By Travel columnist
updated 2/27/2006 3:39:57 PM ET 2006-02-27T20:39:57

Rajat Goel found a $3 hotel room in Tokyo on Orbitz and booked it quick, knowing it was probably some sort of mistake. But then Orbitz canceled the room along with another reservation -- for Goel's honeymoon hotel in New Zealand. So what about those erroneous "fat-finger" rates? Are you a chump not to book them? Or are you just asking for trouble?

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Q: I recently made lodging arrangements for two trips through Orbitz. One was for my brother’s trip to Japan in April, and the other was for my honeymoon in New Zealand in September.

Surprisingly, the rate for the Tokyo Bay Intercontinental came to 347 yen per night, or roughly $3. I thought this was probably a pricing error, but I booked three nights anyway to see if I could get the hotel to honor the rate.

I also booked four nights at the Crowne Plaza in Auckland at a rate of $113 NZ, or about $90 US per night.

Since I thought the rate for the hotel in Japan was rather low, I e-mailed Orbitz to confirm that it would honor the rate. I explicitly pointed out that the rate was $3 per night. I got a response from customer service saying the hotel would honor the rate and I would have no problems.

I did not do that same thing for the Auckland reservation, since $90 per night seemed like a competitive rate to me.

About 10 days after I made the reservations, I got a surprising e-mail from Orbitz saying that they had cancelled my Tokyo reservation, citing a “currency conversion error.”

A few days later, I noticed a charge on my American Express card for $730 NZ for the Auckland reservation. This was a bit higher than I had expected even taking taxes into account. I called Orbitz and was told that I was being charged more for the Auckland stay because of a “pricing error.”

I’m confused. I had prepaid for my Auckland hotel, and as far as I can tell, the only error was for the Tokyo hotel — which I understand. Can you help me get to the bottom of this?

— Rajat Goel, Redmond, Wash.

A: Orbitz was correct to cancel the first reservation but was wrong to zap your honeymoon hotel.

As you suspected, the rate you were quoted for the Tokyo Bay Intercontinental was too good to be true. Show me a $3 hotel room in Tokyo and I’ll show you someone who doesn’t know the difference between a dollar and a yen — or, in this particular case, a computer that doesn’t know the difference.

Why should Orbitz not honor the $3 rate? Because it’s a mistake.

The currency conversion error got a lot of play on Internet discussion forums such as FlyerTalk. Some of my colleagues in the travel press actually encourage travelers to book these so-called “fat-finger fares” — the logic apparently being that if a company is going to make a mistake, you might as well profit from it.

I think that’s wrong. A responsible traveler would bring the conversion error to the company’s attention - not demand that it pay for its mistake.

In a way, booking an erroneous rate is doing the very thing that we, as travelers, find distasteful about the lodging industry. They sock us with surprise surcharges and hidden “resort fees” that are poorly disclosed. But as my mother always said, “Two wrongs don’t make a right.”

I don’t know the specifics of your situation. Maybe you found the cheap rate when you were doing a routine search. Maybe you saw it on FlyerTalk. Either way, it was an error and Orbitz had every right to cancel your reservation.

But your honeymoon reservations should have been left alone. It is not clear why the second booking was changed. It might have been yet another computer error, or someone might have red-flagged all of your reservations after you booked a fat-finger rate. Whatever the reason, Orbitz acknowledges its error.

“This customer shouldn’t have been charged a dime,” said Brian Hoyt, an Orbitz spokesman.

Shortly after I contacted Orbitz, you received an e-mail that agreed to honor your Auckland reservation as booked.

Enjoy your honeymoon.

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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