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Mercy for the mercenary

Cost-conscious bidders can get burned on auction sites such as Priceline and Hotwire, but there is recourse.

October 05, 2003|James Gilden | Special to The Times

Bidding for a hotel room on a Web site such as Priceline or Hotwire requires a leap of faith. Before you even know the name or affiliation of the hotel you're bidding on, you must pay for your entire stay. No changes, no refunds.

These sites appeal to the 18% of us that Forrester Research, a travel research organization based in San Francisco, has deemed "mercenary travelers," those for whom price is the foremost consideration in trip decisions. We trust that the hotels on which we blindly bid will meet certain standards and live up to their star ratings. We also trust that when things go wrong, someone will make them right.

"Priceline's hotel service isn't about selling hotel rooms," says Brian Ek, a spokesman for the 5-year-old Web site. "We aim to keep our customers happy and coming back."

Keeping customers happy despite the sites' restrictive rules can be a challenge. Warnings abound on the Web sites, especially about the restrictions on changes and refunds.

"If you just change your mind, no, you won't be able to get your money back," says Amy Bohutinsky, a Hotwire spokeswoman. "But if it is something out of your hands, then it will be looked at individually."

By design there's not a lot of wiggle room in these rules, but even so, when things go wrong, it's not always easy to untangle them.

Consider the case of a colleague who used Priceline and prepaid for a room at the Renaissance Esmeralda resort in Indian Wells, near Palm Springs. Knowing she would not arrive until 3 a.m., she called and forewarned the hotel about her late check-in. No problem, she was assured.

But when she arrived, there was a problem. Her prepaid room had been released, and no other rooms were available. The hotel arranged for a room at a nearby motel, a practice commonly called "walking." The place was considerably less luxurious than what she had booked.

She complained to hotel personnel, and after her trip she exchanged several voicemails with the hotel manager. Still, the charge remained on her card.

After I mentioned her situation to Ek, she received an e-mail saying that her charge card would be credited for her one-night stay, and she received two e-mails of apology.

It's "very simple," Ek says. "You bought the room; it's guaranteed for late arrival. All we suggest is if you are going to be arriving late, it is a ... courtesy to call them and let them know."

Good idea, several hotel industry experts say. "Even if you do have a room that is guaranteed, you should call the hotel if you know that you are going to be late," says Henry Harteveldt, a hotel industry analyst with Forrester Research.

But as my colleague's experience points out, there is no absolute guarantee that you will have a room waiting for you.

With occupancy as low as 60%, having to relocate a guest is uncommon, Ek says.

When overbooking does occur, customers who book with discount hotel sites may think they are not accorded the same treatment as a full-price customer.

Not so, Harteveldt says. "Hotwire and Priceline fill an important role for the hotel industry," he says. "They allow hotels to protect their brand image and appeal to customers who are price-motivated." Unlike other discount Web sites that book large blocks of rooms and can release them unsold as late as 48 hours before the date, Priceline and Hotwire can fill rooms at the last minute.

Thus it is in the best interest of the lodging industry to see to it that Priceline and Hotwire customers receive the same consideration as a customer who paid a higher price, Harteveldt says. In fact, "they pretty much demand that their customers be treated with the same regard and service as any customer," he says.

Here's what to do if you arrive and find your Priceline or Hotwire hotel overbooked:

* Insist on a comparable or better accommodation. If the hotel cannot find one, call the Web site's customer support number. The site may have access to a room the hotel does not.

* Be sure to take a printout of the confirmation Web page or e-mail with you. On the printout you should have the Web site's toll-free number, which you'll need if this circumstance arises.

* Ask for a refund for the nights you are not in your reserved room, regardless of where you are re-accommodated. If you cannot work it out with the hotel, call the Web site's toll-free number.

On the Web

Used in researching this story:,

which gives insight into Priceline

The Internet Traveler appears twice a month. James Gilden can be contacted at

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