REPORT FROM ELECTROLAND

Expedia Raises Priceline

From the ever-more-twitchy world of name-your-price online travel sites: Expedia's Hotel Watcher (www.expedia.com), an upmarket knockoff of

Priceline's version (www.priceline .com), betters its predecessor by giving you an immediate yes-no response to your hotel request and price offer. Priceline takes an hour to cogitate. Meantime, Priceline has added Budget rental cars to its offerings, creating the possiblity of scoring a lowball travel trifecta--air, hotel, car--at one site.

With three bids.

Which might be rejected.

And make sure you get the airline ticket first, because bids are binding if they are accepted.

In related news, Expedia is dangling $25 to lure budgeteers to its hotel bidder, through Oct. 6.

UPRIGHT AND LOCKED

Promises, Promises

Two weeks ago, major airlines filed plans with the Department of Transportation listing the ways they promise to improve customer service. These "Customers First" plans constitute the airlines' attempt to prevent Congress from passing a harsher Passengers Bill of Rights law.

Below we've harvested some of the more interesting promises. We promise we have not made any of them up.

* When Northwest flights are canceled or delayed, the airline promises to apologize every 15 minutes.

* Continental: "We will attempt to locate a missing bag for up to three months."

* Midwest Express promises to respond to customer complaints in 30 days; TWA promises to "take ownership" of customer problems and resolve them "to the customer's satisfaction."

* United vows to deploy (redundancy alert!) Mobile Chariots: rolling, wireless electronic ticket counters sent to the rescue when cancellations or delays create long lines of customers.

* Continental promises that customers requesting first-class seats will be told the price only for those seats, not less expensive ones.

There are many other promises, mostly vague, about how carriers will handle delays, cancellations and equipment failure better. The real fun will begin Dec. 15, when airlines say they'll start living by these promises. But don't get your hopes up. American's plan includes this startling admission: "The Customer Service Plan does not create contractual or legal rights."

Meaning: We promise, but you can't hold us to it.

SMART MOUTH

Budapest, Hungry

Reader Nancy Pincombe-Docksai of Reston writes with advice about one of several dining scams travelers face in Hungary. The scam: The waiter presents a bill that includes a tip, and then demands another tip in cash. Flustered, language-challenged diners often just pay the extorter and leave. Advises Pincombe-Docksai: Write down the cost of menu items when you order (so you can verify whether the bill includes tip) and tell the waiter you understand the tip will be included on the bill.

Meantime, Budapest-based journalist Sam Margolis reports that the U.S. Embassy in Hungary has listed a "dirty dozen" restaurants and night clubs notorious for overcharging customers (scary tales: Two Danes, duped by female scamsters, are charged $6,000 for a meal; an American is charged $650 for three gin and tonics). For a list of those restaurants, visit www.usis.hu/docs/conquar1.htm.

Everywhere, but especially in Budapest: Don't order anything until you find out the price.

Bargain of the week

America on Sale

Southwest is offering its $99-or-less sale to anywhere it flies. Pay $99 each way between BWI and cities in the West, including Phoenix and Las Vegas. Closer destinations, such as Cleveland, are as little as $29 each way. Purchase tickets by Nov. 3; travel between Oct. 7 and March 31. Blackout dates apply. Info: 1-800-435-9792, www.southwest.com.

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