Attention, bargain-hunters! “Opaque” doesn’t necessarily mean “cheapest”

One of the most frequently-repeated pieces of advice for bargain-hunters is that you’ll always find a deal on one of the so-called “opaque” travel websites, like Hotwire or Priceline.

The companies routinely offer discounts of up to 50 percent off the published fare or rate, but there’s a tradeoff: You don’t find out the name of the airline, car rental company or hotel until after the purchase. And the transaction is completely non-refundable.

So when Raymond Rios went looking for a rental car on Hotwire, he was surprised when the price fell far short of his expectations.

Rios started his search on Expedia, Orbitz and Travelocity, to get an idea of what a rental would cost in West Palm Beach. Then he went to Hotwire and found what he believed to be the best price — $87 through Budget. He paid for it.

But when he clicked on Budget’s website to calculate how much he had saved, and was shocked to see an even cheaper rate: $77 for the same rental period. He phoned Hotwire to see if they could adjust his rate, but it refused.

This practice they used against me is very deceiving and I think they have taken advantage of me as a customer, making me overpay for a purchase when it was an opaque rate. I have all the screen shots where Budget.com was offering me the rate of $77, which I can forward to you as evidence.

I think I should get a partial refund in which I get a substantial discount by booking an opaque rate.

I’m not so sure about that. In a dynamic pricing environment, it’s possible for Hotwire to offer a higher rate, even though it’s opaque, than a car rental company or an online travel agency.

But the last time I had a question about an allegedly overpriced opaque rate, and tried to explain to a reader that there was no meaningful low-price guarantee, I got an angry response (“You call yourself a consumer advocate? Shame on you.”). Then she contacted the opaque site on her own, and received a refund.

This time, I promised to at least get a response from Hotwire.

Rios sent an email to Hotwire, but the form letter he received — I won’t bore you by republishing the whole thing — didn’t address his problem.

“Car rates change all the time based on availability and demand so it is important you act quickly when you see a rate you like,” the online agency said.

So I contacted Hotwire on his behalf. And here’s what it had to say:

Hotwire works with some of the largest car rental suppliers to provide customers with both “retail/published price” and “opaque” Hot Rate inventory. We display the results for both options within the same search results on our site, and always prioritize the lowest price point so that it’s at the top of the page, regardless of whether it’s a published price or a Hot Rate.

If the Hot Rate option that Raymond selected was at the top of the page, then it definitely was the lowest available price on our site based on the travel details he provided. We’ve also confirmed that the Hot Rate car rental purchase in question was verified to be lower than the equivalent retail price at that time.

We have a lot of confidence in the price points for our Hot Rates. In exchange for learning the rental agency after the booking, customers can receive discounts that are as much as 40 percent off of retail pricing.

It’s also important to note that we search all publicly available inventory to ensure we generate the most accurate results possible. But occasionally, suppliers will run limited availability offers directly through their own sites.

We can’t confirm that this is what Raymond found on Budget’s site, nor can we confirm the timing or what, if any, special restrictions or conditions existed for that option. However, we would always instruct customers to actively shop around to compare prices between multiple sources before booking on Hotwire. Not only because we believe that we will be the best option the vast majority of times (often beating even limited-availability offers), but also because we want customers to be informed on their purchases ahead of time.

The rental car industry is very dynamic, with frequent inventory and pricing changes, so research is always important. We’re also working closely with our partners to gain access to these limited-availability rates as well, and we’re confident that we’ll have them coming soon.

Hopefully, Raymond will consider shopping with us again when booking in the future.

Well, there you have it. Car rental prices may be lower on Hotwire, but there’s no guarantee.

So the conventional wisdom about opaque sites is still right — most of the time.

(Photo: S Norski/Flickr Creative Commons)

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