Why did Priceline advertise this resort as an all-inclusive hotel?

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Christopher Elliott

What if your all all-inclusive hotel is only half-inclusive? If you’re booking through Priceline, as Michael O’Connor was, you can ask for clarification — and if you can’t get it, you can ask our advocacy team for help.

O’Connor booked a room for his family at the Barcelo, an all-inclusive resort in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.

“When I made the reservation, it listed breakfast, lunch and dinner as included in the rate,” he says. “But when I read the confirmation, it only said breakfast was included.”

So which one is right? The Priceline quote or the confirmation on the all-inclusive vacation? With a little over a week before he was supposed to leave for Mexico, O’Connor needed to know.

O’Connor’s case is helpful for anyone planning a vacation, all-inclusive or not. It shows you how to make sure you get what you want from an online travel agency like Priceline. But it is also a cautionary tale about all-inclusives and their business model. I’ll reveal which of the two Priceline quotes is correct — but more on that in a second.

Is this Priceline hotel really an all-inclusive?

Here’s what happened to O’Connor. He was looking for a nice escape from the cold weather — he lives in Toronto — and just wanted something easy. So he went to Priceline and selected the option for all-inclusive stays.

“We just wanted a simple, safe trip,” he says.

O’Connor found a room at the Barcelo for $149 a night. The description said, “Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner & Beverages Included.”

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He didn’t take a screenshot of the description, but when our advocate, Dwayne Coward, checked the published description, it continued to promise three square meals with his stay.

When O’Connor received his confirmation, though, he was stunned to see that the hotel had removed two meals.

It simply said, “Breakfast Included.”

Uh-oh. So much for all-inclusive.

What Priceline did about this all-inclusive hotel

O’Connor contacted Priceline, asking for clarification. A representative could not explain the discrepancy between the product description and the confirmation. Also, he reminded O’Connor that the hotel room was completely nonrefundable.

That meant O’Connor and his family would have to pay extra for their meals, exceeding their vacation budget by hundreds of dollars.

“I’m concerned that I might have to pay for lunch and dinner,” he told me.

O’Connor phoned the Barcelo to ask about the all-inclusive status of his stay. But a representative just referred him back to Priceline. And Priceline again said it didn’t know. He says he called both the hotel and online agency several times, always with the same results: No one knew.

And around and around we go. I’m not one to coin a phrase, but “customer service merry-go-round” seems appropriate here. No one wanted to take responsibility for this all-inclusive problem. It just seems as if they wanted O’Connor to get lost.

What you need to know about all-inclusive resorts

All-inclusive resorts are like cruise ships. They sell packages that include food and nonalcoholic beverages. Their profits usually come from upselling their guests on premium restaurants, spa treatments, alcohol and activities like snorkeling or parasailing.

That seems pretty reasonable, right? But some all-inclusives cut corners to maximize their profits. We receive complaints about the low food quality or the preponderance of extras on cruises and in all-inclusive hotels.

But if the Barcelo and Priceline quoted an all-inclusive rate then switched to breakfast only, that would cross a line.

“I can’t figure out how this isn’t fraud,” he told me. “it’s just straight-up deception.”

How to get what you want from Priceline

Priceline is simply the agent in this transaction. But that doesn’t absolve it of all responsibility.

Barcelo would have uploaded information about its rates, including what to display in the confirmation. So chances are, Priceline was just as confused about the discrepancy between the quoted screen and the confirmation.

Still, Priceline took a commission or bonus from Barcelo and needed to stand behind the product. A Priceline representative should have helped O’Connor.

So how do you get an online travel agency to do the right thing?

Don’t call, email instead. O’Connor spent a fair amount of time on the phone, which is understandable. He needed a quick answer since his vacation was happening soon. But phone calls are not always helpful. Even if O’Connor had gotten a straight answer by phone, how could he have proved that he was getting all of his all-inclusive benefits? He needed to have that in writing.

Try the executive contacts. O’Connor could have reached out to the executive contacts at Priceline, which we publish on this site. Barcelo, a large resort chain, also publishes the contacts of its managers on its site. The executives almost certainly don’t know the answer — but they’ll find someone who does.

Apply a little gentle external pressure. I’m no fan of social media shaming, nor is O’Connor. But sometimes, a polite call-out on social media with screenshots of the confusing verbiage can prompt a company into action. This can be effective but beware of bots. Those are the lighting-fast DMs you get when you mention a company on Twitter or Facebook. They aren’t real people and they can’t fix your problem. But eventually, a person will see your problem. And that can lead to a resolution.

So is this hotel all-inclusive or not? Here’s the answer

OK, so is the Barcelo in Puerto Vallarta all-inclusive or not? To find out, Dwayne contacted Priceline on behalf of O’Connor.

Here’s how it responded:

We understand that the customer has concerns regarding the reservation not showing as all-inclusive. I contacted the hotel and verified that his reservation is all-inclusive. Thus, breakfast, lunch, and dinner are free. I also sent this information to the customer’s email address.

OK, “free” is probably the wrong word here. But they’re certainly included in the price.

O’Connor went on his all-inclusive Mexican resort vacation. As far as our advocacy team can tell, he liked it. Will he ever book another vacation through Priceline? I think that’s an open question.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes weekly columns for King Features Syndicate, USA Today, Forbes and the Washington Post. He also publishes Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter. Read more of Christopher's articles here.

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