What’s the difference between a “shoppable” and “bookable” rate?

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Christine Volk’s question may be one of those imponderables that can only be asked but never answered: In the travel industry, what’s the difference between a “shoppable” and “bookable” rate?

If you said there’s none, then you must not buy airline tickets. Give me a few minutes, and I’ll pull up a fare that’s cached on an airline site or online travel agency that displays as available, but actually isn’t. To customers, these phantom prices smack of a bait-and-switch scam, and since the customer is always right, they are.

Here’s what happened to Volk: She recently booked a flight on Virgin America, and at the bottom of the page she found the upsell — a “35 percent off” offer on an Avis or Budget rental.

“I checked on the rates for Budget and they were a good deal,” says Volk. An 18-day rental at Boston’s Logan Airport came to $601, including taxes.

That is good.

“I clicked on the ‘confirm reservation’ button and got a message that the reservation could not be completed,” she says. “I tried several times. Same problem.”

Volk then contacted Budget and was told that the rates were — and I quote — “shoppable” but not “bookable.”

So what was bookable? The rate Budget offered her was $400 higher.

That looked suspicious, so I decided to check with Budget. A representative responded to my question promptly:

Any rate that is retrieved or “shopped,” can be reserved or “booked.”

We have looked into this matter, and we cannot seem to replicate the problem Chris Volk experienced. In fact, we received the $601.94 rate and were able to complete the reservation.

We would be happy to make the reservation for the traveler. Please let me know if we can be of assistance.

Problem solved? Not exactly.

I returned to Volk with this information.

“The statement above from Budget is quite simply a lie,” she said. “Customer service rep after customer service rep was unable to receive the $601.94 rate.”

Really? I asked to see the correspondence.

Volk sent the emails between her and Budget. She identified four separate excuses for not receiving the rate.

Excuse #1 — A rate code has been loaded into the reservation system as “shoppable” but not “bookable.”

Dear Christine Volk,

Thank you for contacting the E-mail Customer Service team know about your disappointing experience. On behalf of our entire Budget team, I apologize that the charges displayed through Virgin Airlines website differed from Budget’s rates.

Please accept our apologies for any inconvenience or confusion this rate issue may have caused. This issue is caused when a rate code has been loaded into the reservation system as “shoppable” but not “bookable.”

Unfortunately, due to this error, you can view the rate, but the rate is not actually available to be booked at the location selection.

Excuse #2 – Someone else already confirmed that rate, so it is gone.

Dear Christine Volk,

Thank you for contacting the E-mail Customer Service team.

Certainly, we apologize for the confusion, a rate may be shoppable for a customer but not bookable when they have reviewed the rate, however someone else has already confirmed and selected the particular rate for the vehicle they are looking to rent. This generally happens when using a 3rd party website to book vehicles, where there may be a delay in retrieving the data from the Budget.com site.

To avoid this type of confusion we suggest booking directly through Budget.com.

Excuse #3 – We can’t duplicate it.

Dear Ms. Volk,

Thank you for contacting us through the Budget website.

We apologize that you are not able book a reservation using the discount number through Virgin Airlines. Please provide the discount number that you are trying to use so that we may see if we can duplicate the rate that you are seeing. You will be advised of our findings once we have all the information.

Excuse #4 – Maybe it’s you.

Dear Ms. Volk,

Thank you for the screen shots. We have tried to duplicate the rates that you are seeing on Viriginamerica and are finding higher rates than what you have sent.

Please keep in mind that rates are not guaranteed until actually booked no matter whose website you are on. Each rate has a certain amount of vehicles set aside for that rate when that amount of cars are reserved on that rate then the rates will go to the next rate available.

You might want to clear your cache as this could be what is causing the problem.

Volk has made a reservation for $990 instead of the $601 she thought she’d get, which isn’t a terrible rate, but nowhere near as good a deal as before. She’d like me to follow up with Budget or Virgin America and secure the rate she’d initially been quoted.

I’m a little tired of these pricing games. If companies can track you online, if they know more about you than you know about yourself, then they should be able to quote you a bookable rate, shouldn’t they?

I understand caching, but that excuse is so 1998.

Should I mediate Christine Volk's case with Budget?

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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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