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Price blunders on the Internet can spin a very tangled web

Must a site honor a too-low rate that's been posted by mistake? Thereby hangs a tale.

March 09, 2003|James Gilden | Special to The Times

The price seemed too good to be true. As I was surfing the Net checking out airfares last fall, I found a remarkable fare on Travelocity .com: British Airways from Los Angeles to Rome and back for $90.

Excitedly, I booked it and hit the "complete reservation" button, fully expecting a message saying "Your reservation cannot be processed" or "Just kidding!"

Instead, I soon received an e-mail confirmation of my reservation.

What a coup.

Or was it?

Within hours I received another e-mail and a phone message from Travelocity saying there was a problem with my reservation.

"The issue is, is an Internet offer a binding contract," says Alexander Anolik, a San Francisco attorney and author of "The Law and the Travel Industry." "If it is so far off that it is unbelievable, then no. But if it might just be a really great deal, then yes."

It's not clear how often these kinds of pricing errors occur. But what seems clear to Henry H. Harteveldt, principal analyst of the airline and travel industry for Forrester Research, is what companies should do.

"If a company has a price error ... the stated price should be honored," he said.

That wasn't happening in my case. For the next two weeks I was mired in a morass of phone calls, e-mails and voicemails, repeatedly arguing the same points with a seemingly endless number of Travelocity personnel up and down the customer service food chain.

I told them I assumed that once I had clicked "complete reservation" on a Web page that reads "complete your purchase" and "your credit card will be charged," my ticket would be issued.

Not so, said every Travelocity representative I spoke with. I had only requested a ticket. The fare was not guaranteed until the ticket was issued.

I eventually spoke with consumer relations manager Christine Bullock, who didn't have encouraging news.

Bullock said Travelocity would not honor the fare. I politely persisted. She offered to take up the matter with British Airways, and although I was tired of fighting with customer service bureaucracies and wasn't looking forward to hassling with another, I agreed.

Fifteen minutes later she called me back. It seems I had received a "misfiled fare" and that it was Travelocity's policy to honor such fares. It had taken me two weeks to get to this point.

I hadn't told Bullock or anyone else at Travelocity that I am a travel journalist. But I did tell Al Comeaux, a Travelocity spokesman, after the question was resolved so I could get his perspective on it.

"If we find a mistake, we push the carrier to follow up," Comeaux says. "Our attitude is we honor it."

Reservations are rejected about 30 times a day (out of 10 million annual reservations) at Travelocity, says Comeaux. In 80% of those cases, Travelocity can get the supplier to honor the fare, and the customer never knows the difference.

"Instances like your case are very rare," he says.

Harteveldt of Forrester says they can be avoided. "Travel companies must continuously audit their Web sites for pricing accuracy, especially after major fare changes are loaded into their central reservations systems," he said.

Not everyone is as lucky as I was when it comes to such Internet errors.

Take the Starwood customers who recently made reservations for the Sheraton Bora Bora Nui Resort and Spa. After a pricing error on Starwood's Web sites, 136 people reserved over-water bungalows for $85 a night.

Oops. The rooms actually cost $850 a night.

Knowing a good deal when they saw one, some customers booked more than two months' worth of vacation.

"The problem with Bora Bora is that a small number of people booked a large number of rooms," says Starwood spokeswoman K.C. Kavanagh, who estimates that the resort would have lost more than $2 million if it had honored the reservations at the lower rate.

Ken Lin of Los Angeles and his wife, Danielle, had made a reservation for Thanksgiving 2003. "I feel that my making a reservation and their accepting it forms a valid contract of service," Lin wrote in a letter to The Times.

The resort e-mailed customers who had booked at the $85 rate and said it could not honor that rate. Instead, it offered a 40% discount off the regular rate, or about $531 per night.

Some customers were still unhappy.

Starwood later offered a $275 rate for certain dates to anybody who had booked at the $85 rate. It also offered to reimburse nonrefundable airfares for customers who canceled their trips.

Lin remains dissatisfied. "There's still a big difference between $85 and $275, and we are definitely not going," he said.

Travel attorney Anolik thinks consumers might have a legally valid claim to the lower rate. He believes that, in the current climate in the hotel industry, $85 is not inconceivable.

But Starwood, still unclear on how the error occurred, will not honor the $85 rate. "We're very comfortable with our legal position and don't wish to elaborate," Kavanagh says.

So what to do when you're faced with such a situation? Here are some steps to take:

* It's important to keep copies of your documentation, as I learned from my Travelocity experience, and that means every Web page and piece of correspondence.

* Keep notes on your telephone conversations, complete with times and dates. Be sure to ask the names and titles of people you speak with.

* Most of all, keep talking. Be polite, be insistent and don't give up.

"You said the right things," Travelocity spokesman Co- meaux told me. "I don't think we said the right thing."

*

James Gilden can be reached at jamesgilden@aol.com, or, to comment on Travel Insider, write to Los Angeles Times, 202 W. 1st St., Los Angeles, CA 90012, or e-mail travel@latimes.com. Jane Engle's Travel Insider column will return next week.

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