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Gerald Annable had to think quickly when he found an ad for a 12-day Holland America cruise of Italy, the Greek Islands and Turkey. The special rate, $1,559 per person, could be his if he acted now, according to his travel agent.

“We were told that it was a ‘flash’ sale and that day was the last to book,” he said. “We were told the cruise must be paid in full that day.”

Annable forked over the money promptly — a total of $3,738 for him and his wife, Judith. But that evening, he discovered another ad for the same cruise and the same cabin class. The price: $1,399 per person.

He asked his agent whether Holland America would honor the lower rate, but the cruise line declined. That’s how Annable discovered the problem with “flash” sales: Although the deals are often good, additional restrictions often apply, and the price you get might not be the lowest available. The only real beneficiary is the travel company offering the sale.

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A recent study estimated that flash sales, which offer discounted inventory for a limited time, accounted for more than $2 billion in annual sales, although the exact numbers are unknown. But the discounts might not be as generous as advertised: The fine print may render some unusable, and companies may bend a few facts to encourage you to buy.

A recent survey by the hotel flash-sale website suggests that the average flash-sale discount is about 39 percent. The actual discount is probably about 10 percentage points less than that because hotels mark the price down from so-called “rack” rates that customers rarely pay.

But there’s a right way and a wrong way to entice customers into making a fast purchase decision, said Marlene Towns, a marketing professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business.

Generally, travelers know what they’re getting when they buy a vacation package or a hotel room via a flash sale, she says. They’re booking hotel rooms or event tickets at an aggressive markdown, with little or no chance of a refund.

“With airlines, it seems trickier,” Towns adds. “There are hefty change fees if the purchase is refundable at all, so there is real pressure to make the correct purchase decision. If there is fine print, it discourages consumers from becoming informed and limits their ability to gain full disclosure.”

Travel companies also may use come-ons to induce consumers to push the “buy” button now. These can include ticking clocks, countdown timers or notifications that there are “only” one or two of the desired items left for sale.

“These are, by definition, cheap sales gimmicks attempting to use the power of time to the advantage of the seller and manipulate the buyer,” says Marvin Gerr, a retired marketing executive from Tigard, Ore., and a frequent traveler. “Any intelligent buyer will look at any offer and decide not to play the game by the seller’s rules.”

The take-away? Time-limited offers in travel can be a good opportunity, but not always. Responsible flash sales avoid ticking sales clocks and onerous terms. Don’t let yourself be pressured.

Annable is unhappy that neither Holland America nor his travel agent could adjust his fare. After all, even airlines allow a 24-hour grace period for cancellations. I contacted Seattle-based Holland America on his behalf. A representative said that a review of his records showed that Annable was advised of the restrictions on his fare before he booked his vacation.

“The cancellation schedule associated with the promotion is reviewed when the booking is made and deposited,” said Erik Elvejord, a spokesman for the cruise line. As a gesture of goodwill, Holland America offered Annable a cabin upgrade.

Incidentally, Holland America is right. The terms of its flash sales, disclosed on its website, are clear: “Flash fares are nonrefundable and full payment is due within 24 hours,” it warns in the fine print. Also: “Restrictions may apply.”

“I think we were treated very poorly,” Annable says. “Needless to say, this will be our last cruise with Holland America.”

Christopher Elliott is a travel consumer advocate and the author of “How To Be The World’s Smartest Traveler.” His column runs regularly at Contact him at

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