By Travel columnist
updated 6/7/2006 3:18:35 PM ET 2006-06-07T19:18:35

Q: Expedia and Hotwire are owned by the same company, and I’ve used both before with reasonable success. But my latest Hotwire experience has left me with a sour taste, and I’ve come to question the company’s model.

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Hotwire promises “deals you won’t see anywhere else” and “quality travel at some of our deepest discounts.” The catch is that the hotel remains anonymous until you pay for it, and all purchases are nonrefundable. However, the site promotes prices that are up to 60 percent less than regular hotel rates and are guaranteed to be lower than rates offered on any other Web site, “including the hotels themselves.”

So you can imagine my dismay when I recently booked a Hotwire hotel for two nights in Memphis, Tenn., chose a three-star hotel for $95 a night, paid the required $23.75 a night in taxes and fees and was given the name of my hotel: the Wyndham Garden.

It turns out the same property, available on the same nights through another company — Expedia — would have cost me $234.16, or about $3.50 less than on Hotwire. Plus, the Expedia reservation could be changed or canceled.

Where’s my reward for the risk I took by booking blind through Hotwire? I called Hotwire and kept getting referred to its terms and conditions, which say the room is nonrefundable.

Hotwire will not allow me to cancel my reservation. Can you help me?

— Craig Evans, New York

A: If Hotwire’s sister site is underbidding it on a hotel, and offering better terms, I think it’s only reasonable to expect Hotwire to allow you to cancel your reservation.

Of course, Hotwire’s terms and conditions don’t allow for that (all reservations are nonrefundable). But when you look at how the site promotes itself, it does seem that there’s an implicit promise that you’ll get a better deal with Hotwire than you would elsewhere — especially on another site owned by the same company.

I asked Expedia for some help understanding what happened to you. A spokesman, David Dennis, said Expedia and Hotwire are not on the same back-end systems that handle room inventories and “have separate teams that work with suppliers on rates and inventory.”

In other words, there is no mechanism for Expedia and Hotwire to compare their deals to make sure one isn’t undercutting the other.

That is one reason why travel experts suggest leaving “opaque pricing” (or “anonymous hotels,” as you call them) for a late stage in your travel planning. Start your research on Web sites where you can see what you’re getting and learn the going rate. If nothing pleases you, you can then turn to opaque sites like Hotwire and Priceline. Maybe you will save a few dollars.

In denying you a refund, Hotwire’s representatives were within their rights (after all, those are its terms), but I think they still made the wrong decision. There are exceptions to every rule, and you presented a rational case for a refund. The company should have honored your request.

The next time you are looking for an inexpensive hotel, don’t go straight to Hotwire. Shop around. Then, when you’re done, swing by Hotwire and see if it can do better. It just might. But book the room only if you’re absolutely sure you’re going to use it, because as you know by now, Hotwire’s rooms are totally nonrefundable — no exceptions.

Well, almost no exceptions. After I made a few inquiries, and after some more back-and-forth between you and Hotwire, the site allowed you to cancel your reservation after all.

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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