Priceline has rolled out two new short-term features: A searchable display of winning bids for their Name Your Own Price hotel product, and an increased payout on its best-rate guarantee. Both are visible on the same page of their site, called the “Big Deal Guarantee.”

The display of winning bids is nice, but given that the BetterBidding or BiddingForTravel message boards exist to catalogue winning bids with greater precision, it’s not all that useful.

The best-rate-guarantee promotion — which expires March 31, 2010 — is potentially more interesting: Just like Priceline’s normal best-rate guarantee, the new offer only applies to their name-your-own-price product. But the terms and conditions of the deal are more generous.

While the normal best-rate guarantee was only valid for 24 hours after purchase, the new “big deal” guarantee is valid up until the day before check-in. That’s a much bigger window in which to find a better rate.

If you do find a lower publicly-available and -visible rate (i.e., no AAA or convention rates) for your hotel room on a website (it has to be via a website) and phone it in to Priceline, you’ll get a full refund, a $25 credit, and a $50 coupon for a Priceline vacation package.

But finding that better rate will be really tough. Priceline rates are deeply discounted because the name of the property isn’t revealed until you commit to purchase. But for a best-rate-guarantee, you’ll need to find a lower price for the specific hotel you won. And let’s be honest, it’s hard to beat a Priceline rate with a conventional publicly-visible rate. Priceline knows it’s not going to see many claims here, so this promotion is all bark, no bite.

On the other hand, they do introduce a portly new pimp character to be William Shatner’s sidekick in the ads. Tradeoffs.

priceline bigdeal Priceline upgrades its best rate guarantee ... briefly

Categorized in: hotels, Priceline

A few weeks ago, I made an embarrassing mistake: I goofed up a prepaid, non-refundable Priceline hotel reservation. I entered the wrong dates. But thanks to a helpful agent at the hotel, “unchangeable” really wasn’t.

I’m no rookie in the Priceline name-your-own-price game. I’ve been doing it for years for much of my personal travel, and it’s been a great way to get a big bang for the buck ($37 Hyatts, anyone?). So I knew that the rules specify that you can’t cancel or change a name-your-own-price room, so I kicked myself for screwing up our check-in date by a single day.

Then, it occurred to me that, in today’s soft hotel booking environment, I might be able to negotiate directly with the hotel. Hey, if Priceline’s mascot is William Shatner as “the Negotiator,” I could channel the Shat and see what comes up.

I called the hotel. I told them upfront that I knew I had screwed up, and if they wanted me to go pound sand, it was in their right, and I would be fine with that. But I asked politely if they might be able shift my stay by a day. Instead of Friday and Saturday nights, I wanted Thursday and Friday nights.

The answer I got surprised me: “Sure!” No argument, no scorn, no lecture on how I should know the rules. Just “Sure!”

They made the change in their system… but there was a catch. I had to call Priceline and get them to change the dates on their end. The agent at the hotel explained that this was a function of their accounting system, and that the dates of the reservation had to align with the booking agency’s dates. I knew I was in for a fight, after all.

I called Priceline’s customer service, but they wouldn’t budge. They were friendly enough, but hustled me off the phone when their answer was “no.” (Their smooth move to end the call: “If there’s nothing else we can help you with, I’d like to thank you for choosing Priceline, and I hope you have a nice day.”)

So, I called the hotel back. She sighed. “Of course Priceline can change the reservation. If you give me your Priceline request number, I’ll call them and fix this.” Wow. I gave her the number. Five minutes later, she called me back and told me it was done. She told me that the Priceline rep she had spoken with wanted her to tell me that this was a one-time exception. My record has probably been noted in some way. I received an e-mail from Priceline confirming the change, but without any chastising.

I’m grateful that this option existed, because it certainly saved us a few bucks. And I’m very impressed with the customer service that the hotel provided me in going to bat for me. (Though the hotel employee didn’t seem to be afraid of any ramifications of the move, I’m not naming names because I don’t want anyone to catch any inadvertent flak.)

I realize that it was a bending of the rules, and that this shouldn’t be abused. I share this story for those times you might actually need to make a change, but are told you can’t. It’s possible. It just takes the right agent.

Categorized in: hotels, Priceline

The online travel agency battle royale is on. Just a few days after Travelocity and Expedia eliminated their booking fees for airline tickets, Priceline, the first agency to cut the fee, is fighting back with some copycatting of its own.

The agency is now offering price guarantees that mimic Orbitz’ “Price Assurance” for airfare and Travelocity’s “PriceGuardian” for packages:

That’s why starting today [we're] backing up every Flight AND Vacation Package purchase with Free Pricedrop Protection for orders booked by June 1st. Now you, and your users, are automatically covered if prices drop before the trip!

Up to $300 Cash Back if Flight Prices Drop:
If another priceline customer books the same flight for a lower price, we’ll automatically refund the difference in cash…up to $300.

Up to $600 Cash Back if Vacation Package Prices Drop:
If another priceline customer books the same vacation package for a lower price, we’ll automatically refund the difference in cash…up to $600.

As I’ve expressed before, I don’t think that a price guarantee that relies on another customer booking exactly the same itinerary is worth that much, unless you’re booking a really, really common route (and, in the case of a package, a midrange mainstream hotel). But hey, if it’s not costing you anything and doesn’t take any effort on your part, why the heck not.

Bottom line: The competition for your business is heating up. Who’s next?

Categorized in: airfare, Priceline

Today, Travelocity dropped its booking fee for airline tickets. A week ago, Expedia did the same.

Both agencies are promising that the fees will be on hiatus until May 31, 2009. But bringing the charge back may be tough: Back in 2007, Priceline and Hotwire dropped their booking fees “temporarily,” and they still haven’t brought the fees back.

That leaves Orbitz as the lone holdout among the biggest U.S. travel agencies. So when will Orbitz, the biggest holdout, throw in the towel on fees?

Consumers should welcome the rollback of these add-on booking charges. But this episode shows how brutal the online travel marketplace is right now. If online travel agencies want to collect a surcharge, they’re going to have to get creative, and earn it. Simply offering price comparisons and a few online alerts — which are free elsewhere — won’t cut it. And Travelocity, Expedia, Priceline, and Hotwire have admitted that.

Sure, Orbitz may counterargue that they provide value-added with their price guarantee, but since that service is of relatively limited value, I wouldn’t pay a premium for it (though maybe it’s worth the $6.99+ gamble for someone else…)

Travelocity is even poking a stick in Orbitz’ eye by copying their “Price Assurance” model and bringing it to vacation packages under the name “PriceGuardian.” If someone else books the same package as you, and the price has dropped, you get a check for the difference. Yeah, good luck with that.

What we may see is a shift to voluntary fees for add-on services, much like the airlines are going a-la-carte themselves. Want a price-drop guarantee? Pay a few bucks up front. Want text message alerts? A few more bucks. That I could see happening. But the standard one-size-fits-all fee is history at the mainstream agencies.

Downgraded: Uses of college budgets
I know that baggage fees suck, but is refunding students who fly back to school their $15 or $25 baggage fees really the best use of college funds?

Downgraded: “Fakeproof” passports
I love stories like this: British authorities touted the safety and security of their “e-passport,” effectively a passport with an embedded radio-frequency chip. Hacker-proof, they claimed. It was cracked, cloned, and altered within minutes. Minutes. Not even hours, much less days, or weeks. Minutes. The computer researcher proved his point by changing the data to make the passport appear to be Osama bin Laden’s, complete with passport photo. Just awesome. (Recall that, as posted a couple years ago, the easiest way to destroy the chip inside your passport, if you’re wary of RFID scanners stealing your personal information, is with a hammer.)

Downgraded: American Airlines upgrades
A downgraded upgrade? Indeed. American recently rolled out copayment fees for many of its upgrade awards. See the changes on the award chart here. More evidence of the devaluation of miles, if you needed a reminder.

Upgraded: European booking war hilarity
Britain’s Thomson Holidays, part of the TUI Group, came under heat for offering vacation rentals in Greece or Turkey for £14 a week. At £2 a night, that’s some cheap sleeps. Why was this problematic? Competitors complained that Thomson was changing customer expectations, causing travelers to hold out and wait for the rock-bottom room rate, instead of booking early. Sounds like crybaby talk to me.

Upgraded: Alliance dalliance
It’s not really a surprise, given the urge to merge that’s rampant in aviation today, but American Airlines, British Airways, and Iberia are looking to link up. They’re already alliance partners within Oneworld, and this isn’t a merger (yet), but the three airlines are trying to get antitrust immunity, so they can collude and set fares together. There’s really no benefit to consumers in this, especially if you fly between London and the United States. AA and BA dominate those routes, and the companies want to expand their price-setting power.

Upgraded: Google Maps’ sense of humor
Remember how Google Maps gave directions from the U.S. to Europe which included the instruction to swim across the Atlantic? Those jokesters recently did it again, suggesting you kayak across the Pacific Ocean. (They took it down, alas.)

kayak across pacific Upgrades and Downgrades    Baggage fee refunds...from colleges? High tech passports faked.  Kayak to Australia.  And more!

Upgraded: Your chance to speak your mind on aircraft interiors
Friend of the blog Addison Schonland is doing some market research on aircraft interiors, and what you want to see inside those aluminum tubes. Take his poll, which will hopefully filter through to airline designers and execs attending the Aircraft Interiors Expo show next month.

Upgraded: Stormy weather
Priceline is once again rolling out a cute promotion, which promises to pay the cost of your vacation package if your trip is rained out, through November 16, 2008. The “Sunshine Guarantee” kicks in if a half inch of measured rainfall is present on HALF of the days of your trip. That’s a lot of rain, so don’t count on any payout. Kerala monsoon holiday, anyone?


 Priceline eliminates booking fees on published airfares

I admit, I’m a sucker for the Shatner ads for Priceline. His over-the-top self-mocking is pitch-perfect. But beyond the Shat, there’s great news on the booking fee front courtesy of the firm he hawks. Priceline has “permanently” eliminated the booking fee it once charged on regular airfare.

Note that this is for a traditional flight search, by airline, schedule, etc., not the name-your-own-price opaque airfare they offer. (I wouldn’t recommend opaque airfare to anyone but a backpacking tourist with time to kill.)

Priceline and Hotwire have both previously put their booking fees for scheduled airfare on hiatus, but Priceline’s news is to make it “permanent,” and not just a limited-time offer.

This is a blow to Orbitz, Expedia, Travelocity, and any other agency, online or off, that charges a fee. But it’s not a death blow. Neither Priceline nor Hotwire have that great of a fare search engine, though you’re able to buy mixed-airline itineraries on both. Priceline allows multi-city routings and refundable-fare searches. (Hotwire punts and sends multi-city requests to Expedia instead.)

Nonetheless, it’s good to see a whittling down of booking fees, especially in an environment of fuel surcharges and all around nickel-and-diming. Bravo to lower fees. And with the ever self-deprecating Shat, to boot.

Categorized in: airlines, fare search, Priceline