There are lessons to be learned when you buy multiple hotel rooms at once on opaque booking sites. Here are the best tips.
By Sascha Segan
Last week I booked two dozen hotels on Priceline and Hotwire.
I'm working on a big project for PCMag.com right now (that's my day job), and it involves sending reporters around the country. Looking for the best deals on hotels, I turned to Priceline (www.priceline.com ). After all, I wrote the book. (Priceline for Dummies. still on sale at Amazon.com .)
Bidding on Priceline let me put my staff in classy hotels for the price of run-down motel rooms. For an introduction to Priceline bidding, check out "Getting Acquainted with Priceline" from our sister website, Dummies.com .
There are some things you learn when you're booking a lot of hotels at once, and I'd like to share some tips that can help your own Priceline bidding.
1. Priceline's Name Your Own Price isn't always cheapest. This fact always surprises me, but it's true. In smaller cities like Midland, TX, sometimes hotel rates are so low anyway that Priceline can't easily beat them. I also found that in several places, Hotwire (www.hotwire.com ) beat Priceline at the same star level.
2. Priceline and Hotwire aren't the only opaque sites. They're still usually the best, and I've never found a Priceline-beating deal on Travelocity's or Expedia's opaque products. But I have found Priceline-beating rates on Easy Click Travel (www.easyclicktravel.com ) and LastMinuteTravel.com (www.lastminutetravel.com ), so they're worth adding to your hotel discounter bookmark list.
3. Taxes vary -- even between websites. If you're trying to eke every penny out of your journey, Priceline and Hotwire charge different taxes and fees on the same opaque reservation. So you may find that a $71 "bid" is cheaper on one site (usually on Hotwire) than on the other.
4. Don't fiddle over $5. Doing intense, crazy Priceline bidding can take all day. You can get sucked into strategies permuting as many bids as you can to save $1 here or $2 there. You really need to ask: how much is my time worth? In my case, I decided my time was worth saving $50/night on a hotel, but not $5.
5. Prices can go down as you get closer to your travel date, then sharply up in the last few days. I found rates at the same hotel to be lower if I was bidding a few weeks out, higher if I was bidding more than a month away, and sometimes even higher bidding only one day in advance. Understand that prices can vary for the same hotel over different dates.
6. The "free rebid" is the one Priceline tactic you must know. Priceline strategies can get incredibly arcane. I go
over many of them in my book, Priceline for Dummies. But the one strategy you must know is the "free rebid." On Priceline's map of zones for a city, click on each individual zone and see what star levels it offers. If a zone has no hotels at your star level, you can add that zone to a bid without a risk of getting the undesirable zone -- because it has no hotels at your star level. That's a free rebid, which can let you raise your bid without waiting for 24 hours.
7. Two stars is never safe. Priceline and Hotwire contract with excellent, name-brand chains; think Holiday Inn for three stars, Embassy Suites for three and a half, and Hyatt for four stars. But once you start poking around below three stars, you may end up in some moldy motels. Two-and-a-half stars can be safe if you comb through hotel lists and make sure there are no independently run, poor-quality motels in the set. Two-star lists almost always have a sour apple in the bunch.
8. Triple check your dates. The date selectors on the Priceline home page tend to get a little bit slippery, and it's easy to choose the wrong month. Check the month and day on every page, over and over again. You may be booking the right date in the wrong month.
9. You can fix errors by paying the idiot tax. If you accidentally book the wrong zone or the wrong dates, Priceline will let you fix things by rebidding the right dates. You have to call Priceline to get them to make this exception, they'll only refund your bad reservation if you win another bid, and you'll have to pay a $25 "idiot tax" (my phrase) for not double checking your dates in the first place.
10. Websites still help. BiddingForTravel.com (biddingfortravel.yuku.com ) is still the best Priceline assistance website, and its hotel lists are invaluable when you're trying to figure out what kind of hotel you'll get. BetterBidding (www.betterbidding.com ) is more poorly organized and difficult to use. The new site The Bidding Traveler (www.biddingtraveler.com ) looks very intriguing, giving you easy-to-read hotel lists and a suggested bidding strategy. But I'm worried that its lists aren't complete, and that it's giving people too much hope by suggesting prices that may not apply for their dates.
Sascha Segan has been writing for Frommers.com for nearly a decade, and he's the author of Fly Safe, Fly Smart, Priceline.com for Dummies. and bits and pieces of other books. Segan won awards from the Society of American Travel Writers for Frommers.com pieces in 2007 and 2009. In his other life, he's the cell phone expert for PCMAG.com. Segan lives in Queens, NY with his wife, artist Leontine Greenberg, and their daughter.