The Dark Side of Travel Company Algorithms

The Dark Side of Travel Company Algorithms

We signed up for a Priceline “Pricebreakers Deal” and rented a hotel room for upcoming doctor’s visits. Little did we know it would be the worst customer service experience we have ever had, and we saw the Dark Side of Travel Company Algorithms. 

Companies like Priceline.com use AI Algorithms to rate hotels and set pricing for consumers. But like with all new technology, the AI and company can get it wrong and mislead you, and with non-negotiable customer service policies like Priceline.com has, it can be outright theft.

To be clear, the full story here is not so much the mistake of an algorithm as it is the response of the people who control the algorithms.

AI Algorithms are currently running or affecting large portions of online business in the world today if you don’t know that already. This article will investigate and discuss the problems that can occur because the humans that run the AI can lose sight of what is truly important and what that means to our future with technologies like these.

AI Algorithms Deciding What is Good for You

AI Algorithms Deciding What is Good for You
Robotic algorithms working with scheduling and planning outcomes that may affect you financially.

Whenever you are on the Internet looking to rent a hotel room or book a flight, it is more than likely that an AI Algorithm is involved with or has set the entity’s price, rating, or schedule. Most major corporations in the hospitality and travel industry and the internet search engines rely on AI Algorithms to do much of the work that humans and travel agencies used to do.

Because of the size, scope, and complexity of, say, the airline industry and all of the extenuating factors like weather, fuel costs, and how many people have checked in. An AI Algorithm can identify and pull together much of that information and more. It can set the ticket prices, show you what seats are available on the flight, or anticipate traffic in the airport for that time and day that you want to travel.

There is so much complexity in the pace of today’s world that it is almost impossible to justify the labor costs of what an AI Algorithm can do. An Artificial Intelligence Algorithm and Machine Learning in what we are describing can do the job of 10 or 100 people simultaneously. That is a compelling statement if you are in business to make a profit.

What is an AI Algorithm

What is an AI Algorithm?
Woman writing and working on beginnings of an AI Algorithm Data Set.

As we describe in our article “Smartphone AI: What Is The Difference Between AI and  Algorithms?” an algorithm can be directions for baking a chocolate cake. We need a recipe to make the cake, and someone has created the instructions to follow. 

An AI algorithm is a set of coded instructions programmed, automated, and executed when interacting with its initiator. An algorithm can be the instructions in the recipes like baking the cake, or in psychology, it can be a problem-solving approach. In computer science, AI Algorithms are used in programming the software to run computers, machines, and industries.

Depending on its purpose and use, an algorithm can be very simple or highly complex. AI sorts through Data based on an algorithmic set of instructions and uses that data to decide and create an action, event, or effect.

AI’s Use of Data in the Travel Industry

AI’s Use of Data in the Travel Industry
Hotels Las Vegas Google Internet search showing ads and star ratings.

A vast amount of “Big Data” is being generated every minute worldwide and being utilized by many industries, including the hospitality industry. Travel companies use programs including AI to sort through these immense amounts of data to make decisions that can be changed constantly based on the user’s internet search and what they are researching.

A typical travel industry internet business model like Priceline.com will offer you options. Not only the hotel room you are looking for but also a package that gives you the flight to get there and a rental car when you arrive, all with perceived cost savings.

This data is essential for travel companies if their AI programs and employees can interpret it correctly and identify what their customers are looking for so they will buy from them instead of their competitors.

The Problem with AI Decision Making

AI decision-making can also get misinterpreted, which is the example we will describe. When searching on the internet for a hotel room, we usually look at how many stars and good ratings it has in connection with the price.

An Artificial Intelligence Algorithm is programmed to take all of the surrounding available hotels in the city search area you are checking on the internet and show the current prices for hotel rooms on an internet search engine like Google, Bing, or Yahoo.

A person can then sort through the suggested search engine search results title links and ads and click on those to view information and prices for whatever product they are tracking.

We always try to find a three or four-star hotel at a minimum based on past experience and the cost. When you do an internet search and type in the minimum of the words hotel and the town you are staying in, it will almost always show you these ratings. 

Please see some of our other interesting articles on AI, like “How Does AI Make Decisions?” and “Can AI Help?”

Priceline.com’s Interpretation of The Data

Priceline.com’s Interpretation of The Data
Priclelines search page showing listed VIP Deals, Pricebreakers, Express Deals, and Free cancellation boxes.

At the recommendation of a friend, we were searching for a hotel, and they had told us that Priclene.com had reasonable prices as we always use Hotels.com. So we wanted to give Priceline.com a try and see what was available as we had used them in the past.

We went on Priceline.com’s website to search for a hotel. After typing in our city selection and dates, we noticed what came up was hotel recommendations. At the top of the page, with further investigation, listed VIP Deals, Pricebreakers, Express Deals, and Free cancellation boxes. All around the hotel page, recommendations were immediately other selection criteria like Price Breakers.

Not only did we click on the hotel recommendations listed, but we also clicked on the VIP Deals, Pricebreakers, Express Deals, boxes listed at the top to see what was in them. The VIP Deals box disappeared after searching for a while, likely due to Priceline’s algorithms.

The Problem With Priceline.com’s Pricebreakers

Once we had looked at the three-box selection of VIP Deals, Pricebreakers, and Express Deals, we somehow concluded to use the Pricebreakers box. You can also click on another box in Express Deals that shows you the available hotels if you choose that selection process.

According to Investopedia, “Why Do Priceline and Hotwire Hide Hotel Names?” Priceline’s Pricebreakers is a form of Opaque Pricing and Price Discrimination

“Priceline use it to sell unsold hotel rooms, airline tickets, and car rentals. Customers who wish to take advantage of an opaque pricing structure visit a website which offers hidden rates, choose their location, dates, and (for hotels) star-rating. After paying, the website will reveal the name of the hotel but doesn’t allow for refunds, changes, or cancellations.”

Investopedia – Opaque Pricing

The problem with opaque pricing is companies like Priceline do not show you the above information on the first two or three pages you are buying from, so it is a form of false advertising and “bait and switch.”

Although Opaque Pricing and Price Discrimination are not currently illegal, they should be. Not everyone is an attorney, and elderly and low-income people are most at risk for practices such as these.

What’s on the Priceline Pricebreakers Page and How Does It Work?

What's on the Priceline Pricebreakers Page and How Does It Work?
Picture of Priceline.coms Pricebreaker page.

On the left side of the Priceline Pricebreakers internet screen panel page, there is a description box that shows the following:

Pricebreakers

How does it work?

  • We group together 3 hotels under one low price that’s up to 50% off retail
  • Click “Choose”, check out, and you’re guaranteed to get one of the 3 hotels shown
  • See which one after you book!

There is no mention of these deals being non-refundable on this page.

Why Doesn’t Google’s AI Algorithm Agree with Priceline.com’s AI Algorithm? 

Why Doesn’t Google’s AI Algorithm Agree with Priceline.com’s AI Algorithm? Because Priceline is setting their star rating, and if you, the consumer, disagree, it does not matter.

When a company programs a computer software algorithm, they work in precise parameters. So what did we discover after our purchase by searching on Google and looking at other websites? We found that we received a 2-star hotel instead of a 3-star hotel that was not on the list in the first place.

An algorithmic parameter on a hotel star rating system is based on many factors, including tracking customer ratings and history on the internet by computer programs. This whole process may seem frivolous on many levels, but it adds up if you do this to many people over time.

Terms and Conditions on Another Page

What they don’t tell you on these pages is the fine print on a separate page:

Priceline.com Global Terms and Conditions Hotel Express Deals

HOTEL – EXPRESS DEALS

Priceline Express Deals are for hotel searches made in the last 24 hours of this email’s send date for check-in in the next 21 days. Priceline Express Deals service are different from published price services. Exact hotel is shown only after purchase. All sales are final.

Priceline.com – Global Terms and Conditions

There is no mention of Pricebreakers on Priceline’s Global Terms and Conditions Page.

Priceline.com’s Non-United States-based Customer Service

Well, we thought with our discovery of the star rating discrepancy that it would be no problem, and we would contact Priceline, and surely they would correct the issue and let us get another hotel or get our money back, right? Wrong.

Out of the successive three people in the hierarchy chain from Priceline’s challenging to understand foreign country’s Non-United States-based customer service, none was the least bit concerned, cared, or listened. We explained that Priceline’s gave us a 2-star hotel instead of the advertised 3-star hotel, as was stated on their website before the purchase.

We also told the different Priceline customer service people we spoke with the hotel we received was not in the pictures or list of the “Pricebreakers page – We Pick 1 of these 3” of what we had to choose. We told them it was a lie and not fair.

We even sent them a Google screenshot of the situation and talked to a customer service representative on our third phone call. We were able to get to three levels of customer service but to no avail. 

What Are Your Choices If a Company Like Priceline Won’t Help You?

What Are Your Choices If a Company Like Priceline Won’t Help You?
This response from Wells Fargo Claims Assistance has nothing to do with the claim against Priceline, and we were never contacted or questioned in any way in the course of the investigation by Wells Fargo.

We went to Wells Fargo Bank Claims Assitance Center to see what could be done. We were given a full refund and told it was handled by the lady who took our statement. We sent her the screenshot too, but alas, it was not resolved in the long run. We thought we had made progress after describing the issue to Wells Fargo Bank Claim Assitance Center.

We received a letter from Wells Fargo Bank Claims Assitance Center stating that Wells Fargo had completed their inquiry research. The letter says that Wells Fargo determined based on information we provided and additional information from the merchant that the charges were made by us or someone who had our permission.

This response has nothing to do with the claim against Priceline, and we were never contacted or questioned in any way in the course of the investigation by Wells Fargo.

The Connecticut Better Business Bureau (BBB)

The Connecticut Better Business Bureau Priceline Rating 1.04 out of 5
The Connecticut Better Business Bureau Priceline Rating 1.04 out of 5

An interesting article on Computerworld United States discusses that the “Embattled” name-your-price Web site Priceline.com Inc. received reinstatement to the Better Business Bureau of Connecticut in December 2000.

It also states that in September 2000, Norwalk, Connecticut-based Priceline was expelled from the Connecticut Better Business Bureau “in the wake of numerous customer complaints.”

Based on the current Priceline Better Business Bureau (BBB) Web page below, Priceline has not learned much in the last couple of years. They have 5,719 complaints closed in the previous 3 years, and they have a Customer Reviews rating of 1.04 out of 5.

Another Giant Booking Mistake Using Priceline’s Express Deals

In another online article about Priceline.com by Elliot Advocacy, it asks the question which we also did is “What if you made the worst booking mistake ever — and realized just moments too late?” 

“Unless specifically noted otherwise, all hotel reservations are non-cancelable, non-refundable, non-changeable and non-transferable by you. Once you purchase a reservation, your method of payment will be charged for the amount shown – regardless of whether or not the reservation is used. Credit will not be given for unused reservations and cannot be used toward any future purchases.”

Elliot Advocacy Article – Another Giant Booking Mistake Using Priceline’s Express Deals

Elliot Advocacy was able to resolve the issue for the lady in the article with Priceline, unlike our situation.

Final Thoughts

Priceline.com Pricebreaker - Buyer Beware
Priceline.com Pricebreaker – Buyer Beware. This note is three pages in at the bottom of the page and and you need to click on the asterisk to find it.

We believe AI can help society and is on the leading edge of technology with much potential. Today’s AI Algorithms are making possible opportunities and information that was far beyond our reach until just recently.

Unfortunately, we did not look up the fine print before buying from Priceline in a hurry. Still, hopefully, if you read this article, your family or someone you know will not have to go through the same costly and frustrating ordeal.

Buyer beware Priceline.com Pricebreaker hidden information at the bottom of the checkout page:

“If the displayed rate is still available, Priceline will immediately charge your credit card the total cost of your stay. Rooms purchased through priceline cannot be cancelled, changed or transferred and refunds are not allowed. If the displayed rate is not available, your credit card will not be charged. Prices and room availability are not guaranteed until purchase is confirmed.”

Priceline.com Pricebreaker – Refunds not allowed – https://www.priceline.com/cart/checkout/express

References:

Priceline.com LLC | Better Business Bureau® Profile

Here it is: The worst booking mistake I’ve ever seen – Elliott Advocacy

Is Priceline Good or Bad? | 2022 Travel Reviews

John Mortensen

I was a project manager and am a technology and science enthusiast who loves to study the latest technology, such as AI, smartphones, headphones, and software.

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