Hey travelers, here’s a little news flash about flash sales


Gerald Annable had to think quickly when he found an ad for a 12-day Holland America cruise of Italy, the Greek Islands and Turkey. The special rate, $1,559 per person, could be his if he acted now, according to his travel agent.

“We were told that it was a ‘flash’ sale and that day was the last to book,” he said. “We were told the cruise must be paid in full that day.”

Annable forked over the money promptly — a total of $3,738 for him and his wife, Judith. But that evening, he discovered another ad for the same cruise and the same cabin class. The price: $1,399 per person.

He asked his agent whether Holland America would honor the lower rate, but the cruise line declined. That’s how Annable discovered the problem with “flash” sales: Although the deals are often good, additional restrictions often apply, and the price you get might not be the lowest available. The only real beneficiary is the travel company offering the sale.

A recent study estimated that flash sales, which offer discounted inventory for a limited time, accounted for more than $2 billion in annual sales, although the exact numbers are unknown. But the discounts might not be as generous as advertised: The fine print may render some unusable, and companies may bend a few facts to encourage you to buy.

A deadline-focused sales pitch can yield immediate results for a company. Robert Kissell Jr. is a marketing specialist for Southern Shores Realty, a vacation rental company on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. On Black Friday, his company held a flash sale to “turn the heat up” on prospective customers, offering a wide selection of rentals with inventory even on hard-to-get weekends and holidays, such as the Fourth of July.

“The results were incredible,” Kissell says. “Southern Shores Realty boosted revenue by more than 200 percent, and our revenue per booking was up 16 percent,” which Kissell said he found hard to believe.

It isn’t. A recent survey by the hotel flash sale Web site EveryLodge.com suggests that the average flash-sale discount is about 39 percent. Although the actual discount is probably about 10 percentage points less than that, because hotels mark the price down from so-called “rack” rates that customers rarely pay, it’s still a deal.

But there’s a right way and a wrong way to entice customers into making a fast purchase decision, said Marlene Towns, a marketing professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business.

Generally, travelers know what they’re getting when they buy a vacation package or a hotel room via a flash sale, she says. They’re booking hotel rooms or event tickets at an aggressive markdown, with little or no chance of a refund.

“With airlines, it seems trickier,” Towns adds. “There are hefty change fees if the purchase is refundable at all, so there is real pressure to make the correct purchase decision. If there is fine print, it discourages consumers from becoming informed and limits their ability to gain full disclosure.”

Confusing verbiage isn’t limited to airlines, of course. The Lansdowne Resort in Leesburg, Va., discovered that keeping the fine print to a minimum on its limited-time offers is key to a successful — and complaint-free — flash sale, said Patrick Matheson, the hotel’s director of revenue optimization. “It’s best to keep the offer simple regarding availability terms and the inclusions of the sale,” he says.

Excessive fine print may be a sign of trouble, experts say. But travelers are also turned off by come-ons that force them to push the “buy” button now. These can include ticking clocks, countdown timers or notifications that there are “only” one or two of the desired items left for sale.

“These are, by definition, cheap sales gimmicks attempting to use the power of time to the advantage of the seller and manipulate the buyer,” says Marvin Gerr, a retired marketing executive from Tigard, Ore., and a frequent traveler. “Any intelligent buyer will look at any offer and decide not to play the game by the seller’s rules.”

The takeaway? Time-limited offers in travel can be a good opportunity, but not always. They benefit the companies but not necessarily their customers. Responsible flash sales avoid ticking sales clocks and onerous terms. Don’t let yourself be pressured.

Annable is unhappy that neither Holland America nor his travel agent could adjust his fare. After all, even airlines allow a 24-hour grace period for cancellations. I contacted Holland America on his behalf. A representative said that a review of his records showed that Annable was advised of the restrictions on his fare before he booked his vacation.

“The cancellation schedule associated with the promotion is reviewed when the booking is made and deposited,” said Erik Elvejord, a spokesman for the cruise line. As a gesture of goodwill, Holland America offered Annable a cabin upgrade.

Incidentally, Holland America is right. The terms of its flash sales, disclosed on its Web site, are clear: “Flash fares are non-refundable and full payment is due within 24 hours,” it warns in the fine print. Also: “Restrictions may apply.”

“I think we were treated very poorly,” Annable says. “Needless to say, this will be our last cruise with Holland America.”

Who benefits the most from flash sales?

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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 chris@elliott.org. Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • AJPeabody

    Both, if done honestly. But my experience is that almost all “Buy now or never” offers should be avoided.

  • backprop

    “Needless to say, this will be our last cruise with Holland America.”

    So they freely bought a 12-day cruise that they thought was a fantastic value, and now it’s their “last cruise with Holland America” because someone else might have paid less than they did?

    This is the worst type of consumer: the person who is unaware of the value of what they’re buying, and are more interested in what kind of “deal” they’re getting.

    The kind who will mope through their European 12-day cruise angry at themselves for not getting as good of a deal as someone else on the ship.

    The kind who will drive an extra hour and stand in a line on Thanksgiving evening to save fifty dollars on a TV, not because it represents good overall value, but it represents a “great deal.”

    I refuse to believe that the “restrictions” are the main point of contention. They were working with a travel agent; there’s no way that the question of refunds was not fully known by everyone involved.

    Are they simply unable to forget or ignore the fact that someone else might have paid a little less, and enjoy themselves and the cruise? Is it really a great idea to pre-judge the time you’re going to have over a hundred and fifty dollars a person? Seriously?

  • SoBeSparky

    In the absence of any outright or implicit low price guarantee, flash sales are just like a Macy*s or local supermarket sale. How does a consumer get the mistaken idea just because a sale lasts for a short time it must be the lowest price available?

    This is clearly the case of consumers reading something into a marketing promotion that was never there. I can understand if the advertising said something like, “Prices will never be this low again.” However Holland American never even insinuated that.

  • commentfromme

    Holland does not protect agent commissions, so they do allow discounting. Also, a block of space can be held at a lower rate by a wholesaler. If a travel agent was involved, they could have given up a portion of commission to lower the rate. The ad was legit, and a lower price was legit also. Cant you buy the same product from different stores for different costs? That is exactly what happened. Do the research then make the purchase.

  • Miami510

    Many, many years ago, within the confines of confidentiality in my office, a patient, who worked for a prominent cruise company, told me something about the advertisements that mentioned the price of a cruise as, “From $ XXXX.”

    She said there were only one or two staterooms available at that price and both were invariably reserved for employees… there was no chance a member of the public could book a trip at that rate.

  • Miami510

    As I read backprop’s post, I was reminded of the quote of Oscar Wilde, about people who know the price of everything and the value of nothing.

  • ChristinasCucina

    Thanks for saving me the time to write what I wanted to say; you’ve said it for me. The OP is an adult, but is acting like a child. No one held a gun to his head to buy anything.

  • backprop

    And don’t forget, after whining to a travel mediator over $12.50 a day per person, they got a free cabin upgrade — yet it’s STILL their “last cruise with Holland America” (needless to say).

  • backprop

    I love it.

  • Benjamin Barnett

    What a baby. He ought to get a cabin downgrade.

  • http://www.jeffkolkerart.com Jeff Kolker

    If it was worth it when he initially paid for it, nothing changed, so it sill should have been worth it even if he found a lower price. Airline tickets, hotel rooms, all those things fluctuate somewhat. Gonna complain every time the price is a bit lower? He just needs to relax and have a good time…. and stop worrying about a few bucks.

  • backprop

    Some people calculate “worth it” by how much they saved over someone else. It reminds me of a Seinfeld episode:

    George: How much was it?
    Jerry: Two hundred, but I’ll tell him it’s fifty. He doesn’t care about the gift; he gets excited about the deal.

  • LFH0

    Before buying a “flash” sale, the consumer should have an idea of what competitive prices are for the service, and judge whether or not the sale is a good deal, and not buy just on impulse. My perception is that $1,559 is a fair, but not fabulous, price for a 12-night cruise. Better deals are to be found. I don’t think I’ve ever spent more than $100 per night per person for cruise, and I’ve seen some for as low as $30 per night.

    A few years ago, I was up late and saw a good deal on an NCL cruise, one-way from Quebec to Boston, 7-nights, $250 per person. That day, a Monday, I booked immediately; on Wednesday my wife and I were on the train heading north from New York City to Montreal,; and after staying with friends in Montreal for two nights, on Friday we were boarding the vessel in Quebec. In addition to the cruise fare, we spent (per person) about $250 in other charges (around $75 for the Amtrak train to Montreal, $50 for the Orléand Express bus to Quebec, $100 for port charges, and $15 for the Boltbus from Boston back to New York), but overall $500 total for a 7-night cruise was a good deal. I would do that type of “flash” sale again.

  • AUSSIEtraveller

    so many people these days are ditherers. Look at public servants. In there jobs they can never make decisions & so it’s the same in real life.
    Most travel products are completely perishable. That empty airline seat is completely worthless to everyone (buyer & seller) once that doors closes.
    On most online websites, you get up to 20 mins to pay for a flight.
    Sellers want to generate sales, so in this current economy everywhere, there will always be deals, however, airlines have realised they have much better having time sensitive earlybird deals, rather than last minute deals due to poor yield management.
    Last minute sales encourage people to wait & wait & wait & by that time they’ve missed all the earlybird deals & many don’t end up going anywhere.

  • AUSSIEtraveller

    don’t be stupid. So they saw a cheaper price after they purchased. Doesn’t mean it was available, when they saw it. Many airlines (one in particular in Australia) have very limited seats at their incredibly cheap sales fares (yes they are often 1/10 of the price of the highest economy fare on other airlines).
    We’ve tested many & it seems to be only 2 seats per flight, ie. 2 in 180 or or 1.1% of seats are at super sale price, which means if you’re fast & get in as soon as deal offered you might get 2 cheap seats, but ask for 3 & the search engines don’t average, you just go to the next cheapest fare level.

  • AUSSIEtraveller

    It’s all about supply & demand. Maybe the initial promo didn’t generate enough or expected results, so some cabins on ship were dumped at lower prices.
    Often the cheapest cabins are what’s called eg. GUARANTEED BALACONIES.
    You don’t get any say where on the boat you are. Could be at front or back (usually most popular are midships, as that where there’s the least pitching in rough weather)

  • AUSSIEtraveller

    In Australia tomorrow we have a Fed Budget from hell being delivered. It seems Australians have been living well above their means (sound familiar ?) Welfare spending is being cut (1 in 2 Australians gets some sort of welfare, much of it middle class welfare) so everyone selling anything, is having a sale before reality hits home & we have some sort of recession, due to people not spending.

    Are these sales genuine ? Mostly. Will prices be better next week or next month ?

    Depends on how much people actually stop spending. TO say BUY NOW OR NEVER SALES should all be avoided is just plain silly.

    FYI-Australia has been largely insulated from world recession due to our mining boom, but that is slowing due to Chinese growth slowing.
    Also miners got incredibly greedy with pay demands & priced themselves out of world markets.

  • Extramail

    I learned a long time ago not to ask others what they paid for the same trip, hotel room, etc. that I’m taking. If I was happy with the price then I’m happy with the price and I don’t care what somebody else paid. I agree with others who have said that this person appears he is more concerned with the deal than with the trip.

  • http://www.hometoitaly.com leelaurino

    whatever this passenger paid, I am charged TWICE as much because i prefer to travel solo….or a few cruise lines will find me a STRANGER to share with to save money… When will someone challenge the industry on this policy or the 2 for 1 pricing that they refuse to sell solo clients.

  • Lindabator

    Plus, they gave them an upgrade, which they did not have to do. These clients are NOT what HAL (or a good agent) wants – they will pitch a fit over $5. Price around, and if you find what you want, at a good fare, and it goes down later, oh well! Happens all the time at the grocer, the shoe store, Macy’s, etc.

  • Lindabator

    Because they SPLIT the cost of the trip over two people – which is why when you choose to travel solo, you need to pay for the complete room, cabin, etc.

  • http://www.hometoitaly.com leelaurino

    i understand that but on a 2 for 1 the ONLY get the price of one person……what other travel related services charge more for a solo:
    a bus, plane, train? to go out to eat? a ticket to a show? and on a cruise they claim the cabin crew is hurt by only 1/2 of the tips, then charge 200% on tips!

  • Judy Serie Nagy

    Here’s another flash: they’re serving free lunch right in your parking lot. He should be equally upset with his travel agent. If you don’t know the value of what you’re buying, don’t make a flash decision. If a cruise is usually $3K pp and you want to get it nailed down at the flash price so you can book a good airfare or whatever, go for it.

  • commentfromme

    They would have to pay me to spend 7 nights on an NCL Quebec to Boston. It could not be advertised cheaply enough. Value is always personal. Glad you enjoyed it.

  • http://cruising101.blogspot.com/ Mary Dillon McTevia

    We booked a grand suite on Adventure of the Seas (southern Caribbean) during the recent RCI BOGOHO cruise sale. We saved a ton! The grand suite would be over $4k for the two of us and we booked if for $2500 and received an additional $110 discount because we’re platinum Crown & Anchor members.

    I always do my homework before booking and do consider myself pretty cruise savvy and totally OCD about cruise research.