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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  • Dutchess

    “I assumed that there was no transaction and I booked a hotel with Hotwire instead,” he says.This is just dumb, I’m sorry who just walks away from a reservation without double checking that they weren’t charged? How hard is it to call your credit card company or simply look online to see if there’s a charge.

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

    Not all transactions post immediately. When I travel on Virgin America the transaction is ticketed at the time of booking and shows up on the credit card immediately.

    By contrast, try booking with American Airlines online. The transaction doesn’t show up for several hours. The ticket states purchased online, but the charge doesn’t show up until the ticket says ticketed. Not even the authorization shows up immediately.

    On some credit cards, the name of the Vendor is immediately available. On other credit cards, the available credit is reduced by the amount of the authorization but the name of the merchant isn’t immediately available.

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

    Perhaps I’m missing something at this late hour, but the poll and the story seem unrelated. The problem here was the lack of an e-mail confirmation. Had the OP received an e-mail one way or the other he would not have make a second reservation.

    Which brings up a good point. I am not a fan or user of Pricelne, but they have a point. Its unlikely to be Priceline’s fault tha tthe OP didn’t receive the e-mail. Any number of factors outside of Priceline’s control could wreck havoc with an e-mail confirmation system. To its credit, Priceline has created a system which eliminates the incertainly of e-mail.

    This reminds me of the VRBO scam problem. Many people felt that VRBO should have created a secure system to bypass the perils of e-mails. It appears that it Priceline has done so.

  • $16635417

    No mention of a confirmation screen during the booking process. My experience is PL will advise you during the booking process if your bid is accepted or not. No need to wait for an email. If something happened during the process where you failed to get a confirmation screen, you can check your bid online.

  • sirwired

    Overzealous spam filters and malfunctioning client e-mail servers are hardly Priceline’s fault.

    And Chris, what’s with “(Take a minute to let that sink in. Here’s Priceline, an online travel agency, saying email can be unreliable.)”? It sounds like you are upset with Priceline for telling the truth. E-mail CAN be unreliable.

    And I with those that don’t understand the poll question… what does it have to do with the story? The dispute isn’t one of those where a hotel or rental agency is refusing to honor a rate quoted in an e-mail, or trying to pretend the reservation doesn’t exist.

    When did she make the Hotwire reservation? And was it for less than the Priceline booking? If she made the Hotwire booking after viewing the Priceline details, I’m suspicious of the story details, but I’m a naturally suspicious sort.

  • Brian_in_Wien

    I don’t get this aside:
    (Take a minute to let that sink in. Here’s Priceline, an online travel agency, saying email can be unreliable.).

    As a systems admin, it is a simple statement of fact to say that email can be, and is, unreliable. There are dozens of ways the transmission of an email can go wrong and there is no way of knowing whether the email made it to the other end. The absence of an email on the receiving end is proof of exactly nothing. And as we’ve seen on these pages, the presence of an email can also mean very little – the sender address can be spoofed (where someone pretends to send from another’s address) or hacked (where someone takes control of another’s email account).

    If I’m buying a plane ticket, and I don’t get a confirmation email after a couple of hours, I would say, “huh, something is wrong.” Then I would check the website to see if my purchase is registered. If not, I’d probably call. I certainly wouldn’t go and buy a ticket somewhere else.

  • TonyA_says

    This is really easy. Priceline is a true ONLINE TICKETING AGENCY. That means you get your ticket information ONLINE after you finish the sales transaction. There is no need for an email to conclude the sale since the sale information and the receipt is visible and available ONLINE. Priceline just like Amazon will send you a copy of receipt or order by email but there is no reason you cannot get it yourself online.

    However there are some bogus vendors on the internet that have the nerve to call themselves ONLINE TICKETING AGENCIES or OTAs when the only thing they can do is take your ORDER and your credit card online but they CANNOT DELIVER the ticket information immediately online so they need to email the same to you OFFLINE. In this case, you will only know of the completion of the SALE later.

  • http://flyicarusfly.com/ Fly, Icarus, Fly

    Not sure if you’re purposely trying to be dense… In this case, the OP is trying to prove a negative (didn’t book), so the advice is to check all available resources. Easiest / quickest is to check your credit card. No record of a charge? Move on and call Priceline. Just because you don’t see the charge on your credit card, don’t stop there.

  • TonyA_says

    I have to disagree with you. A true ONLINE sales transaction is completed ONLINE. You get your sales receipt online at the end of the transaction. There is no need for an OFFLINE transaction, like an email, to complete it. In other words, you know you bought something online without the need of an email telling you that you bought something online.

  • http://elliott.org Christopher Elliott

    I think that’s a fair comment. I mean, here’s an online travel agency (emphasis on “online”) saying email can be unreliable. True? Yes, we all know that. But they might as well say the Internet is an unreliable place to make a hotel reservation, while they’re at it.

  • http://elliott.org Christopher Elliott

    You would be surprised at how many people do that!

  • TonyA_says

    And, These people need to learn how to help themselves.

  • davork

    I’ve had issues with AA on firefox and have ended up with double bookings which their webservices team helps out with… I normally (when i remember(!)) use IE now for them just to be sure… still you would think with the widespread use of firefox that they would have this working correctly by now!

  • TonyA_says

    The SMTP protocol is asynchronous by design. Mail gets there whenever.

    IMO, there in nothing more efficient than a true ONLINE sales transaction where a buyer gets a receipt of the sale at the end of the online transaction. Today, we can buy airline tickets and even choose our seats all online in ONE SESSION. It is a great VENDING MACHINE that has ruined the careers of thousands of travel agents that were no longer needed.

  • TonyA_says

    That is why AMEX sided with Priceline. They probably could not find much reason not to side with Priceline.

  • http://flyicarusfly.com/ Fly, Icarus, Fly

    Another lesson: Don’t book hotel rooms at 3am in the morning. LOL.

  • http://bidontravel.com/mobile/index.html Don Nadeau

    I must be missing something too. The poll and Christopher’s post do seem unrelated.

    IMO, the poll should say “Should lack of confirmation by email prove that a reservation was not made?” or something like that.

  • http://flyicarusfly.com/ Fly, Icarus, Fly

    Depends on how you define unreliable. If a friend remembers to pick you up from the airport 99 times and forgets once, is he “unreliable”? The vast majority of online purchases go through without a hitch. When your friend doesn’t arrive, call him. Don’t jump in the first cab you see and leave your friend hanging… (which is basically what the OP did…)

  • S E Tammela

    Goodness me, I wish people would give credit-card purchases online more respect. Assume you were charged unless you’re specifically told you were not, and never, ever click reload on a purchase screen!

  • S E Tammela

    Incidentally, for me the poll is a little awkward to answer. Considering what happened in this case, shouldn’t it ask whether the lack of an email is enough to say a transaction didn’t occur? (In which case the answer is clearly “no”.)

  • S E Tammela

    Not only was it dumb, the customer’s story doesn’t match Priceline’s version, since they say that someone logged in 8 hours later and viewed the reservation details. So, why did they go ahead two days later and buy another ticket from a competitor? Let me guess… they found a better deal and thought they could get out of the first one?

  • EdB

    I was also going to point out about that little aside Chris made. Priceline was only stating a fact. Email, like regular US Mail, by default, is a non-verified method of communication. You can show you dropped something off, but you have no way to verifying it made it to the correct receiver.

    In this case, did the person check their SPAM folder for the email? Could very well have been it got rerouted there? Did they bother to try contacting Priceline to see what the issue was? Obviously they did not.

    Priceline and AMEX were both correct in denying the request for a refund. This person didn’t follow the basic steps to verify the original purchase.

  • MarkKelling

    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. Also, if I get flooded with emails I can accidentally delete an important one without realizing. Spam filters can also be wrong sometimes and throw an email you want to read into the trash because it thinks it is spam. Any of these things could have happened in this situation. Depending on an email to appear when the purchase confirmation is displayed online at the end of the transaction and is available after the fact as well online is misguided.

    Checking your credit card is a good idea, but depending on when and where the reservation is made, the purchase may not show up for a couple days. UA transactions take two or three days to post to my UA credit card account (CO used to be same day pre-merger). The items appear in the pending charges, but I have to look in a different place to see those online at the credit card site.

    What I think happened here is the OP forgot the reservation was made and went and made another one. Or maybe the other reservation was a lot cheeper than the first. The OP probably thought ignorance could be claimed and receive a refund of the extra purchase.

    I agree with others posting here that the poll does not seem to relate to the story. There was no “I have an email but they don’t have my reservation” issue which is what the poll question means to me.

  • EdB

    Poor comparison Chris. The internet is a method of sending data, like a road. Email is the data being sent, like the US Mail being carried on the road. If the vehicle being used to carry the mail/data is faulty and unreliable, how is that the fault of the road? Granted, the road needs some work at times, but like there are detours available when the road is closed, the internet also provides alternative routes to get the data through when a section is down.

  • EdB

    When I have used PL in the past, I have always gotten the confirmation screen with the confirmation number on it. As a matter of safety, because I know how unreliable email can be, I do not leave that page until I either get the email or I take a screenshot of the confirmation number.

  • EdB

    And that is the fault of the merchant why?

  • Charles B

    “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.”

    I’ve pulled my fair share of logs to recognize this. User wants to get out of a bad bid. User claims they never got the email. Priceline verifies that user did indeed a) view the completed transaction, and b) get sent an email that they have to control over whether or not he received it. Bottom line, I’m with Priceline. User is trying to get you to help them get out of a deal they wanted to dodge,

  • Michael__K

    All internet communications, including HTTP, is asynchronous by design. Packets may arrive “whenever”.

    The problem seems worse with SMTP because it’s not set up to give the email sender prompt feedback (or in some cases any feedback). But the fundamental problem exists with HTTP sessions too. If you click “Buy Now” and nothing happens, you may still have completed your purchase.

  • Michelle Norton

    I kind of see his point – here is an agency that wants you to do all of your booking through your computer, but basically states that the computerized confirmation may not be reliable.

  • TonyA_says

    Agree. Some worse that others. Even RTP does not guarantee that packets are delivered in correct order so there is jitter. :-)

    An online transaction may look seamless to the user, but in reality it is nothing but a lot of automation (that otherwise would have done by humans manually) happening behind the scenes. One (usually external) process may time out (e.g. credit card authorization) causing the online session to result to an unstable outcome. Hence, you should always call or log on to your account to see whether the sale went through if the session gets screwed.

  • TonyA_says

    Or “is an email confirmation needed if a sales transaction is completed online”?

  • TonyA_says

    Yeah, I saw the time stamp, too, but that could mean anything – ZULU time or Server Time of Priceline (maybe here in Connecticut). Some people work at night (like nurses) and maybe that is their break time.

  • http://www.facebook.com/judyserie.nagy Judy Serie Nagy

    Good grief, if you don’t get a confirmation number on a non-ref res, go into the website and confirm that you have a res or you don’t before booking somewhere else. Of course email is not guaranteed; the same way a letter can get lost at USPS, an email can get lost. Take responsibility for yourself.

  • EdB

    He is not saying the computerized confirmation may not be reliable, only the email. I’m pretty sure the confirmation page that is displayed after making the reservation showed up.

  • JoshuaTree

    It’s simply poor writing. You make reasonable points that Chris either makes light of or does not address. The point should have been you always need a confirmation but he focuses on the email.

  • backprop

    Someone sent me an internet the other day, and it just got here. The internet is not like a truck. It’s a series of tubes.

    Case closed.

  • EdB

    I hope you meant email and not an internet. That would be something to see if someone could actually send an internet. :)

  • TonyA_says

    Email is unreliable. Well, that is precisely why you are buying (and finishing everything) ONLINE; so you don’t need to use Email.

  • Joe_D_Messina

    Let me rephrase it slightly…
    (Take a minute to let that sink in. Here’s {Chris Elliott}, an online {consumer advocate}, saying email {isn’t} unreliable.)

    Seriously, does Chris think that ANYBODY’s email can magically work 100% of the time? That it can avoid everybody’s spam folders, filled-to-capacity in-boxes, address entry errors, and everything else that occasionally keeps email from reaching the intended recipients?

    The funny thing is that for a guy whose livelihood is largely possible thanks to the online world, he’s not overly with it from a tech standpoint. I’m thinking back a few articles to where he went off on another little tangent about how PDFs were hard to view and existed only as a means to confuse people.

  • TonyA_says

    New Poll: Are there people who do NOT have the competence to buy stuff online?
    YES or NO.

    It’s not your set folks. It could be you.

    TIP: if you really don’t understand how Priceline works, please don’t buy anything there.

  • emanon256

    I am not sure I can answer the question.
    In the past when I used the Priceline “Name Your Own Price” option, after submitting my bid, it told me right then and there on the screen if it was accepted or not, and when it was, it gave me a confirmation screen that I was asked to print. I also got an e-mail.
    Unless things have changes, wouldn’t the OP have also gotten a confirmation screen asking him to print it out? Who submits a bid and then closes their browser assuming they will get an e-mail later?

  • emanon256

    YES

  • Joe_D_Messina

    The funny thing about the wording of the poll question is that it wouldn’t apply to Priceline, since PL doesn’t rely solely on the confirmation email. They give you a confirmation screen when you complete the purchase. Thus, the email is just a follow-up and copy for your records.

    Which brings up the question of how the OP missed the fact his bid had been confirmed during the online transaction. Not getting the confirmation email is easy to understand, finishing up the PL transaction and not knowing it is a lot harder to believe.

  • EdB

    How did the OP miss the online confirmation? Based on the logs PriceLine shared, they obviously did see it and confirmed it. I think several others here have hit the nail on the head on what really happened in this case. The OP later found a better price and tried worming out of the PriceLine one with this lame excuse.

  • EdB

    YES.

  • TonyA_says

    Normally one checks their credit card statement to make sure they were charged CORRECTLY (not overcharged and no double billing).
    Just because my credit card was charged does not necessarily mean I have a correct booking or a valid ticket.
    I would still need to go to the airline or hotel’s site (or call them) to VERIFY that I actually have a paid reservation that is correct.
    Double checking the AGENT’s work is always necessary.
    That is why I provide my clients with a link to the airline (or GDS) site, together with confirmation numbers to lookup what they reserved or bought from me.
    Two minds are always better than one (especially mine). :-)

  • TonyA_says

    You bring up a great point. It would really be ironic if the OP asked Elliott to mediate and then does not answer or read the emails Elliott sends him or disappears midway through the process. :-)

  • Kevkev12

    For sure, Chris will mediate and help.

  • Joe_D_Messina

    More ironic yet is that based on his comments in the article, Chris would then blame himself for the email not reaching the person. We’d eventually get a poll on whether it was fair for online consumer advocates to rely on email.

  • Bill___A

    I don’t get the aside either….email is subject to many filters, it is definitely not considered reliable. When I get an online bill, I don’t fail to pay it if I didn’t see an email.
    There are multiple ways I use to check if something went through – such as checking the website later to see if it is posted in an itinerary, looking at the available credit on my credit card to see if anything had been authorized, etc. In no way would I even expect to use email as the primary determinator.
    Like Brian_in_Wien (Vienna to the Americans), I work in IT and know a lot about the inner workings of emails.
    I am somewhat surprised that Chris doesn’t see a difference, actually.
    Although I do not deal with priceline, I have every expectation that they play by the rules and expect their customers to also. They would likely lose money if they gave a refund every time someone claimed not to have received an email.