Ed Perkins on Travel
"What can be done with an online travel site that advertises a free room if you find a cheaper price for that room at another site," asked a reader, "then, when you find that cheaper price, says you're reading the other site wrong?"
I've received several emails like that one, and my quick answer is, "Nothing can be done." Sites that advertise such a guarantee incorporate fine print that effectively guarantees they'll never have to honor their guarantee.
In a typical "lowest rate" hotel promotion, the site guarantees it will have the same low room rates available through participating hotel chains' websites and toll-free numbers, which will be the lowest rates publicly available to consumers on the Internet. If you find a rate lower than the best available rate offered by the site that is bookable on an unrelated website for the same hotel, same room type, same number of guests, same currency, and same dates, and advise the site within 24 hours after booking your room, the site says it will cover the first night of your stay free, refund twice the difference or some such.
Where's the wiggle room in that promise? Mainly in the condition that the competitive rate be "publicly available to consumers on the Internet." In further explanation, the fine print excludes:
- Special rates available only to members of membership organizations or limited demographic groups. Translation: The guarantee does not apply if the lower rate you find is for seniors or members of AAA, AARP, or a similar organization.
- Group rates, corporate rates, wholesale rates, or affinity/association rates. Translation: Negotiated discount rates on sites such as Expedia do not qualify for the guarantee.
- Rates where you don't know the name of the hotel until you make a nonrefundable booking. Translation: The guarantee does not apply to Hotwire or Priceline prices.
Clearly, your chances are pretty slim of finding a lower room rate that gets through all of those exclusions. And that's the whole idea.
Such guarantees aren't confined to hotel rates; you come across them on airfares and other travel services as well. And the exclusions are pretty much the same: the only prices that qualify for the guarantee are official "list" prices— which means, these days, pretty much the highest prices you're likely to find around the Web, not the lowest. Whenever you see such a guarantee, figure it's a pure promotion. Such guarantees don't promise that you won't find any lower prices, no matter where you look; they just promise that you won't find any qualifying lower prices, and they decide what qualifies.
I don't mean to come off as totally cynical, but you have to figure that the folks who put up those "lowest prices or a free whatever" guarantees are rigging the fine print so that they seldom, if ever, have to pay off on the guarantee. And that practice is not confined to travel: Retail stores that guarantee the lowest price on an appliance, for example, insist that prices be on the same model. Since Costco and other warehouse clubs and discounters almost always sell products with their own unique model number, their prices don't qualify for the guarantee.
Overall, you can't take those guarantees as assurance that you won't find a better deal somewhere else. By all means check the site, but check others, too. And forget about trying to cash in when you do find a better deal. Your chances are about as good as winning the lottery.