Yes, $859 is lower than $766 — you got a problem with my math?

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If you think you can beat a travel company at its pricing game, then meet Ron Faul.

He contacted me recently because he’d booked a seven-day cruise on Royal Caribbean, and believed he caught the cruise line in the act of discounting.

Price-cutting happens all the time, of course, and in order to reassure passengers that they won’t be left holding an overpriced ticket, travel companies offer best-price guarantees.

Here’s the synopsis of Royal Caribbean’s:

You will have 48 hours after you reserve to find a lower price. If you do, you will receive 110% of the difference applied to your reservation as an onboard credit. This lowest rate must be a rate publicly advertised by Royal Caribbean International. Program terms and conditions apply.

Faul’s original price was $859, a rate he booked because he knew that if the price dipped, he could get Royal Caribbean to fix it. Then the rate for his cruise fell to $766. He filed a claim under RCCL’s best rate guarantee.

The response?

We regret to inform you that we are unable to apply the requested Best Price Guarantee. According to our records, the reservation has already had a lower price applied. We are not able to apply the Best Price Guarantee program after the pricing has already changed.

It gets worse.

The rate then dropped to $679. Now Faul was furious, and he contacted me to see if there was anything I could do.

“I don’t understand how $859 is lower than $766,” he says.

Ah, cruise line math.

To figure out what’s going on you have to do a deep dive into the terms of RCCL’s “best” price guarantee.

Here’s the relevant section:

The Royal Caribbean Best Price Guarantee applies to the cruise rate only. The Royal Caribbean Best Price Guarantee will not apply to government fees and taxes and/or any fuel supplement charge.

Lower rates must be Royal Caribbean’s publicly advertised rates available to the general public. Group rates, membership programs, charters or other Travel Agent promotions not offered by Royal Caribbean to the general public, including but not limited to travel agent rebates, are ineligible.

In other words, the only rates this applies to are the “publicly advertised” prices that are not in any way promotional.

I asked RCCL to help me understand how many of its fares were considered “publicly advertised.” Specifically, I wanted to know if it could share the number of claims it received under its “best” price guarantee, and of those, how many were honored.

I’m still waiting for an answer.

This discussion is timely, given the increasing sophistication of the travel industry’s yield-management systems, which set ticket prices according to projected demand, and the industriousness of the travel industry’s misguided citizen hackers.

We’ve had several heated debates about the ethics of exploiting errors in these systems. Some say that if travel companies try to “game” us with technology, we should feel free to play them, too. And by “play,” they mean booking any available fare, even when it’s an obvious mistake, like a decimal-point or a currency-conversion error.

Now, granted, “best” price guarantee trickery is not the same thing as an exploited fare error, but the two issues are part of the same universe. It’s the cat-and-mouse game of technology being leveraged to make more money or to save money.

Faul’s problem with RCCL is unresolvable, but the larger issue that looms must be openly debated. In the absence of clear guidelines — or a more activist federal government telling a company like RCCL how to define “publicly advertised” — we only have our moral compass to consult on these questions.

Do Royal Caribbean’s fare shenanigans justify using the same kind of technology to your advantage? I know many well-meaning travelers and travel agents who would say the answer is “yes.”

I see things differently. I think that any system that can’t quote an honest fare is wrong, and if the market can’t fix it, then it’s up to the government to do something.

Go on, call me a socialist. I know you want to.

“I don’t think much of Royal Caribbean’s best price guarantee program,” says Faul. “Sounds like false advertising to me. A more truthful slogan might be, ‘We are going to get as much as we can whenever we can from whoever we can.'”

On that, we agree. You don’t have to be Faul to know Royal Caribbean’s cruise fares are foul.

Should Royal Caribbean have honored Ron Faul's best-price guarantee claim?

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