Priceline promised to bend the rules, but now it’s backtracking

Rules are rules, but what happens when a travel company promises it will bend them? That’s the question Rebekah Conlon wants to answer. Her rental car, booked through Priceline, was non-refundable and non-changeable, and she knew it.

But just before she arrived in Toronto to pick up the car, she got a troubling call. “A family member had passed away,” she says. “We had to abruptly change our travel plans.”

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Arch RoamRight. Arch RoamRight is one of the fastest growing, most-highly rated travel insurance companies in the United States. Travel advisors love working with us, and travelers feel protected with our trip cancellation and travel medical insurance coverage. We also make it easy to file a claim online with our fast, paperless claims website. Learn more about RoamRight travel insurance.

She continues,

I contacted Priceline within 10 minutes of when we were supposed to pick up the rental car and informed them of the death in the family. They said they would contact me with details about a refund.

Nice of Priceline to agree to bend the rules for her. But when Conlon followed up, Priceline backtracked.

Here’s the email she received:

I am very sorry to hear of your loss, and I am sure this is a difficult time for you.

I apologize; however, we will not be able to refund your reservation. Our ability to issue a refund is governed by contractual agreements with our partners, which state that once the scheduled pick-up time has passed, all reservations are non-changeable and non-refundable.

We thank you for the opportunity to assist you and hope this information is helpful to you.

Helpful? I might have used another word to more accurately describe how Conlon might receive the bad news. But I digress.

Priceline is right. And wrong.

It’s correct, in that its rental cars are non-refundable, of course. But the company can also waive its rules (for example, when a customer dies, it can refund a non-refundable airfare). It’s incorrect, in that it shouldn’t have told Conlon she could get a refund if it wasn’t prepared to offer her one.

I asked Priceline about the refund. Its response?

This was a no-change/no-cancel reservation. However, since the agent on the call with Ms. Conlon indicated otherwise, we are going to go ahead and issue a refund.

Good of Priceline to fix this.

Could the problem have been avoided? Probably. Conlon might have rented a car with fewer restrictions. Most rental companies let you cancel, or even no-show, without a penalty. Priceline offers a deep discount, but you have to pre-pay for the car and there are no refunds. Unless it says otherwise.

But this does bring up an interesting question: What happens when a company promises to bend its own rules? Is that an oral contract, and if so, how do you go about proving it when a company backtracks? Short of taping the phone call, which Conlon wasn’t in a position to do, how do you establish that you were offered a refund?

(Photo: Bruce/Flickr Creative Commons)