Is this Priceline “missing button” case a lost cause?

Brook Demmerle’s problem is not uncommon, but it’s usually unsolvable.

But you know me, don’t you? Always tilting at windmills. I’m a sucker for lost causes. So if you think I should jump in and get involved, I will.

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This spring, Demmerle booked a cruise on Priceline through its agency site, which means it wasn’t a “name-your-own-price” booking — so it was refundable, under certain conditions. Just a few days later, Demmerle says she had to cancel the cruise because of a work-related conflict.

The Priceline rules on canceling a cruise are imprecise, at best:

Cancellation policies vary between cruise lines and they do increase as the travel date approaches. You will be provided with specific details during the booking process, and we’ll follow up by providing the fees in writing as well. It’s your responsibility to be familiar with the penalties. To protect yourself from penalties for canceling due to medical reasons, we strongly encourage you to purchase our Travel Protection plan.

Demmerle decided to buy the travel protection, just in case. When she asked for a refund, she was well within her cruise line’s refund period, and received her money back. Except for the insurance, which she hadn’t used.

“When I called Priceline to cancel and asked about the insurance, I was told that it was non-refundable and non-transferrable unless it was the exact same voyage,” she says.

That doesn’t seem right to her. She won’t need to insure her cruise anymore. Why shouldn’t she get her money back for the insurance?

Ah, but the refund rules are spelled out clearly on her confirmation, a Priceline representative told her when she called.

“When I received the email confirmation, there was a button on the top asking to confirm and below the button were the conditions. I do not recall hitting the confirm button, although Priceline claims I did,” she says.

It wouldn’t be accurate to say travel insurance is non-refundable. Most policies have a free “look” period, so if you change your mind about the insurance, you can get a complete, no-questions-asked refund. She was past that period.

The question is, did Priceline adequately disclose the refund terms?

“I did not see the small print at the very bottom of the page saying the insurance was non-refundable,” says Demmerle.

She doesn’t think it’s right.

Demmerle thinks of it in the same terms as an offer by Groupon or a Living Social. Even when the offer expires, they still have to give you the value of your expenditure under some state laws.

“Why should Priceline not have to at least give the value of what you paid?” she asks.

The way I see it, there are two separate issues. First, the disclosure of the insurance refundability. Small print is often hidden or obscured on booking pages. I’m sure the terms on her insurance say what Priceline says they say, but were they adequately and clearly shown to Demmerle?

The second issue is the problem of pushing the button. Priceline is known to keep detailed electronic records, including when a button is pushed on a booking screen. It has shown me evidence of button-pushing, even when a customer denied it.

Case closed? Probably. But Demmerle is right about at least one thing: She’s been made to feel as if Priceline and its insurance company pulled a fast one. No amount of fine print and buttons can make up for that. I share her frustration, but I’m not sure there’s anything I can do to help.

Should I mediate Brook Demmerle's case?

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Update (8/14): Priceline investigated this claim and found that it had refunded her insurance, minus a $25 processing fee on June 17, a day after she had requested it. Priceline is keeping the processing fee.