No luck on Expedia vacation

By | January 24th, 2002

Q: Expedia advertised a special weekend package from San Francisco to Las Vegas with rates “as low as” $100. I tried to find it online, but couldn’t. So I called Expedia, and I was told the price wasn’t available.

I think offering a vacation package that Expedia knows can’t be booked is a bait-and-switch tactic. I never intend to use the site again.

— Barry Lawrence

A: I agree that offering a product that’s unavailable is deplorable. And you know that if Expedia did such a thing, I’d be the first to denounce it. But after taking a look at the site and talking with several Expedia representatives, I believe this is more of a misunderstanding than a case study in dishonest advertising.

No one disputes that Expedia offered the package you said it did. You saw it. Expedia even sent me screen shots with the promotional material. What’s in question is whether you could find that Vegas vacation for as low as $100.

According to Expedia you could – and you couldn’t.

Mitch Robinson, a marketing manager at Expedia, sent me a sample itinerary from San Francisco on National Airlines with accommodations at the Palace Station Hotel and Casino. Total price: $95.48.

Now here’s the catch. That’s per person. The real price is $190.97.

When Robinson showed me the itinerary, I e-mailed him back and asked if I’d misread it. I noticed the $190.97 price and thought something had gone wrong. I didn’t pay any attention to the “Avg/pp” price listed in a smaller typeface next to the main price, and you probably didn’t either.

Expedia didn’t lie to you, and you shouldn’t boycott the site. If you never click on Expedia again, you’ll be missing a lot of bargains that you probably won’t find anywhere else. I’ve been following Expedia since it launched, and my sense is that the site is really maturing into a worthwhile online destination where travelers can find good deals, as long as they know where to look (and where not to).

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For example, when it comes to low airfares, Expedia isn’t much of an option for me. I think there are other websites, or even offline consolidators, that can do better. But if you’re in the market for a vacation package, Expedia really excels. About two years ago, it began to specialize in putting together discounted packages to destinations like Las Vegas, in which air, hotel, and other extras are included.

Expedia had the foresight to recognize that commissions paid by airlines weren’t enough to support its business. So it went in another direction by creating its own reservations system and relying on bundling air, hotel, and other extras into packages for its revenues. The strategy seems to have worked. Expedia has used its buying clout to negotiate very low rates, buying everything in bulk, and then reselling it at a markup. Even after Expedia takes its cut, the prices are often extremely competitive.

Listing prices based on double occupancy isn’t new, but I’m disappointed that Expedia does it. It confused you, and it confused me when I investigated your claim. What’s more, I don’t even think it’s necessary to advertise a package in that way, because the prices are very reasonable to begin with. I mean, try putting together your own Las Vegas weekend from San Francisco for $190.97, and you’d have to drive in order to get it any cheaper.

I suspect the site wants to appeal to budget-conscious travelers. And that’s fine, as long as it doesn’t dupe them in the process. I’d pay close attention to the fine print when you see a package like this in the future. If you have any questions, call Expedia at 800-766-6658 and ask it to clarify the terms. If you’re not happy with the answer, e-mail me and I’ll look into it. After all, that’s what I’m here for.

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