When is a confirmation actually confirmed?

When Lefteris Michailidis didn’t get a confirmation email from Priceline for a recent three-night hotel stay in London, he thought his bid wasn’t accepted.

“I assumed that there was no transaction and I booked a hotel with Hotwire instead,” he says.

He assumed wrong.

“A few days later, I received an email from Priceline saying that I should get ready for the trip to London,” he recalls. “I was confused and I called Priceline to find out that they had charged me for a hotel room, although I thought that the transaction I originally tried to make with them did not go through because I never received a confirmation email.”

As it turns out, Priceline had charged him for his room after all. Now he would pay for two sets of hotel rooms during his visit. (Priceline’s “name-your-own-price” rooms are completely nonrefundable and can’t be changed.)

Michailidis’ experience raises a question that comes up often in my consumer advocacy practice: When is a confirmation confirmed? Is it when you press the “enter” button on your PC? When you get an email with a confirmation number? Or is it when you actually board the plane, open the door to your hotel room, or turn the ignition on your rental car?

In 99 out of 100 cases, an email with a confirmation number is reason enough to believe you have an actual reservation. But Michailidis was that 1 percent where the email — or more precisely, the lack of an email — wasn’t enough.

“Email as a means of confirming a reservation isn’t always reliable,” Priceline spokesman Brian Ek told me. “That’s why we recommend checking the website or calling.”

(Take a minute to let that sink in. Here’s Priceline, an online travel agency, saying email can be unreliable.)

Michailidis didn’t think it was fair to pay for a hotel twice, so he disputed the charge with his American Express card. But Amex sided with Priceline.

“The merchant has advised that the customer has the option of visiting the ‘Check Your Request’ section of the website or by calling 1-800-priceline to check the status of an accepted offer,” it said, by way of explanation. “The merchant sends a courtesy e-mail to the customer to visit the ‘Check Your Request’ section of the website, however, e-mail is not always reliable and the customer should not rely on it as method of determining the status of their offer.”

In other words, don’t count on an email from Priceline.

I asked Priceline to take another look at Michailidis’ complaint. I mean, if you never send a customer an email, then expecting him to pay seems a little unreasonable, doesn’t it?

Priceline’s response: But we did tell him.

“The bid was accepted at 2:51 a.m. on 5/31, which means the confirmation would have been available online at that time,” Ek told me by email. “An e-mail was sent at 2:52 a.m. on the 31st to the e-mail address provided. Someone did go online to view the reservation details at 12:16 p.m. on the 31st.”

Sigh.

So when is a confirmation a confirmation? I’m leaning toward, “don’t believe it until you see it,” but obviously, that’s a worst-case scenario — one exacerbated by the fact that Priceline’s model is slightly different than the rest of the travel industry, in that its products have lots of unusual restrictions.

Still, here are a few words of advice: The next time you make an online reservation, be sure to whitelist the domain of the travel company you’re dealing with. (So, for example, if you’re booking through Orbitz, you’ll want to add “orbitz.com” to your email whitelist, so all of its emails will get to you.)

Also, check your credit card statement regularly, and certainly no more than 24 hours after you’ve made a purchase. You should be monitoring your credit card purchases anyway.

And if you have any doubts about your reservation, call your online travel agency — and assume nothing.

Update (2:20 p.m.): During the last week, I’ve received several emails (the ones that got through) complaining about the tone of the comments section on this site. These readers, some of whom have been commenters for years, are refusing to participate in the discussion because of the negativity and perceived bullying by a small, vocal group of commenters.

I’ve reviewed the comments and I agree. Some of the threads are virtually indistinguishable from FlyerTalk’s infamous flame-fests.

I will not allow my site to be turned into another FlyerTalk.

Going forward, I’m making a few changes to my comment policy:

1) I’ve reverted to the old version of Disqus, which allows for more moderator control. Also, it eliminates the ability to “upvote” and “downvote” comments people agree or disagree with. I think having your comment voted down can be hurtful and offensive to some commenters.

2) All comments will require a confirmed email address. I will not allow anyone to anonymously take potshots at my commenters.

3) All of the comments are now being screened. If your comment doesn’t add to the discussion, or is nothing more than a thinly-veiled ad hominem attack, I will not approve it.

I will probably relax the all-comments screening policy in due time. But for some commenters — and you know who you are — their profiles will continue to be in moderate-only mode.

If you have any questions about the new policy, please .

I’m sorry it’s come to this.

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at . Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/CarverFarrow Carver Clark Farrow

    That was the point I was trying to make. Checking your credit card online is insufficient to know that you won’t be charged later. You must go directly to the purchasers website and also confirm that a transaction wasn’t processed.

    If you buy a ticket on aa.com, you won’t see a charge immediately but you cannot stop there and assume the transaction didn’t go through. You must also check the website or call if you are concerned.

  • TonyA_says

    Re: But they might as well say the Internet is an unreliable place to make a hotel reservation, while they’re at it.

    Wow, without the Internet where would YOU be, writing newspaper articles?

    The Internet has changed almost everything and we still have not seen how far and wide and deep it will go.

    Respectfully, I think you need to make a distinction between RELIABILITY and DESIRABILITY.

    Reliability can easily be measured or quantified. You can count the number of failures or successes over attempts. You can easily determine whether an internet booking made it or not to the hotel’s (or airline’s) own reservation system.

    DESIRABILITY is more complex. For one, there will be a lot of QUALITATIVE factors. I am pretty sure that BIAS will also be an issue to the study.

    I do not work for an OTA. I work with Brick & Mortar agencies. I should be biased in favor of B&Ms but I believe that ONLINE RESERVATIONS are more reliable compared to OFFLINE reservations. Both online and offline reservations still go through the same “pipes” – the one that leads to the hotel’s or airline’s own reservation systems. The major difference is OFFLINE adds a human intermediary to the buying process. That could either be good or bad. However, by removing this intermediary, the sophisticated buyer will definitely get a more instant response or acknowledgment to whatever they do online.

    So in the end this is not a question of whether the Internet is reliable. This is really a question of whether the internet buying process is desirable for some shoppers that fit a certain profile.

  • TonyA_says

    I can’t stop laughing.

  • Michael__K

    I’ve received non-commital “confirmation” screens where PL says its search is taking longer than usual.

    But as I recall that screen does say to check your email for a link to the final confirmation/rejection page or to call if you don’t receive anything shortly (I think they suggest 20 or 30 minutes).

  • Michael__K

    Usually Priceline has a response to your bid right away.

    Sometimes it tells you that the search is taking longer than normal and to check your email for a link to your bid’s final status (or to call if you don’t receive that email).

  • $16635417

    I’ve gotten those as well. I’ve generally left the PL window open as a reminder to myself and then went in and checked directly on their website to see if the request was accepted or denied. I would never assume that because I did or did not get an email that I was either confirmed or not.

  • TonyA_says

    GRRRRREAT post!

    In an age of “is there an app for that”, either you innovate or die.

  • Hélio Oliveira

    English isn’t my 1st language, I may miss a point at the pool.

    The problem wasn’t an email confirming the existence of a reservation and this reservation wasn’t honored – the problem was the lack of email confirming it, and the customer assuming that reservation wasn’t complete.

    Prior sending an email, all internet merchants (or at least all internet merchants I used so far) displays a screen with your confirmation. I always print this screen, as a proof of my purchase. If I don’t receive an confirmation email in a reasonably time frame, I’ll contact the merchant to make sure that my purchase is OK.

    Therefore, the circumstance of not receiving a confirmation email is not a reason to believe that the purchase wasn’t completed. You need to check the website to make sure, at least.

  • jm71

    As others have stated, there’s a logical fallacy — the question as asked is not appropriate to this issue. Yes, receiving an email confirmation of a purchase with details should be proof that should be honored (unless there’s evidence of tampering of course, like I change the confirmed rate to $9.99/night, in which case the company should have its own copy to compare). But that’s not the issue here — *lack* of seeing an email is *not* proof that something *didn’t* happen.

    Has Mr. Michailidis been asked about Priceline’s claim that not only was an email sent, but that he logged in and viewed the status? Does he deny that happened? Otherwise, I agree with many others here — it seems he knew the bid was accepted, found a better deal, deleted the email, and hoped he could bluff his way out of the charge.

  • Dutchess

    The problem is an online travel agency nor any other website has control over your mail host. If google or hotmail decide they need to send all Travelocity email to the spam bin, or you’ve inadvertently marked them as SPAM in the past, how would that be Travelocity’s problem or responsibility?

  • Dutchess

    Except, they will almost ALWAYS show an authorization even if it hasn’t posted to your account. Calling up and talking to someone they can look at the authorizations in real time.

  • bodega3

    I don’t get how the poll applies to this column. He didn’t get an email.

  • JW

    BOOK WITH A TRAVEL AGENT OR DIRECTLY WITH THE HOTEL – THE COST IS USUALLY THE SAME OR BETTER AND YOU CAN CANCEL USUALLY TO 4:OO PM DAY OF ARRIVAL AT NO COST – THIS WILL AVOID THIS PROBLEM

  • Grant Ritchie

    I agree 100%. I would have thought that would be obvious to Chris, too.

  • rarnold2000

    I would side with Priceline here because it would be easy for the OP to check the site if he had any question about the reservation going through.  However, I always favor clarity and disclosure so, does Priceline make its policy clear?  I would like to see a bold notice warning customers to always check at such and such site for a confirmation.

  • William_Leeper

    There are ocassions on every website where people will inadvertently input the wrong information, and be directed to someone else’s information! This is especially true with websites that request only a confirmation number, or phone number. Fat fingers happen, and with that said, it is highly possible that was the case, or someone called in and an operator input the wrong information. Most if not all sites record the Ip address of the requesting machine, and can prove where that machine is (within an area). I’m not entirely sure how Priceline is set up, but let’s give the poor guy a break on this one!

  • [email protected]

    I had the same problem with Ryanair this summer;  no confirmation e-mail after making the reservation.  Went back to retrieve the reservation, and thought I had confirmed it myself, but still no e-mail, and no charge on my debit card (Ryanair prefers those).  Then two days before departure I get a reminder to check in on line, and both reservations, identical in all respects, show up, and there are now two charges on my debit card.  Luckily we were flying to London Stansted, one of the few places where there is a Ryanair agent on the ground (try finding one elsewhere, or try finding information on their web site).  I was assured, I would be refunded the second reservation, as long as I wrote by regular mail to the Dublin office of Ryanair.  And indeed, they did refund the second billing within a week, without any hassles.

  • [email protected]

    I ended up with a duplicate reservation, Limoges to London, Stansted, this summer;  no e-mail confirmation of the reservation arrived, and no charge was made to my debit card/bank account.  Tried to retrieve the reservation and ended up with a duplicate, of which I was unaware until I did receive an e-mail reminder to check in on line and print the boarding passes.  Then a second reminder and a check of my bank account showed that Ryanair had taken the money twice.  Luckily we were going to Stansted, which is one of the few places where there is a Ryanair agent info desk.  There I was assured I would get a refund, and received a leaflet asking me to send the details by old fashioned mail, to the Dublin offices – no phone calls, no e-mails.  I did this, and about a week later, Ryanair credited me back the second billing.  But there was no way to know how to do this on the web site, nor any useful phone number to call – Ryanair can be very difficult to find, but they corrected the mistake promptly when I followed their procedure.

  • TonyA_says

    Now that’s a kinder and gentler approach – give the poor guy a break.

    It takes a lot of humility to say – “I screwed up and didn’t check online, so I ended up buying 2 hotel rooms. Please help me since I can only afford one.”

    I’d rather hear a plea like this rather than all the excuses that don’t make any sense.

  • TonyA_says

    Remember the Southwest Airline Facebook Sale Snafu.
    I wonder if you could find how many duplicate tickets Southwest issued and charged a customer’s credit card by simply going online on Southwest’s website?

  • Parisfox

    I agree that an email should be proof of a confirmation. 

    However, lack of an email doesn’t necessarily mean there wasn’t a confirmation.  I would check with the hotel or airline in question by phone or directly by my email.

  • bodega3

    I would be calling the online TA, too!

  • Michelle C

    Siding with Priceline.  If they don’t give you an immediate 30 second answer, they have three ways to check the status, and it is in their FAQ section.   Someone can always say “I didn’t get the email.”    With Priceline a confirmation is valid when the company issues you a confirmation.   If the email isn’t received then the responsibility lies with the consumer to call and check.  This must be this guys first attempt to use Priceline, because if he had used it before then he would know to expect an email saying if his bid was accepted or declined.   If you bid is accepted they give you your information.  If it is declined they ask you to change or bid details. 

  • Michelle C

    Email can be unreliable but that isn’t the travel companies fault.  They are doing their part by providing a phone number, and an online way to check the status. They encourage you to check your status via another method. Even USPS loses letters.    Had Priceline’s website messed up, their phone system not work, or a customer service rep tell him that he didn’t have a reservation then it would be entitled to a refund.

  • Ann Lamoy

    Email is not instant. Yes I can send an email right now to someone and
    most of the time it appears within seconds. Other times it takes hours.
    That is just how email works.

    This. i can send an email with important information to a work colleague sitting in a cubicle across the room (and we are on the same server) and one hour it can arrive almost instantaneously. Two hours latter, another email can take ten minutes or a half an hour.  I won’t even get into emails sent to colleagues on different work servers. :-)

  • http://www.facebook.com/CarverFarrow Carver Clark Farrow

     What exactly are you disagreeing with?  Doesn’t priceline let you know online whether your bid is accepted or not.  Isn’t the e-mail just a redundant system?

  • TonyA_says

    the lack of email confirmation.

  • Mel65

    Off topic, but….Yayy I can comment again.  The other DISQUS didn’t work right w/ my version of IE and I can’t change the settings on my work computer….not that I’m posting at work….or anything… Nice weather we’re having, eh?

  • ExplorationTravMag

    I didn’t comment on this yesterday because I hadn’t been up very long and my head was still muddled but…

    In the past, I’ve not gotten a confirmation e-mail when I know I should have.  Something I’ve started doing is logging into my webmail and looking through the spam/junk/quarantine folders there to see if it was stopped at the server.  Nine times out of ten, that’s where it is.

    I always check this now before making another purchase done online.

  • y_p_w

     I’ve had funky stuff happen with an attempt at a Priceline reservation. Sometimes there are odd technical errors. You could end up with an internet disconnect somewhere that prevents the message from showing up. I’ve had Priceline indicate a server error. I always check with my account main page and always log in before attempting to reserve.

  • y_p_w

     Booking directly almost never gets the same price as you can get through Priceline’s “Name Your Own Price” system. I’ve gotten a room for $40 a night, but during my stay overheard people at the front desk trying to extend their stays for $80-100 a night.

  • velliott22

    If you receive an e-mail confirmation, you should be able to assume the item has been confirmed.  However, if you do not receive the confirmation it is your duty to double check that (1) your e-mail hasn’t blocked it, (2) that the website has not confirmed it (by accessing website).  If you do not complete your due diligence, then you have to deal with the consequences.  This is part of being your own “travel agent”.

  • http://twitter.com/rentini Rentini Travel

    While it’s true that not all transactions are instantly posted to any involved party; in this day and age it seems it has become custom to rely on email, especially when the entire transaction is taking place online anyway.

    That is why we take such pride in our secure booking system with automated confirmation emails. While we still give homeowners or travelers the opportunity to request more information or communicate directly with the other party. Otherwise when a reservation is made, emails are sent and our system facilitates that payments are held until both parties are satisfied with the transaction. Here’s a recent blog post regarding this topic: http://blog.rentini.com/2012/09/17/stay-in-control-with-accept-reject-and-discuss-options/