Patients' preferences are often assumed to be homogeneous and to favour hospitals with a short waiting time and high quality. Due to long waiting times (6 months) for artificial hip or knee implantation a Danish county in 1999-2000 offered patients on a waiting list a choice between remaining on the local hospital's waiting list with the long waiting time, or re-referral to a hospital outside the county with a shorter waiting time. Fewer patients than expected took advantage of the offer of re-referral ("accepters"): 89 of 149 patients (60%). In 2003, we asked patients about the reasons for their choice: 87% of patients responded. Respondents and non-respondents were similar by decision, choice of hospital, diagnosis and age; men were significantly more likely to respond than women. Accepters and decliners were similar by age, sex, diagnosis and the presence of a car in the household. Short distance, short transport time and previous experience with the nearby hospital were the most important reasons for choosing that hospital. Some patients appeared to be willing to accept a long waiting time, if they were told exactly when they would undergo surgery. The results of this study question the validity of the conventional wisdom, that patients are willing to travel long distances in order to receive treatment with short waiting time.