A Travelocity typo triggers ethics crisis

oceanThe total price for a three-night Bahamas cruise package came to $2,058 on Travelocity. But that was before John Zimmerman applied a $1,000 rebate offered for a mid-level cabin through the online agency.

Then the rate was too good to be true – literally.

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Shortly after booking the cruise, Travelocity unexpectedly reduced the $1,000 rebate offer to $100 and then eliminated it entirely. Appeals to the company were met with silence, so Zimmerman asked me to help.

”No $9 first class airfare to Europe situation”

Zimmerman insists he did everything by the book. “The rebate offer appeared throughout the booking process in pop-up windows,” he remembers.

He wanted to make sure he wasn’t mistaken. The cabin class and the ship, RCCL’s Majesty of the Seas, passed the litmus test.

“We cleared browser cookies, opened an incognito window to ensure the offer was for this particular cruise, and took copious screen shots during the booking process,” he remembers. “The total price, with the rebate applied, was still more than twice the price of a regular cabin, but I felt this would be an opportunity to splurge.”

In other words, “This wasn’t a $9 first class airfare to Europe situation.”

Zimmerman showed me the screen shots, and after reviewing them, I agreed to contact Travelocity.

I can already hear some of you crying foul. But bear in mind, asking a company to review a transaction doesn’t guarantee anything.

I thought Zimmerman had a few things going in his favor:

Watertight documentation. It’s unusual for a customer to take screen shots of a transaction all the way through, but that’s exactly what he did. He didn’t seem to be trying to hold Travelocity’s feet to the fire if this turned out to be a mistake, but to ensure that this deal was legit.

Not too good to be true. Even after factoring in the rebate, he was still paying $1,058 for a three-day cruise for two people. That’s not a “fat-finger” rate, from all outward appearances.

The right motives. Travelocity offered the rebate in a pop-up window. He didn’t find it on a blog or website dedicated to pricing errors. Had Zimmerman learned about this “deal” online and attempted to take advantage of a rebate he knew was a mistake, then I would have politely declined his case.

Then I heard back from Travelocity. A representative told me there’d been a “typo” in the terms and conditions on the promotion.

“The $1,000 credit should have read $100,” said the representative. “We recognize this as our error, however, and will give him the full $1,000.”

Is that right?

I have mixed feelings about this resolution.

On one hand, I’m happy for Zimmerman. He got an excellent deal on his Caribbean cruise, subsidized by Travelocity. On the other hand … well, it was subsidized by Travelocity. Maybe it caved because I contacted it on Zimmerman’s behalf. I wouldn’t have done that if it had responded to his emails asking about the status of his rebate.

If you venture off this site to some of the darker crevices of the blogosphere where people intentionally book mistake fares — yes, I still call it stealing — you’ll find my critics who say the “consumer advocacy” I do is really nothing more than a form of high-tech extortion. When I contact a company on behalf of a consumer, there’s an implied threat that if I don’t get what I want, I’ll write a story.

These critics apparently don’t read my blog, where I write about my many advocacy failures and often side with the companies that say “no.”

But after reading this case, I can see how the haters would think I’m just running a racket. Travelocity might have just ignored Zimmerman and correctly charged him $2,058 for his Majesty of the Seas sailing trip if I hadn’t gotten involved.

A part of me wonders if I should have.

Should I have gotten involved in this case?

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