Thoughts on Priceline.com and LastMinuteTravel.com

By , December 11, 1999

December 11, 1999 Priceline.com claims to offer a unique, useful, consumer-helpful “angle” on travel.  I find it useless.

For those not familiar with PriceLine, it is a web site where consumers and business travelers can go and “bid” for airline trips or hotel rooms. Unlike traditional travel, however, you don’t bid on a specific flight or hotel (nor even for a specific airline or travel time), and you can’t ask to exclude specific vendors you might despise.

I have tried to use PriceLine several times to book travel.  Thus far, none of my bids have ever been accepted.  On many other occasions, I have considered using PriceLine but abandoned it because its “solution” is too limited to meet my needs.  For example, I want a rate for a trip to Hawaii, but I want to spend only $600 for airfare plus four nights of hotel accommodations.  Priceline will let me bid a specific dollar amount for airfare, and another specific amount for hotel (in two separate bids) — but if one bid succeeds and the other fails, I am locked in to half a travel package that I can’t use.

In addition, I might want to offer a bid that takes special requirements into account — for example, I’ll pay $50 more for a non-stop instead of a one-stop, and $20 per night more if the hotel is within two blocks from the beach in Waikiki. PriceLine doesn’t take any of these factors into account, and thus I suspect I will always get the worst possible arrangements within PriceLine’s specifications.

For business travel, I might need to be in New York by 1pm on Tuesday, but I can’t submit a bid for any travel that will get me to New York between 4pm Monday and 11am Tuesday — I must select a single calendar day to travel.

Personally, I hate to travel, and I also hate to deal with travel agents and airlines because I always feel as if I’m getting something less than the best deal. Since Priceline won’t let me start with a low bid and simply increment it by $20 until it’s accepted (and it takes 10 minutes or more to enter each new bid if you create a new ID and re-enter credit card data), I can’t feel comfortable about the company’s pricing: maybe I’ll still find that I paid $100 more than someone else who used Priceline to book the same flight.

Today, I noticed an ad (in Business 2.0) for another travel-sales web site called LastMinuteTravel.com.  When I read the ad, I was sure I had found what I was looking for: the ability to buy a complete travel package, just a few days before the departure date, and get a clear, fixed, and fair price quote.  I was wrong. LastMinuteTravel.com gives new meaning to the term “virtual business.”

I went to LastMinuteTravel.com, selected “travel packages,” and found a fixed list of departure and destination locations.  While I found that I could depart from “San Francisco,” I discovered that no locations in Hawaii are listed as available destinations in the initial set of menus. I thought, my gosh, what kind of a “travel package” site would omit Hawaii?

After a few moments, I found an option for “more locations” at the bottom of the destination-city list.  While I found “Hawaii” listed as a type of package, I was given a plain-text entry box for the destination, which left me wondering if I should type Honolulu, Oahu, or Hawaii?  It turned out that it didn’t matter: there were no travel packages available to Hawaii.

What the heck, I thought, let’s see where I can go on a last-minute trip, even if Hawaii isn’t an option.  I searched for any available travel package departing from San Francisco to any destination at all, within the next seven days.  Results: no matches.  Fourteen days, then? No matches.

Finally, I asked LastMinuteTravel.com to list all trips departing from San Francisco to anywhere in the next 60 days.  It turned out that there were no travel packages available departing from San Francisco.

(LastMinuteTravel.com is based in Atlanta, Georgia.  When I asked to list any available trips from Atlanta to anywhere, during the next 60 days, the result was a list of trips only to two destinations: Mexico and France.  (Alas, I don’t have a passport.)

And, although the site’s motto is “no time is too late for Last Minute Travel,” the earliest listed trip departs in 11 days (December 22).

LastMinuteTravel.com should change its name to NoTravel.com.

Mark J. Welch

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