What’s the difference between a “shoppable” and “bookable” rate?

Christine Volk’s question may be one of those imponderables that can only be asked but never answered: In the travel industry, what’s the difference between a “shoppable” and “bookable” rate?

If you said there’s none, then you must not buy airline tickets. Give me a few minutes, and I’ll pull up a fare that’s cached on an airline site or online travel agency that displays as available, but actually isn’t. To customers, these phantom prices smack of a bait-and-switch scam, and since the customer is always right, they are.

Here’s what happened to Volk: She recently booked a flight on Virgin America, and at the bottom of the page she found the upsell — a “35 percent off” offer on an Avis or Budget rental.

“I checked on the rates for Budget and they were a good deal,” says Volk. An 18-day rental at Boston’s Logan Airport came to $601, including taxes.

That is good.

“I clicked on the ‘confirm reservation’ button and got a message that the reservation could not be completed,” she says. “I tried several times. Same problem.”

Volk then contacted Budget and was told that the rates were — and I quote — “shoppable” but not “bookable.”

So what was bookable? The rate Budget offered her was $400 higher.

That looked suspicious, so I decided to check with Budget. A representative responded to my question promptly:

Any rate that is retrieved or “shopped,” can be reserved or “booked.”

We have looked into this matter, and we cannot seem to replicate the problem Chris Volk experienced. In fact, we received the $601.94 rate and were able to complete the reservation.

We would be happy to make the reservation for the traveler. Please let me know if we can be of assistance.

Problem solved? Not exactly.

Related story:   Is Enterprise trying to "scam" her for damage she didn't do?

I returned to Volk with this information.

“The statement above from Budget is quite simply a lie,” she said. “Customer service rep after customer service rep was unable to receive the $601.94 rate.”

Really? I asked to see the correspondence.

Volk sent the emails between her and Budget. She identified four separate excuses for not receiving the rate.

Excuse #1 — A rate code has been loaded into the reservation system as “shoppable” but not “bookable.”

Dear Christine Volk,

Thank you for contacting the E-mail Customer Service team know about your disappointing experience. On behalf of our entire Budget team, I apologize that the charges displayed through Virgin Airlines website differed from Budget’s rates.

Please accept our apologies for any inconvenience or confusion this rate issue may have caused. This issue is caused when a rate code has been loaded into the reservation system as “shoppable” but not “bookable.”

Unfortunately, due to this error, you can view the rate, but the rate is not actually available to be booked at the location selection.

Excuse #2 – Someone else already confirmed that rate, so it is gone.

Dear Christine Volk,

Thank you for contacting the E-mail Customer Service team.

Certainly, we apologize for the confusion, a rate may be shoppable for a customer but not bookable when they have reviewed the rate, however someone else has already confirmed and selected the particular rate for the vehicle they are looking to rent. This generally happens when using a 3rd party website to book vehicles, where there may be a delay in retrieving the data from the Budget.com site.

To avoid this type of confusion we suggest booking directly through Budget.com.

Excuse #3 – We can’t duplicate it.

Dear Ms. Volk,

Thank you for contacting us through the Budget website.

We apologize that you are not able book a reservation using the discount number through Virgin Airlines. Please provide the discount number that you are trying to use so that we may see if we can duplicate the rate that you are seeing. You will be advised of our findings once we have all the information.

Excuse #4 – Maybe it’s you.

Dear Ms. Volk,

Thank you for the screen shots. We have tried to duplicate the rates that you are seeing on Viriginamerica and are finding higher rates than what you have sent.

Please keep in mind that rates are not guaranteed until actually booked no matter whose website you are on. Each rate has a certain amount of vehicles set aside for that rate when that amount of cars are reserved on that rate then the rates will go to the next rate available.

You might want to clear your cache as this could be what is causing the problem.

Volk has made a reservation for $990 instead of the $601 she thought she’d get, which isn’t a terrible rate, but nowhere near as good a deal as before. She’d like me to follow up with Budget or Virgin America and secure the rate she’d initially been quoted.

I’m a little tired of these pricing games. If companies can track you online, if they know more about you than you know about yourself, then they should be able to quote you a bookable rate, shouldn’t they?

I understand caching, but that excuse is so 1998.

Should I mediate Christine Volk's case with Budget?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at chris@elliott.org. Read more of Christopher's articles here.

  • Sam Varshavchik

    Certainly this case should be mediated. This looks like fairly solid documentation of lame excuses and run-around from non-customer service.

    If Budget says the rate is available, they should not have no problem, then, cutting a refund for the difference.

  • Jesleigh

    Why is this even a question? Ms. Volk tried contacting Budget 4 separate times to get this sorted out on her own, and your contact offered to make the reservation at the advertised price if there were any problems.

  • John Baker

    #1 seems to be admitting that they actively take part in bait and switch tactics. Not sure if they are legal or not.

    The rest honestly sound like legitimate problem solving attempts… #2 is that they won’t take responsibility for what a third party website shows you… #3 is they are attempting to recreate the problem but can’t (first step in problem solving)… #4 is also a very legitimate reason when it comes to websites.

    I’m ok with 2 – 4. I’d like to get an answer from Budget on why they think it’s ok to have the ability to present a rate that you can’t book in their system.

  • omgstfualready

    The question comes from why is the random anonymous customer not getting the same service as the big wig going to publish the problem for all to see customer.

  • You need coffee. Coffee first, then comment. That’s a rule I try to live by.

  • emanon256

    I’m hoping that the statement that they loaded a shopable rate, but it wasn’t bookable, is simply admitting to the fact that they screwed up and/or loaded it incorrectly, or that its a low wage customer service rep who simply made up an answer to keep their metrics up and move on in hopes they would pacify the OP.

    It also sounds like they are able to find the rate and are willing to book it for the OP. Has the OP contacted Chris’s contact back who was willing to book it for her? Were the other e-mails before or after Chris contacted this person? It sounded like the other e-mails were before, and the OP just needs to respond to Chris’s contact rather than say Chris’s contact is lying.

    As far as caching, especially via third party web sites. That still is a real problem. So is browser cache clearing. As someone who works on customer facing website sites connected to gigantic data systems, I still see issues caused by people not clearing their browser cache. Add a third party system that only connects to the sales system periodically and the displayed rates can be cashed as well. Then when they get updated, the users browser uses the local cache rather than updating, and the old rates can still show even when the third party system has been updated. We put code in to try to force browsers to update their cache, but there are many browsers, and many more versions of each browser. Have a version that’s too old or too new and the cache doesn’t get updated. Use a hosted browser that compresses images and pre-caches data for faster browsing, and all bets are off.

    If budget really has separate shoppable and bookable rates than shame on them. But its not abnormal at all to only have a limited number of low rates, and when they are gone the rate goes up. Its also not abnormal to have third party website cache issues, multiple people shopping at the same time, and individual browser cache issues. Why doesn’t the OP just have Chris’s contact book it for her at the rate, it sounds like they are willing to do it.

  • Ward Chartier

    The reason I voted yes is because the issue is much larger than the $400 Volk overpaid. For ethical vendors, the shoppable rate equals the bookable rate. Vendors whose advertising and pricing practices are less than ethical need bright lights focused on them. Chris Elliot and his team are in a position to do this. Except litigation, nothing less will change the behavior.

  • Chris20127

    As the person who reported this problem, let me add that even a month after I contacted Chris the rate was still showing up – but still not bookable – and I got this rate on 2 different computers and my iPad – so not a caching issue! At one point it was even $15 less.

    I wasn’t exactly harmed – I never paid the higher rate – Enterprise quoted me $748 for the same rental, no fuss, no bother – but I still cannot understand why Budget/Avis and Virgin Air would destroy customer goodwill this way.

    In fact, the rates are still out there (they state they are valid thru June 30) – I had to change the dates slighty but got a quote for $598 this morning for 18 days in June, standard car (economy was over $100 less)

    What is the point? There was no benefit to anyone – and if this was a mistake, why hasn’t it been fixed. In addition to the emails I called Budget and talked to both a customer rep and a supervisor there… so this has certainly been called to their attention. What is the point of having a website pre-loaded with a discount code where you cannot book ANY reservation?

    However, Chris does’t need to do anything more – but I am left wondering…. Am I the only person who made a reservation on Virgin and clicked that link?

  • AJPeabody

    So, Budget has Virgin offer a special low rate when someone buys a ticket on Virgin. This means the customer has already commited to travel and is a hot prospect. There are two options: Sell at the bargain rate, or try to raise the ante. If no bargain rate were offered, the customer would likely search all car rental options, but the low bargain rate brings the customer to Budget first. The honerable thing to do is sell the bargain rate. Budget would not.
    So there clearly is bait, bringing the customer to Budget. There clearly is switch: The bargain can’t be gotten, but a higher rate can. It is, ipso facto, bait and switch. Good for the OP in doing a full switch to another company entirely. That’s what I do when some corporate [deleted] tries that on me.
    As for the reasons, lame as they are, and varying by customer service agent, they should have just said “The dog ate my homework.”

  • omgstfualready

    ? Explain please. I don’t see what you see in my comment.

  • bodega3

    While I understand your point, know that car rates change daily, so never think you are getting a good deal online, period, until the day you pick your car up and that you have rechecked rates daily. I sell travel and I just returned my rental car yesterday. When I first booked my car, the rate was over $600. I rebooked 4 or 5 times and our final cost was $236 (rate, fees and taxes included) for an 8 day rental with a full size car. Just because you see someone on a carrier’s site, don’t assume it to be the best rate.

  • bodega3

    What refund? It is a prepaid rate? I would NEVER book a prepaid rate unless it was in a package. Rental car rates go up and down, just like airline ticket rates. What I initially booked for over $600 for my trip cost me $236 at the final cost. I rebooked many times. Even over a high season rates go up and down, so watch them daily.

  • polexia_rogue

    i had a similar issue with virgin’s site.

    it is common knowlage that you can get a really cheap upgrade if you log on 6 hours before your flight.

    problem- dozens of people will be fighting for 4 first class seats and 8 business class seats.

    so i click on a first class seat, i get a first class seat but i cannot complete the sale. i try again and again- then i give up and secure a business class seat instead.

    BUT just for the hell of it i looked at the site one last time- the first class seat was still listed as open.
    I assume someone got it and virgin’s site just updates very slowly.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    My suspicion is that rep who states that the rate was shoppable but not bookable spoke imprecisely. I cannot see a major company like Budget purposely promoting such an obvious, and probably illegal,tactic and putting it in writing.

    More likely, Budget has tons of potential rates, but only a given number of rates are available at any times and those rates are the only ones which should be viewable by the public. But this rate was erroneously viewable.

    For example, when you used loyalty points to book a hotel. The hotel gets reimbursed at far less than the prevailing cash rate. That reimbursement rate is not meant to be viewable by the guest and certainly not bookable. Yet, occasionally it appears on the folio.

    Years ago, Mariott’s system would glitch when the rates for a given night hadn’t been loaded properly. The result would be a room rate of $999/nt: the idea being that no one would book such a high rate.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    It took a second reading to follow your post. The big-wig-going-to-publish-customer was hard to follow at first.

  • sunshipballoons

    Of course he should mediate. A budget higher-up has already told Chris she should have gotten the $600 rate. It shouldn’t be too hard to get Budget to comply here.

  • bodega3

    I wanted to add, that I have been in my GDS, or on the car company’s agent site when I needed to call the car company to ask a question. The agent on the other end couldn’t get the same rate I was finding and I have been told multiple times that the rate I am seeing isn’t valid, which has always been an incorrect statement. Rates by phone, in an agent’s GDS, online (various websites) all will have different rates, so nothing is guaranteed until you get a confirmation number. If it isn’t a prepaid rate and you don’t like the rate that comes back, cancel it. Or hold it and shop it that day, the next day, the day after that and so on.

  • Lindabator

    Because fares can change DAILY – several TIMES daily – she could just kleep going back in, and might get it.

  • Lindabator

    #1 means they may OFFER that fare in that market, but it might be limited, not available at her location, or not available for certain dates. Not bait-and-switch, just confusing.

  • Judy Serie Nagy

    Oh, this is bad, Chris, bad.

  • Lindabator

    I think that was the problem here – she even said when she went in and changed dates, she could find it. Well, that happens with ALL travel products.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Same thing happened to me once.

  • MarkKelling

    If the ad showed something like “rate available starting at $601″ and then that rate was not available when clicking through, that is one thing. If the reservation process went through all the way to the point where the confirm button is pressed and then told not available, that is something completely different. The first happens all the time, the second is bait and switch.

    I have found that the rates quoted through airline, hotel, and other similar sites are often not a bargain and not even a good price. Just this morning I was reserving a hotel room and when I got to the conformation screen for the room I was shown a rental car offer for “30% off!” Since I had just read this article, I clicked on the ad. The price I was quoted was $149 a day for a mid sized vehicle. Going directly to the car rental site (but not signing in or providing any details other than rental location and duration) I was quoted $29 a day. So the 30% was off what? And how was the supposedly discounted rate 5 times what the rental company was offering with no discount?

  • Annie M

    “We have looked into this matter, and we cannot seem to replicate the
    problem Chris Volk experienced. In fact, we received the $601.94 rate
    and were able to complete the reservation.”

    So why couldn’t she get the price? I hate when they show screen prints and then deny that it could have been real.

  • Annie M

    I I think Chris SHOULD keep after them – what they are doing is disingenuous and false advertising and should be reported to the Dept. of Consumer Affairs since you have the screen prints. If the rates aren’t available because they have already been booked – stop showing them.

  • Extramail

    Why should she have to keep going back to see if she could get that rate? She was offered a satisfactory rate that should have been bookable right then. What a colossal waste of her time to have to keep going back to the site. I think Chris had an article recently about how customers have become deal buyers versus simple travel customers. That’s why I don’t ask you what others pay for their airfare, hotel room, etc. because I want to be satisfied with my purchase.

  • bodega3

    Rates online like this are not live rates. Also, if you book, always recheck everyday as rates drops and if you didn’t book a prepaid rate, you can rebook.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    I think what Linda is saying is that if you go back you might find a cheaper rate than the one that you got. Which is more important, your time or your money? Each person has to determine that for themselves and their circumstances.

    That’s why I tend to stick with a few travel partners. Since I know how they operate my interactions tend to be very efficient. My time is worth more than a couple dollars saved.

  • Extramail

    And, just how much is my or your time worth? If I am satisfied with the rate I am trying to pay then I don’t feel a need to continue to check the site to possibly not be able to book a rate. I have better things to do with my time than keep checking rates if I’m satisfied with the rate I have already (tried, in this particular persons case) paid.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    The discount is probably off of the car rental company’s equivalent of the hotel rack rate. Prices are dynamic. Book a car for Thursday its $100, book it Thursday AND Friday, its $25 per day. Keep it longer and pay less.

    Hertz used to give weekend rates for Thursday rentals if picked up after 12-noon. If picked up before noon, it was the daily rate, even for the weekend days. More than once, I’ve had an early Thursday arrival, and just chilled out at the airport until noon before retrieving my rental car.

  • bodega3

    If that works for you, great. But I am pointing out that rates do drop all the time, so you can rebook if you don’t book a prepaid rate. I had two cars for 8 days, one car for 6 days. We rebooked several times and saved over a $1,000. That was worth it for me and what I do for clients, too….part of my service.

  • emanon256

    I have that happen with United all the time. They show me an add stating 30% off, when I click the link I get a high rate. When I go back to the same company with no discount codes or anything, I get a much lower rate.

  • bodega3

    As with any purchase you make. If you travel to a certain location regularly, you know what the going rate has been to be able to tell what is a what I call a decent price. Fortunately, for now, with rental cars, you can rebook, so if you book well out, it pays to look again down the line, same with hotels. With cruises and air that isn’t always an option.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Yes. For the locations I travel to, I know the rates. I only recheck rates if the price is higher than I expected or if its a longer trip where the smaller price differential will add up over time.

  • AUSSIEtraveller

    Certainly the case SHOULDN’T be mediated. The rate was there, but she was too slow.
    Maybe Budget only had very few cars at that rate, just like an airline having very few seats.
    One major airline in Australia, literally has 2 seats on each 180 seat aircraft at super sale price, so you’d better be quick. Prices are fantastic, but don’t bother searching for 3 or more seats, search engines don’t average fares.
    The customer IS NOT always right. We tell people to go away everyday (mostly idiots).
    Common problem, many people think the more seats/rooms they buy the cheaper they should be, whereas in most cases the opposite is true.

  • Cybrsk8r

    Yes, conveniently (for the company) confusing.

  • Cybrsk8r

    You know what this reminds me of. That State Farm insurance commercial where the girl wants to buy a purse and this grizzled old fisherman appears with a dollar bill on the end of a fishing line.

    “Oh, you almost had it. You have to be quicker than that”.

  • Carchar

    I am usually sensitive the negative, but omg’s comment seems not over-the-top to me. I always wonder why the company comes through when threatened with embarrassing publicity.

  • omgstfualready

    okay, yea, my snark is hard to read without tone and punctuation. Thanks Carver for clarifying for me.

  • TonyA_says

    Details of Virgin America discount plan with Budget rental:
    Virgin America Elevate members can now save up to 30% off every Budget rental with BCD #U106001. (NOTE This code changes through time.)
    The savings of up to 30% applies to the time-and-mileage charges only.Coupon cannot be used for one-way rentals; one coupon per rental.Offer may not be used in conjunction with any other coupon, promotion or offer except your BCD discount.Offer valid at participating Budget airport locations in the U.S. An advance reservation is required.Offer subject to vehicle availability at the time of reservation and may not be available on some rates at some times.

    Can someone please explain to me why you should get pissed at budget if the virgin code does not work for you. Yes you can call and get a total idiot, but that does not change the T&Cs of the discount coupon.

  • Carver Clark Farrow


  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Because people who haven’t traveled much would mistakenly (although very reasonably) believe that discounts are always better deals than everyday prices. That’s why OTAs make money. That’s why Southwest is believed to always have the best prices. Etc.

  • bodega3

    I can’t tell you how many times clients have given me a ‘discount coupon’ and find the price actually was higher than the current rate. So this was not a bookable rate, but a discounted code to use. Another bit of missing information in the article?

    BTW, after reading your post I voted NO!

  • Cybrsk8r

    WOW. I guess the laws of economics are different in the southern hemisphere. I wonder whether your business will circle the drain in the opposite direction of the way they do here?

  • TonyA_says

    Also the discount coupon offer is 35% off hertz or avis, and 30% off budget. Not 35% off budget.

  • TonyA_says

    I don’t think the coupon works for Boston.

  • TonyA_says


  • Nathan Witt

    I’m curious to know why there would even be rate tiers to begin with. I know this practice is not limited to rental cars, but what’s the advantage of renting, say, your fullsize cars in groups ranging from $20 to $60/day, instead of just having them all be $40? And if all your $20 slots are gone, but your competitor still has some left, won’t you lose the business? I know tone is hard to hear on the internet, but this is nonjudgmental curiosity….

  • emanon256

    Good question and I don’t have a good answer. I’ve always thought it was a combination of demand based pricing and forecasting. And of course to drive the price up for last minute rentals. What I’ve noticed is that when there is a known event, conventions, etc. all the rental places have high rates. Other times, the rates just fluctuate a lot. Typically the more people rent, the higher the price goes for the next renter which is demand based pricing. They also seem to move the price theirs a lot, if all of the $20 slots are gone and a competitor is still offering a lower price, they will open more as well to stay competitive. I’ve only seen it on the renter side, and for many years I was renting at least 50 cars a year and got to know many rental managers. After a lot of rentals at the same place the managers started meeting me personally and we always chatted a bit. My bets answer is that they have very smart actuaries who figure all of the pricing out, when to chance it, etc. in order to maximize revenue and stay competitive. If they were always $40 for full size, the competition fold rent theirs for $39. This way no one can figure it out, and its harder for one place to undercut another when they are constantly changing.

Get smart. Sign up for the newsletter.