By Christopher Elliott Travel columnist
Tribune Media Services
updated 4/5/2007 2:56:04 PM ET 2007-04-05T18:56:04

Q: I recently booked a hotel room through Priceline.com for a trip to Disneyland, and I’ve been having buyer’s remorse ever since.

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When you bid on a Priceline room, you don’t find out the name of the property until your price is accepted. After I learned the name of my resort, I decided to call it with a few questions about amenities.

I was unable to understand the clerk’s English, and when I asked him to repeat himself, he either sighed angrily or offered a one-word answer. I requested a room with two queen beds. He told me an “upgrade” would cost $50 a night. My room rate was $60 a night.

I had checked out the hotel Web site before calling to see what kind of bargain I had gotten. The clerk had quoted me a price $10 over the rack rate listed on Priceline.com, the hotel’s site and the hotel chain’s corporate site. I started to become concerned about my vacation.

I contacted Priceline, but after numerous phone calls and e-mail exchanges, the company’s bottom line was that I had to work this out with the hotel. So I went online and found the e-mail address of a Priceline executive and I e-mailed him. The next day, I got a call from someone at Priceline who said that they were very sorry and angry themselves and that they had contacted the hotel general manager, who was also disturbed with the service I received.

He assured me the $50 upgrade fee was a “miscommunication” and that it would only be $10 a night for a bigger room. And he said a letter had been mailed to me from the hotel, clarifying its position.

It’s been more than a week and I’ve received nothing. No letter, no phone call, no e-mail. How long should I wait before complaining again?
— Michael McKernan, Albuquerque, N.M.

A: I think you’ve been more than patient with Priceline and your hotel, from the first contact you had with an unintelligible clerk to your final communication with Priceline’s executive office. It’s time for a little action.

Priceline’s terms and conditions, which are available on its Web site, are clear about your rights. If you’ve made what it calls a “Name Your Own Price” hotel reservation, your room is guaranteed to be a double-occupancy room with one double bed or two twin beds. Any special requests, such as upgrades, are at the hotel’s discretion. “A hotel reservation cannot be refunded, canceled or modified on the basis that a special request was not (or could not be) met by the hotel,” it says.

So why is Priceline willing to help you now? Well, a $50 a night “upgrade” fee is excessive, and probably violates the hotel’s contract with Priceline. You can bet that someone from Priceline has made a concerned phone call to the hotel to find out what happened. Maybe it was a miscommunication. But I’ve seen other hotels do this kind of thing in the past with Priceline — offering a cheap room and then charging an excessive fee for a bigger room or an extra guest.

You did the right thing by contacting the hotel, then Priceline and finally taking your appeal directly to an executive. You should have noted the name of the representative who called you from the executive office, asked for his phone number and politely requested a follow-up e-mail re-stating Priceline’s promise to address your dispute. (So often, when someone calls with a resolution, people are so relieved that they forget that talk is cheap, and problems are only fixed when the check clears.)

I contacted Priceline on your behalf. Despite my intervention, no letter ever came from your hotel. Instead, Priceline refunded the total amount of your hotel stay.

Christopher Elliot is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. E-mail him at chris@elliott.org, or troubleshoot your trip through his Web site, http://www.csr.elliott.org

© 2007 Christopher Elliott ... Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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