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

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Featureflash /
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.

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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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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  • bodega3

    I don’t book on these sites, so I don’t know how they work. When you make a reservation, what does your confirmation say? Don’t you get an email right away and does the email have the rules of what you booked? I know that when I book something online, or make a payment online, I cut and paste to my email so I have a record of it should I not get an email right away showing what transaction I just made. I feel it is my responsibility to protect myself by doing this, for that just in case situation.

  • odessit

    I used to work for a company (not travel related) that recorded every transaction on its web site. When a customer called a customer service rep could literally reply their session the moment they entered the site until the left. Recording masked any confidential information a consumer would leave, but displayed all other information.

  • EdB

    Without independent 3rd party verification, I wouldn’t trust any “record” an opaque site provided to “prove” anything. That record could easily have been manufactured to support their claim. How are you going to dispute it unless you have a recording of the session to challenge what they are saying.

  • Michael__K

    With Priceline you may get an immediate “yes” or “no”. But sometimes you get a “check back in 20 minutes (or call us if you don’t get an answer by then)”. And sometimes you get a counter-offer (increase your bid by $x right now to get a room).

    In all cases (unless something has changed) the confirmation email doesn’t disclose much — you have to click through to the Priceline website to see reservation details.

  • Cathy_Disqus

    Yep, lots of companies are recording user sessions to improve their analytics. Several of our clients (Fortune 500 companies) use Clicktale or mouseflow to collect this info and apply it to redesigning their websites. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see Priceline, Hotwire and anybody else who gets a lot of customer complaints using this type of technology for customer support as well.

  • Bill___A

    You know, I take screen shots too. It may not be as fancy as what they have, but I do keep a record of it.

  • Daddydo

    The airlines, not a whole lot of others, require full TSA information. We are required to input your full name as it appears on various ID’S depending on travel. We must also put in your birthday. Some airlines require your passport number. I can see that information through the completion of your travel. the info if hacked is out there. We could care less about that information until we get a call from the airline counter that it is wrong. Fines are stiff if errors are made, both for the customer and the agent that made the reservation. To get to a reservation in our system, you need a computer password, an agent sign in, and knowledge of how to use the program, or get through 3 separate security programs so using a travel agent is a safe a system that you can get, We live in the travel world of mis-trust – branded -“SAFETY”! It will get worse.

  • Tincanrider

    I do not have problems… But I follow the suggestions learned here… I take screen shots etc. so that I can get to them on my IOS devices easily when I forget my paper copies… But, are the savings on the most often seen ‘culprits’ on this sites worth it? I think not.

  • pauletteb

    The “list of prices offered” should have been a clue that he wasn’t on the agency site. I don’t use opaque sites for the simple reason that I want to know exactly what I’m booking before I push the button. To me the “savings” aren’t worth the risk, especially since you can often get the same price, or better, on your own.

  • emanon256

    I use a tool called SnagIt that takes screen shots. I think it was $20 and I have used it since 2005. Every confirmation, etc. I grab a screen shot just in case. I usually don’t keep them after I get the confirmation e-mail as long as they match. They also have a tool called Camtasia that records a video of everything you do, but that one costs a lot more, so I dont use it. Of course, I also don’t use any on-line agencies as when things go wrong, they really go wrong.

  • Helio

    In MS Windows, you can use the PrintScreen button for a full screenshot (just Ctrl-V at Paint or Word), or you can use the Snipping Tool feature (usually located at Start/All Programs/Accessories) to select part of your desktop screen and export it as an image.

    Both are free ;-)

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    You seem to be pretty knowledgeable about how Priceline works, and I’m not at all. I’m just wondering – is it possible he entered the one side he thought he was on and somehow the site *moved* him to the other side? Or inadvertently clicked on something? Or was the OP on the wrong side all along?

    Only reason I ask is that we’ve discussed on this forum how one can click on a website, looking up a price, and search around, come back and suddenly the price has increased and the old price or package or set of amenities has disappeared. Wondering if something like that could have happened.

  • Michael__K

    If I had to guess, maybe the OP used Priceline’s new “Express Deals” feature, which works pretty much like Hotwire. Instead of naming your own price, you pick from a list of opaque “deals.” The price is disclosed up front but the deal is still prepaid and non-refundable.

    I can’t imagine how someone could go through the Name-Your-Own-Price process and not know that they named a price. There are third-party sites where people share winning bids and deep-link to Priceline, but you still need to type your bid and go through multiple confirmation screens.

  • Michael__K

    On second thought, Priceline’s response to Chris doesn’t make sense:

    The OP “said he booked “a flight, hotel, and car rental on Priceline.”

    The article talks about 1 confirmation number, so that rules out 3 separate reservations.

    I haven’t used Priceline’s “Vacation Packages” feature, but I’m pretty sure that’s the ONLY way you can book a flight+hotel+car under 1 reservation.

    And I’m pretty certain that “Vacation Packages” — while they may be non-refundable — can NOT be bid on with “Name Your Own Price”.

  • 1pop

    …even easier on MAC: “Command/shift-3”

  • 1pop

    Oh, and before you get too enamored of “screen shots” check out the shot below…without using any “special” program,I manipulated the original (and really didn’t spend any time trying to make it perfect)

  • Danielle

    That clearly looks photoshopped, actually, so I’m not sure of your point. But yes, it’s very easy to photoshop a screenshot (although I’ve been told photoshop detection is also pretty easy with the software they have now).