WEB SITE REVIEW

Priceline Is Weak Sauce for Shatner’s Hype

As I got ready to jump off at the next stop on my whirlwind tour oftravel-planning Web sites, I found myself in the grip of something close to excitement.

All the sites I previously visited for this E-Commerce Times review series were virgin territory for me, except for one that I hadn’t used in more than a year.

Trying out Priceline.com was going to be a new experience for me as well — but it already felt familiar, thanks to my beloved William Shatner (hello, fellow Trekkies) and his branding of the site.

Thus, I came to Pricelinewith more than a hazy sense of its core competency. Based on the ubiquitous commercials I’d been exposed to, I was looking forward to — indeed, expecting — all kinds of deals.

I logged on and, sure enough, there he was — there three of him were, in fact. However, I soon discovered that Priceline was not relying solely on Shatner’s image and outsized personality. An initial scan revealed that it met all of my minimum design requirements: no clutter, easy layout and, as a bonus, a soothing blue background.

$50 and Dropping

Although Priceline was letting users purchase listed flights, I was there for the red meat — the point of all those ads I’ve absorbed. I wanted to name my own price, and I wanted to go as low as I could. I blithely typed in US$50 for a round trip ticket between Baltimore, Md., and Phoenix, Ariz., not expecting to score a deal.

I was right — but I wasn’t far off. For $89.25, there was an airline willing to transport me nearly across the country. It seemed unbelievable, so I tried again: I wanted a ticket to New Orleans departing Feb. 12 and returning Feb. 17 — Mardi Gras weekend — for $25. Up came a $39.25 option, and bingo, I was in.

Or was I? I went into this understanding that the “name your own price” feature would come with caveats that could dismay a set-in-her-ways traveler — such as little control over departure times, seat arrangements or even carriers. Still, to find out if my bid would really have been accepted, I would have had to input a credit card number. I’m a proponent of service journalism, but that was a step I was not willing to take. If my bid were rejected, could I try again? Was there a step along the way when I could cancel the purchase before the final deal-closing click?

Priceline did not provide much in the way of guidance about what would happen next in the far-too- short FAQs — a big negative point for a site largely based on self-service. The customer service number was of little help — it wouldn’t accept a call unless there was a valid submitted request. No amount of hitting zero got me to a human.

Not Impressed

Very well — on to other parts of the site. In line with its promise of helping customers score the best deal, Priceline did offer several features designed to just that — including a fare watcher and a section on last-minute deals. Those looked undeniably good: I spotted one from Atlanta to Las Vegas for $139 one-way. I type in my requested dates (Oct. 31 to Nov. 6) and pulled up a range of to and from selections; no combination came close to $280.

The “no booking fee” promise, which was peppered liberally throughout the site did not impress me — this is a pretty standard offer for a travel site. Nor was I impressed — not favorably, anyway — by the pop-up that suddenly too over my screen, telling me that Priceline customers were at that very moment saving 40 percent on trips to Las Vegas.

I tried again to come up with a one-way ticket from Baltimore to Boston for $39 only to find myself confronted with a $144 round-trip ticket. Okay, all of the sites pull this kind of sleight-of-hand to a certain extent. However, Priceline’s marketing — I began to realize — had greatly inflated my expectations of all the bargains I would get.

I knew from my grand tour of travel sites that careful shopping could, in fact, net a round-trip, cross-country ticket for $250 or so at the time of my search. I didn’t need to go to a discount site to buy it.

Other features on Priceline.com looked good from a distance but then disappointed close up. A link asking me about travel preferences took me to a field with questions about my seat and meal preferences. What was the point of that? If I were buying a cheap, “name your own price ticket” I assumed I would be lucky if I weren’t sitting out on the wing. If I were buying one through Priceline’s stated fares, then I could make my choices as part of the transaction, assuming the airline in question would allow me to.

Seriously – the Willard?

Ditto for the travel guides offered. A look in the U.S. cities section yielded lists of hotels, restaurants, etc., recommended by the site — standard fare that a Google search could also pull up. I chose Washington, and the first recommendation in the hotel section was the Willard, a five-star-plus hotel in Downtown D.C. that was being advertised in a range “from $236.”

My first thought about that offer was that maybe the Willard’s management might let me use the lobby’s bathroom for $236 in an emergency situation, but there was certainly no way I could get a room at that rate. Sure enough, as I went through the motions of booking a room at the hotel, the cheapest deal Priceline could get for me, within the same date range of Oct. 31 to Nov. 6, was $554 per night.

Priceline was supposed to be the cheapest of the cheap, if the advertising could be believed. However, it didn’t provide a tool for comparing the deal I was offered with, say, the rates offered by Expedia or Kayak — at least not one that I could easily find.

Bottom line for Priceline.com: It may or may not be cheaper than buying from a standard travel aggregator. If it is, then I’ll bet it’s not by much. Either way, my experience using the site was so frustrating, I’d rather shop elsewhere.

2 Comments

  • Is it possible to review a product without trying it? E-Commerce Times evidently thinks so, after publishing a piece in which the author, Erika Morphy, questions Priceline’s deal-making abilities without making a single bid.

    Customers who use Priceline’s Name Your Own Price services can save up to 50% on airline tickets, up to 50% on hotels and up to 40% on rental cars. And yes, you do have to provide a credit card before we can shop an offer for you. If we find a travel supplier willing to accept your bid, we book it on the spot.

    FYI, the $89.25 Phoenix airfare and $39.25 New Orleans airfare are simply the totals of Ms. Morphy’s contemplated bid plus taxes and fees. There were no airlines willing to accept her price since she didn’t complete the bidding process. And somebody did pay $236 for a booking at the Willard within the last 30 days.

  • I learned long ago about the risks of booking flights through Priceline.com. I never did so but I do know a couple of people that didn’t like the cheap airline they were booked into and the number of stops (2) to fly half-way across the country from the California coast.

    The great news is the quality of hotels one can book through the Priceline site! I’ve never been disappointed with my results! Whenever I want a nice hotel at the upper levels, I end up with elegant hotels at about half the price. That means that sometimes I’m surrounded by luxury for the price of a motel! In the last seven years, I’ve only had one situation where the hotel was very full that weekend and the room I got was supposed to be a non-smoking room but still smelled like smoke. They sent a maid with an industrial spray to take care of it with a sincere apology. You see, the hotel staff only knows you booked through Priceline and not how much you actually are paying for the room. So, even if you get a $200 a night room for $89, they don’t know so they go ahead and treat you like a "big shot" anyway. If you’re looking for a nice motel for a family road trip, just go direct to the chain’s website. Priceline’s forte is the nicer hotels. Good luck!

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