Priceline’s Scam (Bait and Switch)

By , July 24, 2012

Back in December 1999, I wrote about my frustrations with Priceline.com and another travel web site, both of which which proved completely useless. Today, I confirmed that PriceLine has upgraded from a useless service to a “bait-and-switch” operation.

After several frustrating attempts to book a hotel room using PriceLine’s most famous option (Name Your Own Price) and their secondary option (Express Deals), I found that both were merely bait-and-switch scams designed to redirect customers to the “book a hotel by name” operation.

In order to be fair, I’ll use only “local” examples (the familiar local area where I live), since my views about other regions might be mistaken or outdated.

First, I asked PriceLine to provide me with an “Express Deal” for Pleasanton, California.  It presented me with an offer for a hotel for $41 per night (already a huge red flag) in the “Pleasanton Area.”

PriceLine even displayed a Bing map with a shaded area and a solid-line boundary around the cities of Dublin and Pleasanton.  Below this map, it says, “Your hotel is guaranteed to be in this area.”

The only reasonable interpretation of that map and “guarantee” language is that the hotel will be located inside the boundary area shown. But that’s not how PriceLine sees it. Instead, PriceLine discloses, just once, in the text area, that the hotel is actually located in Oakland, California (a far more dangerous city 20 miles away from affluent, suburban Pleasanton).  So “Pleasanton Area” doesn’t mean the area around Pleasanton pictured in the map, but some other undisclosed boundary area that’s much larger.

Second, I tried to use PriceLine’s “name your own price” system, but found that its maps were even worse: the first area suggested was Antioch-Oakley-Pittsburgh (from Pleasanton, a 30-mile drive around a mountain), while Fremont (adjacent to Pleasanton) isn’t even listed.

I strongly suspect that if I selected several of the “areas” identified (excluding Oakland and Antioch) and submitted an offer with my credit card, I’d end up booked into a hotel in Oakland or Antioch (or another location far outside the “areas” I’d specified). Maybe I’m wrong — but my uncertainty is probably what PriceLine wants.  By refusing to explain what I’m really getting, and showing me that its maps are grossly inaccurate and its promises are dishonest, PriceLine convinces me that I’d be foolish to submit any offer at all.

Third, I didn’t want to believe what I’d discovered, so I next tried using the online chat system to ask for help.  The first time, I was placed in a queue and told I was in position #7, but 15 minutes later I was still in that same position. The second time, I was quickly connected to an “agent,” but I got nothing but boilerplate responses — I’m honestly not sure whether this was an automated system or just someone using pre-written responses, but either way, the responses didn’t address my questions.

Finally, I tried calling the toll-free number shown, and finally figured out what’s going on: the telephone agent simply refused to discuss the online system, but said that service over the phone is limited exclusively to placing phone reservations for named hotels.  He would be happy to sell me a different service, at a different price, than what I’d called about.

More than a dozen years after my first encounter with PriceLine, they still don’t offer the service they advertise (name-your-own-price travel according to your terms).

Instead, they offer a pair of “bait and switch” options:

  • Some customers, who don’t read every word or who aren’t familiar with the area they’re visiting, will be tricked by the defective and deceptive system into paying for a hotel room far outside the area specified.
  • Others will waste time using the system, recognize that it’s absurdly inaccurate, and finally surrender and place a traditional reservation for a named hotel, paying the hotel’s standard rate plus a surcharge.

Either way, PriceLine profits from its unethical and deceptive conduct.

PriceLine is a scam, folks. Don’t use it.

9 Responses to “Priceline’s Scam (Bait and Switch)”

  1. Mark Welch says:

    Note that I’ve never successfully booked any travel using Priceline, so I don’t know what they actually deliver, but a quick Google search for “Priceline” combined with “bait and switch” brought up hundreds of very specific complaints that persuade me I made the right choice this evening!

  2. Rhianna says:

    I read your blog post with interest since I had been happy with Priceline results back in 2007. I live in a city outside of NYC and am knowledgeable about New York City. At that time I used the option that I could name a price & they would assign me a mystery hotel in the geographic area indicated in a shaded map. I was happy with the 3 hotels I stayed in (my bathroom was being remodeled) and thrilled with 2. I must admit when the remodeling was going on for yet another 4 days my father didn’t want me to stay in NYC. He asked me how high I was bidding and said, “Every hotel in NYC will want to do business with you, you’re bidding too high” lol

    The last time I needed a hotel I used their booking.com so that I could research the hotels; I no longer want to play bid and see what I’ve been assigned especially since there has been a bedbug breakout across the country.
    The bid and see what I get worked for me a few years ago but I wouldn’t do that now. Thanks for the blog post, I enjoyed reading it.

  3. Doreen Rogers says:

    I needed a hotel in Portland Maine for two nights.
    I searched the Priceline webpage and reviewed the hotels that met my criteria in terms of area and star level.
    I entered a bid for a THREE-star hotel in a particular area, guided by the Priceline website.
    To my surprise, I was booked me into a hotel, the Clarion, that was NOT featured on the webpage in any category, the net was that I finished up with a booking based on INCOMPLETE information.
    There were NO reviews available for this hotel on the Priceline webpage.
    I checked other websites and found very recent reviews stating that the hotel was dirty and that its star level required reevaluation.
    I believe that I was subjected to Bait & Switch.

    I spoke with a Customer “Care” Representative regarding the Clarion Hotel in Portland, ME.
    Selene, was totally unresponsive, dismissive and almost abusive, (“Care” indeed!), to the point that she said that if I was not satisfied then I should pay FULL price.
    I was amazed when she told me to pay FULL price to avoid these problems, a really strange comment from a Customer “Care” Rep for a company whose raison d’être is the provision of discount hotels, car rentals, air fares etc., – a company that has been promoting and featuring “name your own price” in its ads for years.
    I was shocked that the Priceline Customer “Care” representative would insult and demean a customer for using Priceline’s most touted feature.
    I will NEVER use Priceline again, – bait & switch is a despicable practice used by corrupt organizations.

  4. David Kretz says:

    Wow. It happened to me with a rental car. My wife and I booked a bucket list trip to Virginia for a week. I used Priceline for the first time to rent a car. We decided on Dollar Rent a Car through Priceline. They showed a picture of a Dodge Charger and advertised it a “Full Size Car.” They stated in the ad and the rental confirmation agreement “Dodge Charger or similar.”
    I showed up at the Dollar counter and presented the confirmation. Dollar had a Dodge Charger available, but would only rent it at a higher than agreed upon price. Dollar’s attendant stated that “the Dodge Charger is not a full size car, it is a Premium car.” I showed him the confirmation with the picture of the Charger advertised as a full size car. Dollar’s attendant made a statement to the effect that Priceline is notorious for not advertising properly, and that Dollar was not bound by their mistake. Dollar rented me a Toyota Camry as a full size car. Clearly the 4 cylinder Camry is not similar to the Charger. If Dollar had offered a Camaro or Mustang as similar I would not have an issue.
    I got on the phone with Priceline customer service while I was at the Dollar counter, and all I could get from them is that Dollar could rent me only what Dollar considered a full size car, and that Dollar can choose the or similar car.
    It appears clear to me that Priceline “Baited” me with a Charger, and had to know what the out come would be when I arrived at the Dollar counter. At that point I am stuck and have to accept whatever they say.
    Angry is an understatement. Priceline was at a minimum “negligent” in it’s advertising, but after reading all of the bait and switch posts it is more likely that this has become a standard of practice for Priceline.
    I have saved all of the documentation about which I have written here. I think a class action lawsuit against Priceline should be in the future. Bait and Switch is illegal.

  5. ANDY says:

    PRICELINE – AIRLINE ROULETTE

    If you use PriceLine’s “Name Your Own Price” service, you could end up with a bad choice of airline.

    EXAMPLE: Frontier Airlines charges $25 per carry-on bag, when most domestic airlines provide your first carry-on free. Extra fees can be a got’cha to a winning bid.

    EXAMPLE: Recently Korean Air executive Cho Hyun-ah, who was the executive head over cabin service, turned the plane around at JFK because macadamia nuts were served to first-class passengers in a bag rather than on a plate. They berated the senior steward, forced them to kneel in apology, then kicked them off at the gate. A family business run a muck.

    After 22 days of back-and-forth with PriceLine, it comes down to this. PriceLine not only does not care, they will not listen. They refuse to discuss the policy or consider options to omit airlines during bidding. Their customer service refuses to connect you with a manager (I asked several times). Attempted contact with executives was ignored.

  6. Claudette says:

    I just got hit with Priceline’s bait and switch tactics. I was bidding on Downtown Ft Lauderdale, for a 4 star. Offer refused, so I waited until the next day, today, and increased my bid, kept 4 star and added Pompano,which showed zero 4 stars available. my offer was accepted, but it was for a hotel in Westin (Western Ft Lauderdale…25 min more taxi ride than I expected. I called and was told no refunds. I explained it was their error, then they tried to convince me that #9 on the map (Pompano) was the same as #10 (W. Lauderdale). After I told them I wanted to cancel the hotel< they said they couldn't help me and that the western Lauderdale map includes Pompano. Incorrect….it has it's own area for a checkmark. That's just one of the things we do to increase our bidding opportunities….add another area that doesn't have the stars you desire. Supervisor was curt and spoke computer language…'no refunds for any reason'. I told her I would never use Priceline again because they are misrepresenting their product. After, fortunately having pretty good luck for the last 10 years, I'm finished with bidding on PL. I think better search engines are squeezing them out of the market. I cruise a lot out of Lauderdale. But I'm not finished with them…BBB, Cruisecritic, etc.. If anyone knows of more travel boards, please let me know. I know I'm not the only person experiencing their bait and switch.

  7. Sherry says:

    Same thing just happened to me(ie. bait&switch hotel vs. map)…but because i formally contested it with Citi Credit card dispute dept.,Priceline cancelled my hotel reservation AND kept my credit card charge of $513.00. Priceline just didnt tell me they cancelled my reservation 7 weeks ago when i contested it….they just kept the money!!!

  8. Lance Mize says:

    Bait and switch happened to me this weekend. What are people doing about this scam. Why no class-action lawsuit?

  9. Robert E. Lee says:

    I got a quote for a hotel room in Fort Lauderdale that required me to sign up my email or my phone number.

    When I got the quoted price in an e-mail the link they sent went to a Priceline site quoting a higher price.

    I am going to complain to the FTC about this bait and switch. It is false advertisement pure and simple, and a class action lawsuit would serve them right.

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