“Is Priceline a scam?”

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When David Rasmussen made a nonrefundable “name your own price” reservation through Priceline, he was in for a series of unfortunate surprises.

First, the hotel he was assigned, the Hawthorn Suites By Wyndham Omaha / Old Mill, wasn’t going to honor the $48 per night rate he’d bid. Instead, it would add taxes and fees, bringing his nightly rate to $61.

Ah, hotel taxes.

(That’s perfectly legal, by the way.)

“Then I discovered the pet fee,” he says. “$50 per night.”

Rasmussen had been led to believe the property was pet friendly. And it was — as long as he was willing to pay more than twice the room rate.

He initiated a “live” chat with a Priceline representative named “Ray,” who told him he should have read Priceline’s disclosures, before disconnecting.

“Why doesn’t Priceline disclose the total of room charges, taxes and potential fees based upon which boxes you check, prior to asking you to accept the deal?” he asks. “Or, is Priceline a scam?”

Is Priceline a scam? That’s not the first time I’ve heard that question, but I haven’t heard it in a long time.

This was definitely an extreme case: A $48 bid that turned into $61, thanks to Omaha’s hotel taxes. And then a $50 per night “pet fee” — also an unusually high number.

I can’t blame Rasmussen for thinking this is a scam.

I asked Priceline to explain.

Displaying a hotel’s room rate is standard practice across the industry, and allows us to provide consumers with an “apples to apples” comparison with what they’re seeing elsewhere.

When a hotel lets us know that it has a set “extra” fee for certain services, and provides that computerized information in a way that we can decipher, we will share that information as well.

If the fee is variable depending on the guest’s needs or usage, or if we’re uncertain that fees will apply, we let guests know that fees may apply. Again, all before the booking is finalized.

That’s an interesting perspective. Certainly, people want to compare “apples” to “apples” — but they’re interested in the final price and couldn’t be bothered with taxes. It would be more true to say online agencies have an interest in quoting a low, pre-tax rate, because it makes their products look less expensive.

Priceline says that for Rasmussen’s booking there was no pet fee included in the listing, but “pet friendly” was clearly called out as one of the hotel’s major features.

“Our customer service team contacted the hotel, and the manager graciously agreed to refund,” says the representative.

But back to the question: Is Priceline a “scam?”

If by “scam” you mean is Priceline doing something illegal, the answer is obviously “no.”

But if by “scam” you mean it’s withholding certain facts, like taxes and fees, until you’re too far into the booking decision to turn back — and, incidentally, this is exactly the kind of freedom the airline industry wants — then the answer is: perhaps.

The technology exists to let consumers know exactly what they’ll pay right up front. Companies that refuse to do it, citing industry standards, are only doing themselves a favor.

Rasmussen rebooked at the Motel 6 in Omaha. The pet fee there is a far more reasonable $10 per night. “My wife is happy that the dog can come along,” he says.

Does Priceline intentionally withhold certain facts, like taxes and fees, until you're too far into the booking decision to turn back?

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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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  • y_p_w

    OK. Suppose you own your own business and don’t mind being sued out of business, then be my guest. In principle one can refuse to arbitrarily serve someone provided it’s not actually on the basis for being in a protected class. However, if that person is actually in a protected class, then the business owner better be very careful.

    Business owners have tried the “I don’t need a reason” angle, and it didn’t work. Any attorney advising a client on how to handle denial of service would tell the business owner to have a clear policy that is applied equally to everyone, and to not use “I don’t need a reason” as a pretense. Most business owners aren’t stupid enough to do what you suggest because all it takes is one prospective customer denied service (who is a member of a protected class) to file a lawsuit.

  • AUSSIEtraveller

    Won’t be sued.
    I can decline service to anyone. No one can make me give a reason.
    Stop playing scary lawyer. We don’t fear lawyers.

  • y_p_w

    It’s easy enough to research that there have been many civil rights lawsuits were brought where nobody was specifically told why they were denied service.

  • AUSSIEtraveller

    must have been badly handled.
    No one can make you serve anyone (except maybe in Iraq in a state of war)

  • justmeeeee

    To me “pet friendly” would mean the hotel accepts pets (which most don’t) but I would never presume there would be no fee attached. However, $50 is way out of line. Still, if I were traveling with a pet, I would never use priceline.

  • justmeeeee

    Priceline does include the taxes and fees it knows about. I’ve occasionally seen a city tack an additional tax onto the federal sales tax and the priceline “fees” which were disclosed up front. Still, priceline should let their cooperating hotels know that any and all taxes and hotel-imposed fees need to be included in the prices they quote, or they can drop the hotels from their lists. Not likely, but that’s how it SHOULD be. Priceline prices aren’t so great these days, anyway–often about the same as you can get from transparent websites, and priceline itself seems more interested in being simply a booking website than a website for bargain-hunters. Notice how they always direct you first to their transparent page, thinking (probably correctly) that less experienced users will assume that’s all there is,and book there.

  • LonnieC

    After reading all of the comments on protected classes and the right to refuse service under certain circumstances, I’m reminded of a case where an attorney was refused service. The attorney sued, and lost. It seems that attorneys are not a protected class, and can be refused service on the basis of their profession. Funny…. (and I’m an attorney – funnier still.)

  • PolishKnightUSA

    I know this is naughty to say, but when I stayed at hotels and had to take my cat (I was moving at the time), I simply didn’t tell them. I never mentioned the cat. I then requested that the room not be cleaned and left a large tip for the cleaning staff. Never had a problem. Always took his carrier in through the back way covered by a garment bag.

    But I can understand why many hotels may have a pet fee and limited rooms similar to smoking: Both are full of allergens and the next person may get sick if they stay in that room and the cleaning will need to be more thorough. For allergic people, this includes steam cleaning and cleaning all bedding. Some people may be so sensitive that the mattress can retain allergens.

    So certain rooms probably need to be pegged as “pet friendly” and given a more thorough cleaning than regular rooms. If I’m a cat person I don’t want a room that smells like wet dog, for example.