The truth about “best rate” guarantees

Like many travelers, Rob Voss didn’t want to overpay when he booked a room in Kansas City recently. But like many travelers, Voss was foiled by the fine print.

Hotels.com displayed a rate at the Fairfield Inn and Suites in Kansas City $8 lower than Marriott.com. But Marriott’s best-rate guarantee was too tempting to pass up. “Look no further,” it urged him. If he found a rate advertised elsewhere for less, they’d refund the difference plus 25 percent.

You probably don’t need me to tell you that the travel industry is always looking for creative ways to persuade you to pay extra for your flights, hotels and rental cars. But you, like Voss, probably thought the “best rate” guarantee was a reliable safeguard. It turns out there are few ways to ensure you’ve paid the lowest price, and the best-rate guarantee isn’t one of them.

After he submitted a claim, a Marriott representative turned down Voss’ request for a refund. He’d dotted every “i,” and crossed every “t,” even taking screen shots of the Hotels.com site to prove it was offering a lower rate.

“They said they couldn’t verify the Hotels.com price,” says Voss, a retired air traffic controller from Chicago. “Of course they couldn’t.”

A Marriott representative said its rate guarantee is legit, but comes with a few restrictions. Special rates don’t qualify and it must be able to independently verify the price. In his case, Voss booked a special AAA rate on the Marriott site, and the hotel couldn’t confirm the Hotels.com price.

Best-rate and best-fare guarantees are notoriously hard to invoke, say industry-watchers. “It is definitely frustrating when companies promote a seemingly consumer-friendly policy, because they know that in practice they’ll make it so difficult that nobody will actually be able to take advantage of it,” says Dan Miller, a loyalty program blogger based in Cincinnati.

Miller knows what he’s talking about: It took him five tries before Best Western finally fulfilled his request to honor a rate through its guarantee.

DealNews’ Jared Blank agrees that best-rate guarantees can be an effective tool — when they work.

“If you believe you’ve found a fare or rate that qualifies for a match from a best-rate guarantee, you can save yourself a ton of time and trouble by reading exactly what the provider wants from you to prove you qualify for the price match,” he says.

Besides asking a company to honor a “guarantee” that’s undermined by fine print, there are two proven strategies for dealing with worst-price problems.

One is to throw technology at the problem. Remember, the other side is already using sophisticated computer systems designed to predict how much you’re willing to pay. These yield management systems give travel companies an edge. So why not use similar technology to give you the edge?

Well, you can. For example, Hopper.com just unveiled an improved “when to fly” calendar that helps you instantly identify the cheapest months and days to travel from your home airport to your destination. Think of it as yield management in reverse. It also has a price predictor that tries to forecast future fares based on historical pricing data. Hopper claims that in 95 percent of cases, following the price predictor’s advice will land you a cheaper flight.

Another site that can help is Yapta.com (accessible via Kayak). The service tracks your flight or hotel rate after you’ve booked, and lets you know if there’s a lower price. For example, Alaska Airlines will offer a refund if any of its prices drop after you’ve booked, and JetBlue and Virgin America will offer a refund if there’s a price drop of $75 or more.

But, can you actually automate the search for the lowest prices in the same way travel companies harness entire server farms to do their bidding? Kind of. InvisibleHand is an app that runs on your desktop and searches for the lowest prices on hotels, flights, rental cars and other products, such as electronics. True to its name, InvisibleHand doesn’t pop up until it finds something, and, even then, it displays the results discreetly at the top of your browser.

Use the technology at your disposal to make sure you never have to file a best rate guarantee claim (see below). Shop hard before you push the “buy” button — and then stop fretting. After all, you got a pretty good deal.

Best rate ‘gotchas’ you need to know

You probably knew that best-fare and best-rate “guarantees” are filled with exceptions. But, did you know …

The clock’s ticking. Not only do you have 24 hours to file a claim, but the claim must also be made a full day before you travel, in some cases. So don’t wait.

It has to match exactly. If you’re booking a hotel and want to invoke an online travel agency’s best-price guarantee, you have to match the room type, rate and cancellation policy. For airlines, it must be the same cabin class, booking code and cancellation policy. Good luck.

Don’t forget taxes and fees. Airfare claims can be tricky because some travel agency websites display fares that don’t include all taxes and fees. When you think you’ve got a better fare, you might want to check the extras — they need to be included or you can’t file a valid claim.

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