By Travel columnist

He thought he had reserved a room in a nice neighborhood in Pensacola, Fla. He thought wrong. Now George Inderbitzen wants Priceline to change his reservation. But wait, aren't Priceline's rooms nonrefundable? Yes, they are.

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Q: I recently tried Priceline for the first time to make a hotel reservation in Pensacola Beach, Fla.

Its Web site provided a very good map of Pensacola that was easy to read. Since I have been visiting Pensacola for the last 19 years, I am very familiar with the city. I knew exactly the area where I wanted to stay and had no reservations about choosing the Pensacola Beach zone that was one of Priceline’s choices.

I specifically selected Pensacola Beach and made a bid for a room. The fist bid was rejected, so I increased the bid by $10, initialed the little box again and hit “Enter.”

My second offer was accepted. But to my surprise, Priceline had added a second city zone to my search list: Pensacola North, which is the least desirable part of town and has the worst selection of hotels. I immediately called its customer service number and presented my situation.

I was informed that I had entered into a contract by initialing the little box and that the reservation absolutely could not be refunded, canceled or changed. After at least a dozen telephone conversations and e-mails over the last few days, I am still stuck with a motel room with a resort price tag in an awful part of town.

I have done lots of research since then and have read countless dozens of similar complaints posted to various consumer-oriented Web sites. After pleading my case all the way to the executive-office level with no success, I now fully believe that Priceline deliberately added this zone without my consent in order to book a room at an enormously inflated rate for a one- or two-star hotel, and that there are probably hundreds of other consumers that get ripped off the same way.

Basically, what they have done is lost a potential repeat customer for the sake of a one-time transaction. I am in sales for a company that sells forklifts and construction equipment. I cannot imagine treating our customer base with such a lack of respect.

— George Inderbitzen,Cordova,Tenn.

A: Bait-and-switch tactics are all too common in the travel industry, and if Priceline is using them, I would certainly be the first to condemn it. But I’m not sure that the dot-com is guilty as charged.

I asked Priceline to review your file, and its records reflect a somewhat different version of events than yours. According to the Web site, this isn’t the first time you’ve used it. In fact, Priceline’s information suggests that you’re a savvy bidder who has made several bookings or attempted bookings in the past.

Priceline’s file also contradicts your claim that it treated you with a lack of respect. Before you booked the Pensacola hotel, the company had already bent one of its rules when you booked a hotel room in another city. Priceline didn’t have to do that.

Did you get ripped off? That’s also subject to debate. Your first bid for a hotel in Pensacola for $49 a night was rejected. The second, for $59 a night, was accepted and booked at the Holiday Inn Pensacola. Room rates for the nights you requested were running between $49 and $79 a night on the hotel’s own Web site.

“Priceline delivered exactly what Mr. Inderbitzen requested,” said spokesman Brian Ek. “His initial offer was not successful. In order to submit another offer immediately, a customer must change something other than the price, such as adding a zone or changing the star rating. We do not make such changes automatically. The customer must do it himself.”

Ek says his records show that you expanded your search by adding a zone, which gave you the reservation you now have in Pensacola. He offered to show me a screen shot — the proverbial smoking gun.

I know you must be disappointed, but I’m having a difficult time taking your side. You left out important details about your Priceline grievance when you contacted me, including the fact that the company had already waived some of its rules for you.

Next time you make a booking online, pay attention to the forms that you’re filling in. It may help to de-select the option on your browser that fills in text fields automatically. That precaution may prevent you from inadvertently filling in information you have not adequately reviewed.

Christopher Elliott is National Geographic Traveler's ombudsman and a nationally syndicated columnist who specializes in solving your travel problems. Got a trip that needs fixing? Send him a note or visit his Web site. Your question may be published in a future story. Want to sound off about a story? Try visiting Elliott's forum.


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