One little asterisk and the price isn't right

Sometimes a bargain is not necessarily a great deal — it's just a marketing ploy leading to a whole lot of hassle and not much in the way of savings.

WOULDN'T it be nice if you were always guaranteed the best price when you booked a trip?

Unfortunately there are few guarantees in life ... and most of them come with an asterisk.

Promises such as "lowest price guaranteed" might give you a feeling of comfort but there's a bit of legwork involved in ensuring you are getting the best price.

The onus is on you to go off and find a better deal as well as to read all the fine print attached to the asterisk to work out how to claim on the guarantee.

"You'd have to question whether it's really worth going through the fun and games," says the spokesman for Choice magazine, Christopher Zinn. "If you could get it cheaper somewhere else, why wouldn't you just book it through them?"

Zinn believes price guarantees are more marketing strategy than anything else and that the gains are often "paltry".

However, if you are a determined bargain-hunter and willing to put in the time, a price guarantee should be just that: a guarantee of the lowest possible price. Some companies also offer inducements such as free flights or cash payments if they cannot beat the quote you provide, although it seems these are rarely paid out.

Companies offering price guarantees include Jetstar, Flight Centre and STA Travel, with promises of bettering competitors' prices on comparable airfares or products. (Jetstar also recently introduced a customer service charter, promising passengers travel vouchers ranging from $50 to $100 if it did not meet criteria such as timely communication when flights are delayed or cancelled.)

Flight Centre says about 10,000 travellers a month use its "lowest airfare guarantee".

This promises to beat any airfare quote (according to a detailed list of terms and conditions).

"Customers can bring in any cheaper available airfare quote and if the Flight Centre consultant doesn't beat it, the customer will fly to their destination for free," a spokeswoman for Flight Centre says. Flight Centre was unable to provide figures on how many travellers had flown free but said it was "not many".

"People only fly free when we don't honour our promise," the spokeswoman says.

STA Travel offers the biggest potential win with the promise of $1000 cash if it is unable to beat a quote but it was also unable to say how often it is paid out.

Escape Travel offers a different sort of guarantee with its "perfect holiday promise", which is a $100 voucher if you are not satisfied with your trip.

"[It] applies to any scenario where the customer did not completely enjoy their holiday," the spokeswoman says. (Escape Travel is a subsidiary of Flight Centre.)

"For example, they may have been unhappy with the bedding in their hotel room or disappointed that their transfer turned up late at the airport. It does not cover weather conditions and natural disasters."

The amount by which companies offer to beat the quotes of their competitors varies. Jetstar promises 10 per cent, while Flight Centre promises to beat the quote by $1 and give you a $20 voucher for future use.

The use of vouchers is clever on the part of companies because they bring you back for a later purchase - presumably of an amount significantly larger than that of the voucher.

The most important thing to understand when pursuing price guarantees is that the claim must relate to the same product or a "comparable" product.

You can't, for example, get a quote for a flight on a low-cost airline and expect to get the same price on a full-service carrier.

And terms and conditions always specify that the fare you have found must be available for booking, so if it sells out while you are busy negotiating, bad luck.

Most companies offering guarantees specify that you must present a written quote on the day it was created, with definitions of a written quote including both formal quotes on letterhead and printouts from websites.

The quote generally has to be from an Australia-registered business for travel originating in Australia and it cannot include discounts made available via corporate affiliations or membership-based programs.

It pays to ask

Many travel agents and operators are willing to match or better competitors' prices on comparable products, even if they do not actively promote price guarantees.

If you have a favourite agent but see a better price advertised elsewhere, it is worth taking the flyer or a printout of the quote to your agent to see what can be done. Even if they are unable to match the price, they may be willing to discount other components of your trip, such as travel insurance for a better deal overall.