Best Western (www.bestwestern.com) guarantees you'll find the lowest rate on its website. Unless your name is Russ Thomas.
OK, if you read the microscopic print on its price guarantee, you won't find an exception for the Russ Thomases of the world. But you might as well, he says.
Thomas tried to invoke Best Western's guarantee when he booked a room at one of its Las Vegas properties through its website recently. The guarantee seems like an attractive offer: If you find a better price on another website for the exact same reservation and notify it using its claim form the same day, Best Western will lower its price plus a $100 gift card.
He'd booked a room at the Best Western Mardi Gras for $62 a night. But later that day, Thomas noticed the identical room at the identical hotel for just $39 a night.
"I filled out Best Western's claim form and they rejected it because they said they could not get the competitors website to work," he says. "So I sent them links to five more competitors with the same price $30 less than I paid."
Sound familiar? It should. I recently covered Kevin McDonald's troubles with Delta Air Lines' Best Fare Guarantee. In that case, Delta did the right thing after I helped McDonald find an executive contact at the airline, to whom he sent a polite appeal.
In this case, I reviewed the correspondence between Thomas and Best Western, and I thought his problems were serious enough to contact the hotel directly on his behalf.
The e-mails show his repeated efforts to get Best Western to acknowledge that its own rooms were being offered elsewhere online at almost half the price, and to honor its rate guarantee.
"Below are links to five different websites where I can book this hotel for $39 to $49, taxes included. Please verify these and let me know if you will be honoring the best rate guarantee," writes Thomas.
"We have processed your Low Rate Guarantee Claim," a representative writes. "The claim has been denied."
Best Western listed the reason for rejecting his claim as a problem with the date.
"If I understand you correctly after me showing you five different booking engines that all show a rate almost half of the rate on your website you are now going to deny the best rate guarantee claim because one of the websites use the international date format of date/month/year rather than the U.S. format month/date/year," Thomas responds.
"According to our agent the claim was not yet denied," says Best Western. "We just don't have all the information we need to process your claim."
Thomas then resubmits the information.
"Thank you for your e-mail," Best Western replies. "We have processed your Low Rate Guarantee Claim. The claim has been denied."
If all of this reads like a bureaucratic nightmare, then that's probably because it is. Even Franz Kafka couldn't imagine a maddening exchange like this, and to make matters worse, the Best Western representatives sign their e-mail with a cheerful tagline, "We are here to help."
I sent the emails over to Best Western, and it promised to look into the matter. A few days later, Thomas contacted me.
"I just got a call from Best Western," he said. "They said they discovered a couple of letters at the end of the website that created confusion and caused them to deny my Best Rate Guarantee, so they are honoring the guarantee by sending me the gift card."
Thomas said he asked the Best Western representative about its "discovery."
"Throughout the call they made it sound like they were following up on my e-mails. But when the guy said he had been working on it all day, I knew he had received your inquiry, so I asked him to confirm that he was responding to your inquiry, not just following up on my correspondence with them, which he admitted," he said. "The point is, it is obvious from the many e-mail exchanges that there was nothing on Earth I could do to get them to honor their best rate guarantee. Once you got involved someone at the top made sure that a manager spent a whole day rolling heads."
I wish that hadn't been necessary. I've always felt that http://www.frommers.com/articles/7570.html best rate guarantees are one of the travel industry's scammiest promotions, just a step above travel clubs and those "free vacation" offers you get in the mail. Sure, the companies offering them will always be able to point you to a few folks who made a successful claim, but for every one person who got that $100 gift card, there are a hundred who didn't.
I'm not sure if that should be legal.
Christopher Elliott is the author of the book "Scammed: How to Save Your Money and Find Better Service in a World of Schemes, Swindles, and Shady Deals" (Wiley). He's also the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the co-founder of the Consumer Travel Alliance, a nonprofit organization that advocates for travelers. You can read more tips on his blog, elliott.org or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Christopher Elliott receives a great deal of reader mail, and though he answers them as quickly as possible, your story may not be published for several months because of a backlog of cases.