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Electronic Explorer

Bargains for the Eagle-Eyed When Web Lays an Egg

July 08, 2001|LAURA BLY

After 35 years in the grocery business, Tom Meyers figured he knew a thing or two about pricing glitches: "Right is right. When we advertised anything, that is the price we gave the customer."

So when Meyers spotted a seven-day Holland America Alaska cruise on the new Web site Orbitz for just $125 per person--only to be told, after an hour's runaround on the phone, that the price was a misprint--he started squawking.

Two days and multiple e-mails and phone calls later, the eagle-eyed traveler from Onalaska, Wis., landed his $125 cruise--which, it turned out, represented the port charges on a deluxe cabin worth $1,814.

"If there's a misprint, we stand behind our prices," says Orbitz spokeswoman Carol Jouzaitis, who attributed the goof to "human error" by National Leisure Group, the company that packages tours and cruises for Orbitz and other online agencies.

Thanks to bulletin boards, chat rooms and travel sites that highlight cut-rate deals, Meyers isn't the only online traveler to snag an accidental bargain in the often chaotic thicket of Internet fares.

Last winter, a three-week error in Hilton's central reservation system allowed several dozen travelers to get rooms at the Hilton Mexico City Airport Hotel for $0 per night. Hilton stood by its giveaway price, though only for the first night: Those who wanted to stay longer were charged the lowest available rate.

In January, bargain hunters on the bulletin board FlyerTalk.com noticed that United's site was spitting out international fares for less than $100 round trip. The glitch was fixed after an hour--but not before shoppers had snapped up more than 140 tickets, including a flight from San Jose to Paris for $27.98.

United initially tried to disclaim the tickets but changed course after a flood of complaints.

Those kinds of spectacular mistakes remain "very, very rare," says George Hobica, who runs Digital City's Travel Bargains (http://www.digitalcity.com/travel), a top-notch, regularly updated resource for air fare deals from 60 cities.

But Digital City and several other sites--among them Smarter Living (http://www.smarterliving.com), Best Fares (http://www.bestfares.com) and Internet Airfares (http://www.air-fare.com)--specialize in ferreting out other eye-popping bargains, some of which may last only a few hours.

"There's no rhyme or reason" to why they appear or how long they linger, says Hobica, who spots a round-trip coast-to-coast fare of less than $150 an average of three or four times a week.

Sometimes an airline may use a lowball fare to warn or signal a competitor: "It becomes a 'boys and their toys' thing, and they shoot themselves in the foot," he says.

Case in point: A recent tussle between Delta and Midwest Express, both of which were offering cross-country trips for as low as $98 round trip. The deals, which were highlighted on Digital City Travel Bargains, lasted for more than a week.

Some sites, including retailer Amazon.com, publish disclaimers that state the company can cancel a sale if an item is mispriced. Barring such a disclaimer or a price that is so low "nobody could realistically hope to claim it," such errors are "a case of simple contract law: You [the company] offer it, they [consumers] accept it," says San Francisco travel law attorney Alexander Anolik.

But disclaimers and legality aside, "there are about 1 million fare changes a day, and mistakes are bound to happen."

"A moral company will honor its mistakes and then work to make sure they don't happen again," says Henry Harteveldt, an online travel analyst with Forrester Research.

"If you see something too good to believe, buy first and ask questions later," he adds. "Print every page you see that fare or rate printed on, and save it. If the seller refuses to honor the rate, complain to its customer relations department."

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Electronic Explorer appears monthly. Comments are welcome at lsbly@aol.com.

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