The Price May Be Right

But, For Many, Priceline's Service Is Lacking

College student David Branning is doing something 14,000 Americans do every day. He's traveling on an airline ticket purchased through Priceline.com.

Priceline has become one of the most recognized names on the Internet, thanks largely to the ad campaign featuring the rather unique singing style of William Shatner. CBS News' 48 Hours Correspondent Erin Moriarty reports on a growing number of customer complains about Priceline.


Priceline invites customers to name their own price on everything from groceries to rental cars to long distance. But the majority of the company's revenue comes from airline ticket sales.

Branning, for one, swears by it.

"I'm totally satisfied with Priceline right now," he says.

Price Check
Curious how Priceline is performing for investors? Check its stock price at CBS Marketwatch.com.

But a growing list of people say Priceline is no bargain.

"The rudeness, the arrogance, the dishonesty," complains Sandy Cooper, a college professor.

Adds Harvard University senior Michael Park, "I just don't understand how a company can operate like that."

More than 300 people have filed complaints against Priceline with the Better Business Bureau and government regulatory agencies since the company went online two years ago.

It was enough to provoke the Connecticut Better Business Bureau into a rare decision to revoke Priceline's membership.

"Sometimes people mention, 'Oh yeah, I'm going to go on Priceline.' and I'm, like, 'No! stop! don't do it,'" says Yuklin Ling, who claims the New York to Atlanta flight she bought through Priceline was a nightmare.

"I felt like I'm this innocent person, getting stuck in something," she says.

The problem? A three-and-a-half hour layover in Raleigh, N.C., which more than doubled her travel time.

"It doesn't say travel any time of day, and for any number of hours," she says.

And when Ling, an emergency room physician, tried to call and change her flight, she said it felt like talking to robots.

Says Sheryl Mexic: "It's a shame when people are faced with a situation like that, but that same person agred to Priceline.com's rules when they purchased the plane ticket."

Fare Experience
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To call Mexic a fan of Priceline is an understatement. An administrative assistant in Houston, Mexic spends nearly all of her free time dispensing online advice to prospective Priceline customers. As a hobby, she runs a Web site helping people with their travel plans.

"It's a hobby that I just enjoy immensely," she says.

According to Mexic, customers like Ling simply don't understand how the system works.

Here's what a lot of customers miss: You pick where you fly; Priceline decides what time of day, and what airline. And once your bid is accepted, you are stuck with the ticket.

Mexic explains, "You can never change a ticket."

To see how it works, Mexic and Moriarty chose a round trip from Boston to Los Angeles. They bid $210, that's less than half the lowest available fare.

After an hour of waiting, the bid was not accepted.

So the bid amount was raised to $225. But for customers to do that, Priceline demands more concessions. In this case, Mexic and Moriarty were willing to arrive at an airport 50 miles from the original destination!

The two spent the rest of the afternoon going back and forth with Priceline, upping the price and conceding more control over the trip.

Finally they had a ticket saving about $300 with nonstop routing on Delta Airlines.

But it took two hours or research, and three and a half hours. "Yes it takes work but look at the reward!" says Mexic.

But some unhappy Priceline customers had far different results.

"I have never been so frustrated about anything in my entire life," declares Kim Mann, who, along with Alyssa Lappen, claims Priceline accepted bids they later learned were more than 30 percent higher than what the airlines were charging.

Says Lappen: "It's pure and simple dishonesty."

Priceline's response? Customers aren't guaranteed the best price, just their own price. Airlines only sell Priceline tickets on an all-sales-final basis, and many folks don't fuly read the terms and conditions clearly posted on the Priceline Web site.

"If Priceline says it's so clear and so simple to understand (its) directions, then why do we all have these problems?" asks Michael Park, a senior at Harvard University.

And Professor Cooper says of its Web site, "This thing is pure gibberish."

And they say calling Priceline's customer service simply compounded their problems. Park sums it up as a "frustrating and mind-boggling ordeal."

Priceline ultimately offered refunds to these and many other customers who took their problems to the authorities.

"Only after I basically threatened them with some kind of legal response did I actually get somebody to call me directly and give me an honest answer," Park says.

The company, based in Norwalk, Conn., refused 48 Hours' repeated requests to interview the company's founder, Jay Walker, or any other executive.

But one person did speak to 48 Hours.

William Shatner is not just the spokesman for Priceline; he's a major shareholder.

Had he heard of any kind of growing dissatisfaction with Priceline?

"I'm aware that there are people who weren't satisfied with the service and...I'm also aware Priceline is trying to deal with that," he says.

What about the complaints that there are some pretty rude customer service folks?

"Well, that's terrible. That's the antithesis of what the company wants to do," he says.

If Shatner seems surprised by the problems, there's a good reason for that.

Has he actually gotten a ticket on Priceline?

"No, I haven't....I think of myself as having to fly first class," he says.

Has Mexic ever gotten tickets by using Priceline.com? No, she hasn't either. "I don't have flexibility that is required when using Priceline," she explains.

But for college student David Branning, a three-and-a-half hour layover is just fine with him, as long as he's saving money.

"Priceline requires a little extra dose of patience," he says. "I have plenty of time, so it works best for me that way."

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