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CONSUMER ALERT

Better deals, bigger risk when you name your price

Q. I recently entered a dispute with Priceline.com over a car rental reservation. The charge is for a car that I was to use during a planned trip to California. About a week before I was to travel, I collapsed while staying at my sister’s home and was found by neighbors three days later in a comatose condition. I remained under care for the next couple of weeks and never made the trip. After I received my credit card bill, I disputed the charge, which was for eight days of a car rental I never used. I called Priceline and was told by a supervisor that the charge was nonrefundable, despite my medical emergency. Is there any action that I might take to have this charge canceled or modified?

GEORGE A. RIPSOM, CHELMSFORD

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A. Given what happened to you, I really wanted to win this one. While it would have been great for Priceline to make an exception, it was pretty clear from the outset that wasn’t going to happen.

Consumers who use Priceline and similar sites to hunt for deals do so with some risk. When you use Priceline’s “Name Your Own Price” feature, as you did, there’s a trade-off. Consumers toss out a below-market rate to see if the company will accept, and if it does, the charge isn’t refundable.

Priceline spokeswoman Leslie Cafferty said consumers who are more averse to risks can simply book a car, hotel, or plane as they would on any travel site — losing the deep discount but gaining the ability to cancel.

“The benefit of our Name Your Own Price product is that consumers can get dramatically discounted rates – sometimes over 50 percent off,” she said. “But these deep discounts are only available with certain travel restrictions.”

For many, the most important thing is getting a great price. But paying attention to the terms is key, as they often mean giving up flexibility, even under extreme circumstances. Consumers facing similar challenges would also be best served to appeal prior to the planned trip.

Mitch Lipka has been helping consumers out of jams for the past two decades. He lives in Worcester and also writes the Consumer Alert blog on Boston.com. Mitch can be reached at ConsumerNews@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter @mitchlipka.
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