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jun 09

Hotels: When a best online price guarantee isn't best

Is this hotel $200 or $150? Depends on where you book it. (Courtesy Fr Antunes/Flickr)

The "best online price guarantee" is something you've seen touted by online travel agencies and hotel chain websites. Expedia's program is typical: For a day after you book a room through the site, if you find a lower hotel rate online for the same category of room on the same dates of stay, Expedia will refund you the difference and send you a voucher good for a $50 discount off a future Expedia purchase.

Sounds good, right? But there are a few problems with best online price guarantees.

First: Taxes and fees don't count. So if you find a lower rate on a competing website but it turns out that that website charges fewer fees than Expedia does, you won't get a rebate. Weird, huh? Sites like Expedia (and Orbitz and Priceline and on and on) don't break out their fees, which makes this a guessing game.

Second problem: It may be difficult to receive your refund and voucher, as Grant Martin, editor in chief of the travel blog Gadling, recently discovered. True, he was applying for a refund for a flight instead of a hotel room under Expedia's price guarantee program, but nevertheless, the same rules should have applied. His refund didn't come properly through, and he had to contact customer service multiple times.

Third problem: There's now a blizzard of ways to find cheap hotel rooms online, but most of them aren't covered by the price guarantees, even if their rates are lower. The Expedias of this world are only matching prices with other online travel agencies, metasearch sites (such as Kayak and Hipmunk), and hotels' own sites. Here's what's excluded:

Hotels booked through daily deal sites like Groupon that are, confusingly, supplied by

Expedia (groupon.com/getaways details in this previous blog post; TripAlertz, LivingSocial, and other deal-a-day sites are also excluded.)

Hotels booked through sites based overseas (even though they list hotels in the U.S. and internationally), such as Mobissimo and Booking.com.

Hotels booked via apps, such as HotelTonight.

Hotels booked through Priceline's hotel bidding service, Hotwire's blind booking tool, or similar so-called "opaque" sites.

Hotels from so-called "consolidator" sites, such as Quikbook, don't count either. (Consolidators, as you know, buy up rooms from hotels and resell them at usually discounted rates.)

The lesson here, I think, is that best price guarantees are less powerful and meaningful now in a world of multiple sources for deals. The world has moved on from, say, five years ago when online travel agencies and hotel websites were basically the only places that Americans shopped for hotel rooms online.

If you've had any experiences, good or bad, with hotel best price guarantees, please share them by posting a comment. Thanks.

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Note:This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.

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