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Why travel price protection doesn't fly

Travelers can save in the rare instances prices drop after booking -- but maybe not without a fight.

By MSN Money Partner Feb 28, 2012 10:44AM

This post comes from Kelli B. Grant at partner site SmartMoney.

 

SmartMoney on MSN MoneyBest-price guarantees are taking off in the travel industry -- just as rising airfares and hotel rates make them less useful for consumers.

At face value, the pitch is an attractive one. Book airfare, a hotel stay or a vacation package, and -- if the price drops -- get a refund for the difference.

 

Most big travel booking sites now offer such price-protection policies -- CheapAir.com is the latest, launching a program earlier this month offering up to $100 back. MasterCard became the first major credit card brand to offer price adjustments on airfare last summer. And as of late January, the U.S. Department of Transportation requires airlines to allow penalty-free changes and cancellations within 24 hours of booking. "It's basically a 24-hour lemon law," says Rick Seaney, the chief executive of fare-tracking site FareCompare.com.

 

The problem is, prices aren't likely to fall in the current economic environment, experts say. Smith Travel Research expects U.S. hotel prices to rise about 5% this year, to an average $107 per night, and rising oil prices have already prompted domestic carriers to push through three $10 fare hikes this year. "The likelihood of a price drop happening is fairly low," says Seaney. (Post continues below.)

Shoppers find it isn't always easy to get sites to make good on their promises, either. Airlines charge change fees of up to $150 to process price drops discovered after that 24-hour window, and policies often include restrictions on which new, lower prices are considered.

 

Traveler Kaylen Silverberg, for instance, received just half the $284 price decrease he spotted after booking on Hotels.com, due to what his lawyer calls an "arbitrary and undisclosed limit" in the site's policy. "Our investigation into this has led us to conclude that he's not the only one this has happened to," says Gary Eisenstat, a partner at Dallas law firm Figari & Davenport, who is pursuing a class-action lawsuit. Hotels.com declined to comment.

 

Despite the hassles, best-price guarantees are still worth paying attention to after you book, says Anne Banas, executive editor for SmarterTravel.com. "It's free money," she says. And prices do, on occasion, go down. CheapAir.com chief executive Jeff Klee says the refunds claimed thus far average $52. Here's how to take advantage:

 

Book smart. Travelers' best shot at getting a great price is still finding one at the time they book, says Seaney. Generally, that means booking at least three weeks prior to departure, comparing prices on a few travel sites and individual airline sites, and pulling the trigger on a Tuesday -- which is when prices are cheapest. If several sites offer the same rate, then it's worth looking at which ones include a best-price guarantee.

 

Watch prices immediately. Many travel price-adjustment policies -- including those from Expedia, Hotwire, and Priceline -- cover just the first 24 to 48 hours after booking. The same holds true for the new Department of Transportation penalty-free cancellation regulations, which only cover the first 24 hours after purchase. Make sure to do at least one more search before that clock runs out.

 

Set up alerts. For sites and airlines that offer price adjustments until departure, travelers can set up fare alerts on sites like Airfarewatchdog.com, Bing Travel and FareCompare.com. That way, one can be notified of a lower price without conducting daily searches, says Banas.

 

Peruse the fine print. There's usually a lot of it to follow when claiming an adjustment, Seaney warns. The new, lower price often has to be available on the same site the traveler first booked. (Orbitz requires that another traveler book the trip at that lower price to trigger a refund.) And it absolutely has to be the same trip, down to the travel dates and ticket class. Sites may also require screenshots of the new deal for proof, or nix any offers it can't independently confirm -- which knocks out coupon codes and deals on members-only sites.

 

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