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Getting Refunds If the Price Drops

Michelle Higgins, New York Times
Friday, 4 May 2012 | 9:53 AM ET

You thought you scored a great deal when you found that $200 rate for your $300-a-night hotel. But then you compared notes with other guests and learned that some paid even less. It happens to even the best bargain hunters — whether it is a hotel deal or airfare — and it’s not a good feeling.

Handing money over
Stockbyte | Getty Images
Handing money over

Now a growing number of travel sites are offering to track the price after you reserve and to refund you the difference. While at least one, Yapta.com, has long alerted travelers to price drops even after a ticket has been purchased, travelers still had to do the follow-up work, including calling the airline to request the refund. The newer sites do much of that for you.

Among them are Tingo.com, which had its debut in March from Smarter Travel Media, a subsidiary of TripAdvisor , and CheapAir.com, which in February introduced a program that guarantees to reimburse any price difference before a flight. Orbitz.com, which has been offering refunds for both hotels and airfare a few years, is also worth revisiting in light of these new services.

The services take some of the load off travelers seeking the best rates possible. But some are better than others, depending on what you’re booking, and each has its quirks and caveats. Here is an overview of the sites, beginning with the newest.

Tingo.com

HOW IT WORKS This new hotel reservation site, which monitors prices up to 24 hours before check-in, allows you to book refundable rates, marked as “money back.” If the price drops after you reserve — which happens on almost a third of two-night stays, according to Smarter Travel — it automatically rebooks the lower rate and then refunds the difference to your credit card within a few days after checkout. (You can still book nonrefundable rooms through Tingo as well, without the option of getting money back.)

PROS Tingo offers an extensive hotel inventory (powered by the Expedia Affiliate Network) of tens of thousands of hotels in major destinations. The automatic refund process means travelers do nothing but reserve and then wait for a refund if the price drops. There are no booking fees involved. Tingo doesn’t charge a cancellation fee, either; only the hotel’s cancellation policy applies.

CONS You may miss out on a cheaper price that the hotel offers directly. For example, a search on Tingo for a three-day mid-May hotel stay in Miami turned up 125 hotels, including the Hotel of South Beach for about $312 a night including taxes and fees — about $35 a night more than the hotel itself was offering for the same “designer” standard room. Refunds are not available for prepaid, nonrefundable hotels, which are also listed on the site.

BOTTOM LINE It’s a no-brainer. Even if you later find a cheaper nonrefundable rate on the hotel’s own Web site, you can cancel your Tingo reservation without being charged if it is within the refund time frame, and go with the cheaper rate.

CheapAir.com

HOW IT WORKS This airfare booking site has a Price Drop Payback program, which reimburses customers the fare difference if they find a lower rate for the same coach ticket on the site before their trip.

PROS The service offers reassurance to diligent customers who check the site regularly after they book (which requires a $9.95 fee) that they won’t miss out on a lower price if one becomes available. Customers can easily check prices with one click to see if they have dropped.

CONS Payouts are not automatic. While the site makes it easy for customers to see if the fare has dropped by clicking the “Price Drop Payback” button on their itinerary page, customers must do the work — monitoring the price by checking back often and then requesting reimbursement. Price Drop Payback does not apply to airfares on other Web sites. Customers don’t get cash back, either. Rather, reimbursements, which start at $10 and are capped at $100 per ticket, are issued in the form of a voucher for future bookings on the site. Another obstacle: each ticket is eligible for only one Price Drop Payback credit. So if the price drops even more after you accept a travel credit, you will not be eligible for additional credits for further price drops on the same itinerary.

BOTTOM LINE CheapAir’s payback program makes price drops transparent by allowing travelers to track the flight themselves with a click of the mouse. But getting that refund involves repeatedly returning to the site to monitor price drops, and using what amounts to guesswork when it comes to determining when to claim the credit.

Orbitz.com

HOW IT WORKS This online travel agency offers a refund service called Price Assurance for airfare and hotel bookings. Unlike Tingo, which refunds customers when the price drops, Orbitz has a hurdle: to receive a refund when the price goes down, another Orbitz customer must have subsequently reserved the same flight (and type of ticket) or the same category room in the same hotel (and on the same date) on Orbitz for less. For example, let’s say you book a hotel on Orbitz for $200 a night. A few days later the hotel lowers the rate listed on Orbitz to $150, and another Orbitz customer reserves the room for the same night at the lower rate. Then Orbitz would automatically refund you $50. If no Orbitz customer books at the lower rate, then you don’t get the refund. Since it started the service for flights in 2008 and hotels in 2009, Orbitz says it has sent out more than 170,000 checks totaling more than $10 million.

PROS Unlike Tingo, which offers money back only for fully refundable bookings, you can book a prepaid, nonrefundable hotel or flight and get a refund — as long as another Orbitz customer subsequently books it at a lower price. As with Tingo, there are no fees and no work on your part other than the initial booking. Orbitz continues tracking until your trip, and each time the price drops and another customer reserves your same room or flight for a lower amount, your refund increases.

CONS Customers don’t get any money back when the price goes down unless another Orbitz customer books that same type of hotel room or flight for less than the price you paid. Price Assurance doesn’t apply to packages that bundle airfare and hotel together. And refunds, which are cut as a check and typically take about six to eight weeks to arrive after your trip, are capped at $250 per airline ticket and $500 per hotel room.

BOTTOM LINE Some travelers might prefer Tingo’s money-back service for hotel bookings because its refunds aren’t based on someone else booking the same hotel room, and the amount that can be refunded isn’t capped. But there is no better option for flights than Orbitz if you want to avoid the chore of constantly checking prices in order to finagle a refund.

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