Are LastMinuteTravel’s $1 room rates too good to be true?

A room at the InterContinental Tampa on Feb. 10 costs $278 a night. But Dave Willis got his free, thanks to LastMinuteTravel.com’s The World for a Dollar offer. Sound too good to be true? It may be.

Willis is one of the fortunate few who snagged a zero-dollar rate. (“I got a confirmation email with a zero price,” he told me. “They said the bellhop could use the dollar more than they could.”)

He signed up for a “hint” email on Monday and happened to check the site yesterday night. With just five minutes left in a 15-minute window to book, he managed to score a zero-dollar room rate.

“Hope I don’t get a follow-up email saying there was an error,” he adds.

But at least one traveler thinks the promotion isn’t legit. Reader James Fischer decided to time LastMinuteTravel.com’s window of opportunity.

I wrote a little program to track any changes to specific pages within the Web site, and found something very strange: The promotional periods were not 15 minutes long, but only 3 minutes at most.

Fischer didn’t believe it, so he repeated the test.

I found that the promotion periods were no more than 3 minutes. To make matters worse, one would be redirected to a flash “movie” to “explain” the promotion at every selection in the process, so one’s time was consistently chewed up, and it was impossible to complete a booking before the timer ran out.

Lauren Volcheff LastMinuteTravel’s director of marketing, insisted the offer is on the up-and-up.

Our intention from the start of this campaign has been to introduce travelers to the new LastMinuteTravel.com, our variety of travel products and our great, low rates. Due to the expected demand and the opportunities presented by this sale, we have continually encouraged travelers to prepare in advance, which allows them to easily complete a booking within the sale session. In fact, many have already been successful – during the first three days of The World for $1 sale, 624 bookings have been made, sending 1,437 people on vacation.

I also want to provide you with some of the campaign’s specifics in order to clarify questions and dispel any rumors or myths.

The World for $1 sale occurs on LastMinuteTravel.com each weekday (Jan 26 – Feb 6) for a total of 15 minutes daily, with a minimum of seven more opportunities to become involved from today forward. Specific start times vary day-to-day, and the 15-minute windows are divided into three or less sessions per day – each lasting for at least five minutes, for a total 15 minutes of sale time each day. During the sale, travelers automatically view a series of three tutorials, which total two minutes and 25 seconds when combined. Each short video explains how to ‘book smarter’ on the new LastMinuteTravel.com and gives tips on using the Undercover hotel model.

On average, it should take 3 minutes to complete a reservation during this sale. For instance, on January 26, the sale’s launch day, the first session occurred in the morning during the ten o’clock hour, and again in the afternoon at the one o’clock hour. One session was seven minutes long, and the other was eight. During these two sessions alone, we had 112 people complete bookings in 62 destinations around the world – 65 percent of which were in high-end, luxury hotels.

It’s also important to note that while we have taken all of the necessary steps to support the enormous demand expected during this promotion, rooms may sell out during high-demand periods.

I’m withholding judgment on this offer. It may be gimmicky, it may have lots of fine print, and it may be difficult to claim a room.

But is it fraudulent? Let’s give LastMinuteTravel a few more days before reaching a verdict.

Update: Got another note from Willis …

Just got a call from a LastMinuteTravel rep, who wanted to confirm that I received my confirmation email (which I did) and congratulate me on my win. He explained cancellation terms, which are basically nonexistent, despite their boilerplate terms that impose a $25 penalty and full night/stay fee for cancellations for paid stays.

Also, he clarified that winners can’t get another $1/free stay during the campaign, even though the terms make it sound like it could be one win per week.

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