“Is Priceline a scam?”

By | June 18th, 2014

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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