What’s the difference between a "shoppable" and "bookable" rate?

Shoppable_ rates
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Christine Volk’s question may be one of those imponderables that can only be asked but never answered: In the travel industry, what’s the difference between a “shoppable” and “bookable” rate?

If you said there’s none, then you must not buy airline tickets. Give me a few minutes, and I’ll pull up a fare that’s cached on an airline site or online travel agency that displays as available, but actually isn’t. To customers, these phantom prices smack of a bait-and-switch scam, and since the customer is always right, they are.

Here’s what happened to Volk: She recently booked a flight on Virgin America, and at the bottom of the page she found the upsell — a “35 percent off” offer on an Avis or Budget rental.

“I checked on the rates for Budget and they were a good deal,” says Volk. An 18-day rental at Boston’s Logan Airport came to $601, including taxes.

That is good.

“I clicked on the ‘confirm reservation’ button and got a message that the reservation could not be completed,” she says. “I tried several times. Same problem.”

Volk then contacted Budget and was told that the rates were — and I quote — “shoppable” but not “bookable.”

So what was bookable? The rate Budget offered her was $400 higher.

That looked suspicious, so I decided to check with Budget. A representative responded to my question promptly:

Any rate that is retrieved or “shopped,” can be reserved or “booked.”

We have looked into this matter, and we cannot seem to replicate the problem Chris Volk experienced. In fact, we received the $601.94 rate and were able to complete the reservation.

We would be happy to make the reservation for the traveler. Please let me know if we can be of assistance.

Problem solved? Not exactly.

I returned to Volk with this information.

“The statement above from Budget is quite simply a lie,” she said. “Customer service rep after customer service rep was unable to receive the $601.94 rate.”

Really? I asked to see the correspondence.

Volk sent the emails between her and Budget. She identified four separate excuses for not receiving the rate.

Excuse #1 — A rate code has been loaded into the reservation system as “shoppable” but not “bookable.”

Dear Christine Volk,

Thank you for contacting the E-mail Customer Service team to let them know about your disappointing experience. On behalf of our entire Budget team, I apologize that the charges displayed through Virgin Airlines website differed from Budget’s rates.

Please accept our apologies for any inconvenience or confusion this rate issue may have caused. This issue is caused when a rate code has been loaded into the reservation system as “shoppable” but not “bookable.”

Unfortunately, due to this error, you can view the rate, but the rate is not actually available to be booked at the location selection.

Excuse #2 – Someone else already confirmed that rate, so it is gone.

Dear Christine Volk,

Thank you for contacting the E-mail Customer Service team.

Certainly, we apologize for the confusion. A rate may be shoppable for a customer but not bookable when they have reviewed the rate; however, someone else has already confirmed and selected the particular rate for the vehicle they are looking to rent. This generally happens when using a 3rd party website to book vehicles, where there may be a delay in retrieving the data from the Budget.com site.

To avoid this type of confusion we suggest booking directly through Budget.com.

Excuse #3 – We can’t duplicate it.

Dear Ms. Volk,

Thank you for contacting us through the Budget website.

We apologize that you are not able book a reservation using the discount number through Virgin Airlines. Please provide the discount number that you are trying to use so that we may see if we can duplicate the rate that you are seeing. You will be advised of our findings once we have all the information.

Excuse #4 – Maybe it’s you.

Dear Ms. Volk,

Thank you for the screen shots. We have tried to duplicate the rates that you are seeing on Viriginamerica and are finding higher rates than what you have sent.

Please keep in mind that rates are not guaranteed until actually booked no matter whose website you are on. Each rate has a certain amount of vehicles set aside for that rate. When that amount of cars are reserved on that rate then the rates will go to the next rate available.

You might want to clear your cache, as this could be what is causing the problem.

Volk has made a reservation for $990 instead of the $601 she thought she’d get, which isn’t a terrible rate, but nowhere near as good a deal as before. She’d like me to follow up with Budget or Virgin America and secure the rate she’d initially been quoted.

I’m a little tired of these pricing games. If companies can track you online, if they know more about you than you know about yourself, then they should be able to quote you a bookable rate, shouldn’t they?

I understand caching, but that excuse is so 1998.

  • JoeInAtlanta

    My first instinct as I read through the article was that caching was a likely explanation, and your closing sentence — “I understand caching, but that excuse is so 1998″ — suggests that you don’t, in fact, understand caching.

    Caching is a function of the web browser, and comes as a native function of all the major browsers. Disabling it requires that the user (Ms. Volk, in this example) update the settings — a task most users don’t feel comfortable doing. There is very little that the web server (Budget, in this example) can do to counteract browser caching. (And the limited things they can do to try to trick browsers into not caching would make Ms. Volk unable to save a page to her bookmarks and return to it later — which is obviously not in the best interests of the customer or the company.)

    If you think browser caching is a stupid feature that doesn’t belong in the browsers of our high-speed world, I’m with you 100%. But your argument is with Microsoft (Internet Explorer), Mozilla (Firefox), and Google (Chrome). Or with Ms. Volk for leaving caching enabled. But, if browser caching was the culprit in this case, there is absolutely no basis by which you can rationally blame Budget for the problem.

  • JoeInAtlanta

    I’m posting this comment separately, as it’s a bit off-topic — but I have to take issue with your comment in the second paragraph: “To customers, these phantom prices smack of a bait-and-switch scam, and since the customer is always right, they are.”

    This statement that the customer is always right was a marketing scheme popularized by Harry Gordon Selfridge for his London department store. Fittingly, Selfridge died penniless and insane — but this insipid phrase seems to live eternally in our language by people who believe that it embodies some inherent truth rather than a play for market share by a person who was an abject failure in every aspect of his existence.

    Some customers are selfish. Some customers are bigoted. Some customers are just plain stupid. Those customers are not right in any sense of the word, regardless of how much money they’re carrying in their pockets and how willing they are to spend it.

    We say we believe in a system where money doesn’t change the relationship between people, yet we allow this false claim about the customer always being right because we accept an aphorism the customer’s money is the only aspect of that customer deserving of our scrutiny.

    If the lobbyist shoving money into your senator’s pockets is not universally right, then the customer is not universally right: Spendable money is not what puts one in the right. If you will purge this phrase from your vocabulary, you’ll be a better person (and a better writer) for having done so.

  • robertb

    JoeinAtlanta – What you state is true about caching on individual computers, but that isn’t the caching that can cause this problem. The caching in this case, is on Virgin Americas servers (or Travelocify or Orbitz or whichever website from which Virgin America gets it data.) Virgin America doesn’t have a direct link to Budget’s reservation system where reservation inquiries can answered from real time data. Budget updates its data on Virgin America only periodically and caches the information. Therefore if you shop for Budget on Virgin America, you get a chached “shopping” response. Only when you actually try to actually reserve the car will you receive the actual “booking” rate. It’s entirely likely that the cached “shopping” rate may be sold out in Budget’s reservation system but but still appear on Virgin America’s system. Yes – we’ve been hearing that excuse for a very long time.

  • JoeInAtlanta

    I’m familiar with the different type of caching issue you describe. But the reply displayed about under “Excuse #4″ closed with the line, “You might want to clear your cache, as this could be what is causing the problem.” It was in response to this line that the author made the comment that prompted my reply.

    The type of caching that could be addressed with the instruction “Please clear your cache” is the type of caching I was describing above, not the type of caching issue that you raise.

  • twiga

    Wow this is a consumer advocate webpage! Seriously Joe, your comments are mean and uncalled for. Ms. Volk did not go searching for a price war with Budget, she was booking an airline ticket. She was probably was not even considering a rental with Budget at the time of her purchase but she was offered a car from Budget with the flight she had booked. She took her time to get a price on the offer and that price should be honored, simple as that. If you go into a store and the price is advertised on the product you get that price. If there is any question a manger goes with you to look at the shelf where you found it and honors that price. The same with shopping online – if amazon offers you a price they need to stand by it. No excuses. The travel industry should not be exempt from this. So yes I believe in this case and in most cases “the customer is always right” because that is the fair thing to do. The company advertised and it was not “asked” for (she was not on the Budget website) so the price should be honored. The travel industry by far is worst offender and we need people like Mr. Elliott to keep them fair.

  • JoeInAtlanta

    If you think the comment you’re replying to had anything to do with Ms. Volk, then you are misreading it.

    The comment you’re replying to only concerns the inappropriateness of the statement “the customer is always right” in ANY context. I made this quite clear in my first paragraph.