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Electrobeat: The Priceline's Not Right

By Carolyn Spencer Brown
Sunday, April 26, 1998; Page E03

   


    Priceline.com screen shot
How much is an airline seat worth? Priceline.com, a new World Wide Web-based ticket bidding service, purportedly lets you name your own price by submitting a bid for seats on domestic and international flights by major airlines -- anytime between two days and six months before of departure. Priceline, an accredited travel agency in Stamford, Conn., sifts through a database of air fares to see if there's an airline willing to match your price.

There are plenty of catches. In exchange for the privilege of naming your own price -- which may not be accepted -- you're subject to some of the tightest restrictions in the low-fare game. For instance, you have to agree to accept any "matching" bids, sight unseen, and do so with a credit card number when you bid. You cannot specify an airline and don't get frequent-flier miles. You have no say (beyond dates) in scheduling and little choice in airports -- bid for San Antonio and you may find yourself obligated to accept a ticket to Austin, an hour away. Tickets are non-exchangeable and non-refundable.

Says Tom Parsons, editor of Best Fares magazine, which operates a competing members-only low-fare information service on the Web: "There's a lot of hype but no snuff there. We gave [visitors to the Best Fares site] a direct link and said, 'Go test it out.' And not one single subscriber has come back" with a ticket.

Priceline.com's "name your price" philosophy is a nifty gimmick for getting attention. But its implication that it gives consumers bargaining power with airlines eager to part with unsold seats is misleading. Based on our attempts to use the service, and interviews with successful and unsuccessful bidders, our reality check:

  • Priceline.com is not a primary souce for low fares. "We are not a discount ticket warehouse," Walker says. "We are not going to beat [airlines' own] sale fares." Walker himself suggests users will be more successful if they bid "at the higher end of their personal budget" rather than lower.

  • Priceline can get you a good deal -- but it's impossible to predict whether you'll get one. We found several customers who had done better than they could have through conventional channels. One flier made a $500 bid for a ticket to San Francisco less than a week before departure and America West agreed to that price. Normally, the same airline charges $1,100 for a seven-day advance purchase (and quotes a $554 21-day advance fare). With a week's notice, Laird Sillimon of Germantown requested -- and was granted -- a $200 fare to Milwaukee that bested the same airline's own $330 seven-day advance.

    But the process is unnerving for some. With just a couple of days' notice, John Woodburn of Waldorf successfully bid $500 for a round trip to San Diego. "The end result is that I didn't pay full fare," he says. "[But] they agree on $500 and then I think, geez, would they have taken $450?"

  • Priceline.com is not free. It's free the first time you place a bid on a particular trip; if your price is rejected (which it often is) additional bids cost $25 each. Essentially, this makes Priceline a conventional travel agency that charges you $25 for the opportunity to do business with it, with no guarantee that it will provide the lowest fare or even an acceptable ticket. Those without Internet access can call 1-800-774-2354. There's no charge for the call; a $3 per-bid fee is charged to your credit card.

  • Priceline.com is more time-consuming than other services. In trying to get a $300 fare to San Antonio, it took me 43 minutes to plow through the Priceline process, only to learn, after waiting an hour for a response, that my offer was not accepted. Among those who've tried -- and failed -- to get deals through Priceline, there's a certain skepticism. The $25 service fee for a second attempt (Walker says he is considering abolishing the fee, though he still wants to limit people to one try to avoid game-playing) is a sore point. And unlike other ticket-buying avenues, you can't see what you're buying before you commit. Also, many people are uncomfortable with its rigid restrictions and stymied by the utter mystery of what Priceline will and will not accept.

    "I hate it," says Margaret Guroff, a Baltimore traveler who attempted, without success, to buy a ticket to Peru. "It's a huge psychological game, all rigged so you offer too much. You feel like you got taken."

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    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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