Priceline.com turned the travel industry upside down.
Only the shrewdest of analysts would have predicted the sweeping success Priceline enjoys with travelers who were sick of paying prices set by someone else.
The free market rarely ignores such success. That's why scores of sites try to improve on the Priceline equation.
Priceline Pros and Cons
It's fairly simple: You punch in dates for round-trip travel and how much you would like to pay. Sometimes airlines will accept your low bid because they face the prospect of an empty seat and no revenue. You can buy up to eight tickets for each trip. If you're rejected, you may try again at a different price or for different dates and destinations.
The downside: You cannot collect frequent flier miles, and you can be assigned any flight between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. of your chosen day. Once Priceline picks your flight at your price, your credit card is charged. No changes. No refunds for any reason.
On hotels, Priceline now allows you to try again at a location where you've failed to land a room after 24 hours (the limit was once 72 hours). Re-bids are allowed immediately if you're willing to change dates and locations within a market.
Clearly, the people happy with Priceline's approach outnumber those with complaints. But finality is the sticky part of the equation. That is one place where scores of new competitors are making changes to the model.
Variations of the Priceline Model
The airlines themselves grew tired of webmasters filling their empty seats. In an unprecedented move, six majors formed Hotwire.com. Here, you get an answer on your price inquiry almost immediately. As with Priceline, you choose dates and destination areas and Hotwire provides options at various price levels without revealing vendor names. Unlike bidding on Priceline, you are under no obligation to buy. Same-day purchases are allowed on airfare, hotel, vacation packages and rental cars. For rental cars, however, the search must begin at least two hours prior to pick-up time at the desired rental location
There are the "old-fashioned" Internet auctioneers who sell to the highest bidder(s) only. eBay is famed for this, but other auctions are growing. The attraction here might be variety: A routine search revealed no less than 458 lodging auctions, 254 separate auctions for timeshares, 644 for travel books and a whopping 1668 for travel tickets.
There were several other online travel auctions that tried to copy the Priceline model or at least modify it. They failed. In some cases, they didn't have the financial muscle to survive. In others, the consumers simply never found them in cyberspace. Hotwire survived as a strong challenger. Many others did not.
Getting Stuck in the Web
Some budget travelers will wind up unhappy with these ventures, just as they have with Priceline. A few will blame the trouble on deceptive advertising, surly service or print that is too fine.
In many of those cases, the real culprit will be a hasty mouse finger.
The nature of these deals requires speedy decisions. That is both their blessing and their curse. A customer who buys before understanding the rules will regret logging on that day.
The problem is that many of these new sites are very similar. Consumers get lulled into a secure feeling because they've mastered one, and therefore assume they understand them all.
Take a look at some major differences between competitors, because missing any one of these nuances could cost you money. Click "next" and find out more.