Baltimore — or Washington?


Q: My husband and I want to go to Washington in July. We checked prices on four Internet sites and found Priceline to be pretty low (we’ve gotten hotel rooms through them and have been very happy). But Hotwire was a little cheaper.

Yeah, right. I purchased the ticket and looked at the confirmation. Of course I found a mistake – we were flying into Baltimore Washington International (BWI), not Dulles. Baltimore, which is about 30 miles from Washington.

I tried calling Hotwire and of course they wouldn’t correct it. I talked to a supervisor. She said I should find a lower price on Hotwire and she would change the ticket. (Fat chance on that.) I double-checked on the computer, and nowhere does it specify that the airport is in Baltimore, Maryland.

I did some more digging and found a bunch of complaints about Hotwire doing this kind of thing. When I called the supervisor back, she made it sound as if I should have done my homework. “Baltimore International is in the Washington area,” she said.

OK, I said, so get me a taxi from there to Washington. Of course, she couldn’t.

Can you help?

— Tara

A: Well, I can’t pay for your cab from Baltimore to Washington. But I can assure you that BWI isn’t in Washington, as Hotwire seems to be claiming. I know because it used to be my preferred airport when I lived in Annapolis, Md., and because I can also read a map.

I’ve never run into this problem with Hotwire, though. Hotwire, like Priceline, is what’s referred to as an “opaque” travel site – meaning that certain details of your trip are withheld until you’ve booked a ticket. In Priceline’s case, you aren’t told your airline and exact flight times. Hotwire doesn’t reveal the carrier until you’ve clicked on the “buy” button (often, it’s not too difficult to guess).

After you contacted me, I tried to book a ticket from Washington to New York just to see what kind of disclosure it offered. When Hotwire revealed the pricing options, it clearly stated that the flights were through Washington’s National Airport, but it didn’t tell me where the airport was located.

So I see two possible scenarios. Either I passed your complaint along to Hotwire and it immediately changed the way it discloses airport selections in large metropolitan areas where there are several airports. Or you didn’t pay attention to the fine print when you booked a ticket, instead assuming incorrectly you were flying into another Washington-area airport.

I think one of the scenarios if far likelier than the other.

Hotwire contacted you after I got involved to see what had gone wrong. “Bottom line, Tara’s not too familiar with the Washington, and BWI is generally considered a DC-area airport,” says spokeswoman Amy Bohutinsky.

(If you want to get technical about it, Dulles and National aren’t in DC either. Dulles, as the name would imply, is in Dulles, Va.; National airport is in Arlington, Va.)

This in no way excuses the way in which Hotwire’s supervisors apparently treated you. You shouldn’t be scolded by anyone about your lack of airport knowledge, least of all by your travel agent. “You should have known better,” is something you’d expect to hear from a parent, but not a company you’re doing business with.

Still, you should pay attention to the fine print the next time you book online. If you’re not sure of where an airport is located, look it up online or call your travel agent to find out.

And yes, you may call me “Dad.”

Hotwire did agree on one point – it admitted that in its online disclosure, it failed to note that Baltimore was in a different state than DC, a fact that might have made your trip planning “somewhat confusing,” according to a customer-service agent who assisted Bohutinsky. Hotwire agreed to offer you a credit toward a future purchase on the site, which should just about cover the cost of a cab ride between Baltimore and Washington.