problem:

Kim is correct in noting that there was a difference between the daily rate in the search results vs. the final purchase price.

It’s not a regular occurrence, but this can happen because of the dynamic nature of our supplier inventory and pricing. You and I have worked together on a similar case in the past where the difference between our site’s “cached” price point and the more updated final purchase price has caused confusion.

But it’s important to note that we would never allow a customer to purchase on our site without providing the most updated and accurate pricing info for his or her review prior to completion.

As a quick summary, most of the data on pricing and inventory availability resides on our supply partner servers. If we pinged those servers every time a customer ran a search that returns dozens of results, the load volumes would be immense, and the browsing experience would be slow, so we gate the volume of pings sent back and forth to streamline the process.

The most important place where the data must be updated is prior to purchase, so every time a customer clicks through to the details page for one specific deal, a ping is executed between servers.

Initial searches, as mentioned before, are treated differently. Search data is cached regularly and updated with a bit less frequency, which varies depending on the number of searches being generated at any given time.

In Kim’s case, she was seeing an older $10.95 price point during her initial searches, and then seeing the updated $18.95 price point on the details page prior to purchase. This happened because the inventory was recently changed by the supply partner, either because of recent bookings or market dynamics. In looking back through our session logs, we can see that the accurate $18.95 price was displayed prior to Kim’s actual purchase.

I’ve attached a screen shot of the details page from her purchase.

In regards to her continued searching and the resulting price discrepancies, Kim was simply seeing the update process happen to the search results for different inventory as time went on. However, I can assure you that all of the prices on the details pages were 100 percent accurate prior to final purchase, regardless of what time it was or how many searches were conducted. I can also assure you that this isn’t a common occurrence, and only happens in those instances when there’s a discrepancy between the cached pricing for searches and the final pricing set by the supplier during the short time between our updates. This was evident in the consistent pricing returned when Kim conducted her final search.

In all of these cases, our final price points were below the retail price for that same booking because of the deals that are available through our opaque business model, so Kim did receive a good value.

I checked with Gandy, and she’s highly skeptical of Hotwire’s explanation. She doesn’t recall seeing the updated rate.

But for the rest of us, the lesson is pretty clear. Anything you see before the booking screen is a negotiation.

And even sometimes, afterwards, according to some travelers.

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  • Anonymous

    Hotwire’s excuse fails on multiple fronts, most prominently:

    (1) From a user perspective, if the initial search on Hotwire isn’t reliable then it’s just a waste of my time. Maybe they thought caching was a clever solution to the lag one experiences on sites that are actually useful (like Kayak) — but they were wrong. If this is what it does, caching is a bad idea and should be abandoned.

    (2) From a web-programmer perspective, the only instance in which the outdated cache values were in any way forgivable is the FIRST instance. When the Hotwire system detected that the price had changed when it switched from the cached values to the real-time search, it should have been designed to update the cache to spare subsequent users the same confusion and inconvenience. The fact that it was not so designed puts this squarely in the “bait-and-switch” — rather than the “innocent confusion” — arena.

    After reading this, I certainly won’t be giving my business to Hotwire.

  • Graham

    One of the problems the booking engines of the principals (the actual airlines, car hire companies, hotels etc) suffer from is capacity. There is a line between providing enough capacity for that once a decade spike in demand and providing enough capacity for most of the time. Thus they try and throttle the intermediaries and charge them a transaction fee if they exceed certain limits. So the intermediaries resort to caching. However, what caching should do (and doesn’t seem to have done here) is update itself when a price is offered from the cache but turns out to be different at the point of booking.

  • Johnp

    I left Priceline a long time ago and so have several of my associates for their untruths.

  • DCTA

    Very interesting. You know Chris, I think I have told you (years ago) that just sitting in front of a GDS, I have seen air ticket prices go up and then down and up again in a matter of seconds. It’s all capacity based. Some other Travel Agent(s) or consumers on an OTA are looking at the same availability as I am at that very moment and frankly, it’s just a matter of who books the space first. AND if someone grabs particular inventory and then “returns” it, the fare will go up and down for others looking.

  • Travel_in_ Canada

    If consumers want to be their own travel agents they need to take the time to read the exactly what is being offered prior to purchase. It will clearly state if the price has changed or not. Tealeaf provides the company the ability to review exactly what the travellers saw to verify if it was in fact a computer error or user error. As a former employee I can confirm bait and switch is not their motive.

    Consumer need to realize they are not there is not just one person “shopping” for space for air, cars or hotels. Everyone in the world is fishing from the same pool.

  • Katrina Blackstone

    We recently got bitten by the Hotwire rental bait and switch… but in a slightly different manor. WE are flying into Ohare… and booked a rental car FROM OHARE. after we were charged we received confirmation for RENTAL FROM MIDWAY. They offered us a refund and re-book..but at triple the price. So we had to decline. I just buried my mother I can’t afford triple the price. We are trying to work with Hertz directly as we are arriving at 2300 and the L would get us there too late for pickup and a taxi will rum roughly 40 dollars a head.

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