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March 22, 2007

Priceline Caveats

In the comments Mitch Stein wrote about his frustration renting a car from Priceline.

Let me give you the other side of Priceline. I booked a rental car specified on Priceline as an SUV. I thought I was getting a great deal until I found out that some rental car companies have 5 categories of SUV. An "SUV" rental could be for a GEO Tracker for all Priceline cares. The best part is that when there was a death in my family and I had to change my pickup day to 2 days later I forfeited my 177$ rental fee AND THE CAR. Yes because I wanted to pick it up 2 days later and only use it for 3 days instead of 5 days I lost the whole thing, the car and the money! These people use death and emergencies as a big, fat, free profit item! Never again!

It sucks to have that kind of experience and it could happen using Priceline not only for car rentals. If you try to check in a day late on a Priceline reservation you will find the reservation has been cancelled entirely. Also, Priceline defines its own categories. What you think of as a four star hotel may not be what they give you.

My best suggestion to Mitch is, if you have not already gone beyond talking to a customer service rep on the phone, write a letter. You may get a better response higher up the ladder. Priceline has refunded money in limited cases because of emergencies. I was scheduled to be in Birmingham AL, on the night Katrina hit. I called Priceline the same day; they refunded my purchase with no arguments and no penalties.

For others considering bidding on Priceline, caveat emptor. Like any cut-rate seller, Priceline is not something to use without caution and having a good handle on the product.

I would not use Priceline for air travel. I used it occasionally a few years ago, mostly for NYC-YYZ flights; the small savings are not to me worth losing control over schedule (and the airline frequent flyer miles on longer trips).

I haven’t yet used Priceline for car rentals. There are enough competitive deals out there that I haven’t felt it worth it. For instance, I’m renting with National Car in ONT tomorrow; a coupon for one weekend day free will result in a better price than I think I could get on Priceline.

Hotel deals on Priceline in the last year have gotten steadily less appealing. For a solo traveler, Priceline is usually still the best deal, but I would recommend researching all non-opaque options first. I will be heading to Chicago again for a weekend in April. I may use Priceline, but I also have back up reservations at the Palmer House or the Swissotel for $79 and $99 respectively. Both are cancelable; Priceline would need to beat them by at least 20-25% for me to use it instead.

Will you be satisfied with the product Priceline offers? You’ve contracted to get:

A hotel anywhere in the mapped area Priceline indicates.

A room that sleeps two adults with any bedding configuration the hotel chooses. I felt that the one Priceline commercial that I have seen on TV was misleading. It is not always “the same room.” You’re not just buying surplus inventory on Priceline. You are often buying distressed inventory. Recent Priceline stays at Hilton family hotels in SF, Boston and Philadelphia have all yielded “Priceline rooms” – a room near an elevator, with a handicap accessible bathroom or some other feature that might make it less desirable to a standard traveler. Older landmark hotels such as the Westin St. Francis in SF or the Boston Park Plaza give their smaller rooms with double beds only to Priceline guests. They sleep two adults, so it fulfills their contract. I’ve been in those rooms; they’re just fine for a single traveler but it would be a very different story for two travelers who are not an intimate couple. And there’s not much to be done besides pay for an upgrade.

At the quality level or better that you indicated. That level is determined by Priceline not by guidebook ratings but by a list of standard facilities, but it’s their call not yours. You can argue up to a point, but back up your argument with pictures - I recall a woman getting a refund on a bid that turned out to be a fleapit hotel that way.

Generally non-smoking, but not guaranteed. I’ve infrequently gotten a smoking room instead of a non-smoking room; I think the trend on Priceline would be even more difficult for smokers. The Hilton Garden Inn in Philadelphia is a non-smoking hotel; they will charge you a $200 cleaning fee if you smoke in the rooms. A smoker who gets it on Priceline is out of luck.

Posted by Leigh Witchel at March 22, 2007 3:49 PM

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