It's no secret that all of us here at AutoSlash are travel addicts.
On top of renting dozens of cars a year and staying many nights in hotels, we also fly tens of thousands of miles all over the globe. (We justify it to ourselves by saying we have to be travel experts in order to provide the best service to our customers, but really we all just suffer from an acute case of wanderlust.)
Much of my travel has been on cheap airfare sales or even outright mistake fares. I don't think I've spent more than $500 (round-trip!) to cross any ocean in the last nine years (not counting the miles I've redeemed to fly international first class, of course).
While there are all kinds of sources out there to help us find those cheap airfares—one of the ones I've found the most productive is TheFlightDeal.com, but there are lots of others we'll cover some other time—I always gravitate towards one place to book my flights: Priceline.
Why? Four major reasons:
- The most generous cancellation policy in the industry
- The most generous cashback bonus on the Internet
- Competent assistance—if you use the right channel
- Convenient itinerary management
What I Don't Mean
When the word "Priceline" comes up, most people think of their heavily-advertised "opaque" deals, like their "Name Your Own Price" (which they don't do for flights anymore anyway, only hotels) or their Express Deals offerings. These are called "opaque" because you don't know exactly what you're getting until after you pay for it, they might be slightly discounted from regular airfares, but I'm not looking for a slight discount—I do much better finding my deals on other sites anyway.
But what many people don't know about Priceline is that they're a normal travel agency, too, that can book any regular, retail fare (or hotel or rental car rate) found on other sites. It's this part of their system I use. I can usually find the exact same fare on Expedia or Orbitz or even directly on the airline's own website, but I choose Priceline because of the benefits of doing so.
Flexibility Is Fun
In 2013, the US DOT mandated that all air carriers based in the US or providing service to or from the US must offer customers either the ability to hold an airfare for 24 hours before purchasing or the ability to cancel a ticket within 24 hours of purchasing it. (Most carriers have opted for the latter.) This requirement doesn't apply if the ticket is purchased within seven days of travel, but most carriers haven't chosen to treat those separately.
The DOT only required airlines to honor this for tickets purchased directly through them, but many large online travel agencies have instituted their own 24-hour cancellation windows in order to remain competitive.
The neat thing about Priceline, though, is that they don't just offer a 24-hour cancellation: you can cancel up until 11:29pm Eastern time on the next business day. That means that if you buy a ticket just after midnight, you actually have almost 48 hours to cancel for a full refund.
And it gets even better: Priceline's rule states that it's held until the next business day. That means if you buy a ticket at 12:01am (with Priceline, it's always based on Eastern time) on Friday morning, you can request a cancellation anytime until 11:29pm Eastern time on Monday. That means you can get almost a full 96 hours of time to consider your plans and cancel for a full refund.
On top of that, Priceline's system doesn't enforce the within-seven-days-of-travel exclusion. If you book a ticket on JetBlue's own website within seven days of departure, their normal 24-hour cancellation policy doesn't apply—but if you use Priceline, you can still cancel for a full refund by 11:29pm the next business day, so this is a nice little loophole around JetBlue's restriction.
The only airlines Priceline excludes from their super-generous cancellation/refund policy are Frontier and Spirit. Those airlines have required Priceline to follow the DOT requirements much more strictly. If your travel is seven or more days in the future, you have 23 hours and 29 minutes to cancel for a full refund, and if you book within 7 days of travel on those carriers, there's no refund available at all.
I've used this benefit numerous times. Often when taking advantage of an error fare, time is of the essence, because the airlines can discover it and yank availability at any time, usually within a few hours of it going public but sometimes even faster. I'll often grab an itinerary that I find, and then once it's securely booked and paid for, I'll start looking for something that works a little better or try to arrange my travel to coincide with friends booking the same fare. Even for my own travel to visit friends and family, it's nice to have that extra security blanket of being able to change if you find a better fare or you can't make your travel plans work. It makes pushing that big "Purchase" button and committing hundreds of dollars to a trip a little less intimidating.
Getting Paid To Book
How does $5 off of every airplane ticket you book sound? It sounds like free money to me, and it literally takes 10 extra seconds.
You might have seen ads on TV about "getting paid to shop" or something similar. While that's a bit of a mischaracterization (you can't buy a $100 pair of jeans online and get paid $105 to buy it), it actually is quite easy to get money back on many of your purchases. These so-called "cashback portals" take advantage of affiliate relationships with online stores. These are the same affiliate relationships that your favorite life-hacking site or mommy blog uses when they refer their readers to their partner shopping sites, but instead of the money going to an author online, the cashback portals give it (or some of it, anyway) to you.
I have several cashback portals that I rotate through depending on who's offering the best cashback for any given merchant (CashbackHolic is a good index of all the options), but TopCashBack consistently has the best offer for booking an airline ticket through Priceline: a flat $5 back. Unless you're booking a ticket worth $500 or more (where one of the other cashback portals offers a percentage-based cashback), this is the best option you'll find.
The $5 is earned per ticket, meaning that if you book an itinerary with four passengers, you'll get $20 back (since each person gets his or her own ticket, even if booked together). And if you can swing booking your trip as two one-ways, you can double that to $40.
It takes a couple minutes to sign up for an account on TopCashBack (click here to get started), and then once you've done that, you just need to go to TopCashBack's site, search for Priceline, and then click the big red "Get Cashback" button and they'll take you directly to Priceline, and anything you book after that (within a few hours, at least, until the tracking cookie expires) will credit to your TopCashBack account.
Someone To Watch Over You
Yes, Priceline is a giant company (they're the largest travel vendor on earth, actually). If you use their normal customer service phone number, you'll get a helpful agent (usually based in the Philippines), but they are only really good for simple questions or changes.
When things get a little more complicated, though, I've found excellent fast and competent service through Priceline's social media channels--specifically Twitter.
On a recent trip overseas where I had some issues with trying to make a slightly-complicated change to a ticket, I sent them a direct message on Twitter after striking out with their call center (the phone agent was helpful but he was having trouble figuring out how to do what I needed done, and the call dropped thanks to bad wifi while I was waiting for him to figure it out). The agent who responded to my Twitter DM understood exactly what I wanted to do (divide the reservation and split off some passengers, cancelling and refunding their tickets, while leaving the other passengers intact) and had it done within minutes—and then do the same thing with two other itineraries. If I had booked directly with the airline, I would have been sunk, because they didn't speak great English and I didn't speak the local language, so Priceline saved me a sum of about $200 (on tickets I would have otherwise had to throw away) by staffing their Twitter desk with competent agents who responded quickly.
Priceline lets you save profiles with your details and those of others you frequently book, including data that the airlines require when booking (like your full name and date of birth) as well as optional extras (like a Trusted Traveler number, if you have one, so you can get TSA PreCheck benefits on your trip). It's a lot simpler to just choose your name and your traveling companion's name from the menu instead of having to type everything in every time you book a ticket.
If you're using AutoSlash to book your cars, you likely already have several rental car itineraries stored in Priceline's system. If you book your flights through Priceline, too, then you only need to go to one place to see an overview of everything you've booked. Just head to the My Trips area on Priceline and everything will be there for your review.
When To Look At Other Options
Priceline is my go-to for booking tickets, but there are some times that I do use other booking sites:
- When I fly JetBlue, I usually book directly on JetBlue.com, because I get more TrueBlue points for doing so. Booking through a third-party travel agency earns half as many TrueBlue points as booking directly with JetBlue.
- Some of the Ultra-Low-Cost-Carriers (ULCCs) like Allegiant, Spirit, and Frontier may show lower prices on their own websites, or they may offer discount coupons that only work on their own sites.
- When I book Southwest, since Southwest only shows their fares and availability on their own (badly-designed) website (which makes it annoying to comparison-shop their fares). However, I haven't flown Southwest since I was 7 years old—not because I have any problem with them but because they literally are never competitive with other airlines—even the major legacy network carriers—every time I've checked.
- When a fare doesn't show up on Priceline. When booking a mistake fare or a complicated itinerary, sometimes it doesn't price out correctly on all of the booking sites. Sometimes it prices out on Priceline but not on Orbitz. Sometimes vice versa. Sometimes it'll price out on neither but it will on CheapoAir or Momondo or something even more obscure than those. Sometimes it won't show up on Priceline directly but will if you access Priceline from a metasearch site like Kayak or Hipmunk or Google Flights. There's lots of nuances here, but sometimes you just can't be too picky and have to go with where the fare is available.
But all else being equal, I still prefer Priceline. The flexibility of their cancellation policy is invaluable, the rebate on bookings can be a real savings, and their Twitter folks are great.