Yes, your online travel agency sees E-V-E-R-Y-T-H-I-N-G

By | July 19th, 2013

Featureflash / Shutterstock.com
Featureflash / Shutterstock.com
How much does your online travel agency know about your reservation? If you said “too much” then you must still be upset about that whole NSA affair. I can’t blame you. Or, maybe you’re thinking of the legendary screenshots a company like Priceline produces when they’re challenged on a nonrefundable reservation.

I say “legendary” because no one I know has actually seen these images. Until now.

Here’s the case that prompted the disclosure: Mike Flanigan contacted me a few weeks ago and said he booked a flight, hotel, and car rental on Priceline, and needed to change the dates afterwards.

Now, Priceline used to be strictly “Name Your Own Price,” and completely nonrefundable. Now you can also make a regular agency booking, where some purchases can be refunded under certain conditions.

A little confusing, I know.

Flanigan thought he’d made an agency booking.

“I was told that I had booked via Name Your Own Price, and that the reservation could not be changed,” he said. “That is untrue. I did not bid on a price. I simply selected from a list of prices offered, and was not informed of any non-changeable status during the submittal process.”


Flanigan phoned Priceline’s customer service number, which was “no help,” he said. “They only read the status back to me.”

Something didn’t feel right with this one. I’m sure Flanigan believed he’d made an agency booking. Priceline and the other so-called “opaque” site, Hotwire, go to great lengths to disclose the refund rules on their purchases.

I contacted Priceline on Flanigan’s behalf, and a representative immediately agreed to investigate his claim.

Related story:   Why our loss is your gain

Less than a day later, I received a copy of Flanigan’s confirmation, which clearly disclosed that he booked a completely non-refundable “Name Your Own Price” reservation. It was, I have to admit, a unsettling, but it also definitively closed the claim.

“Sorry,” my Priceline contact said, “but this one’s not refundable.”

I’ve spoken with others in the online travel industry, and have been told that the forensics get even creepier. Some systems, they say, can follow your cursor during the booking process, telling the online travel agency where you go, which buttons you push, and which windows you open. This information can then be aggregated and used to “optimize” the site during a redesign.

Very clever.

(I asked Priceline if it could follow the booking in more detail, as described above, and was told, “Yes, in some cases.”)

For the rest of us, the takeaway is pretty obvious: We need to watch what we’re doing when we book travel, because they certainly are. And if we happen to get an intransigent call-center employee when we ask for help — well, now we know the reason why.

They probably know more than they’re letting on.

Do you trust the electronic records kept by an online travel agency?

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