It's getting more and more difficult to score cheap hotel rooms.
The U.S. economy may still be in the midst of a sluggish recovery, but the hotel industry is no longer suffering from the doldrums that hit it so hard after the market collapse. It's a simple formula: Room occupancy rates are up and so are rates.
The alternative to paying through the nose is to use blind booking services such as priceline.com or Hotwire.com -- "blind" meaning you don't know what hotel you're staying in until after your credit card has been charged. But that lack of vision isn't always a bad thing. Recently, I stayed at the Hilton Fort Lauderdale Airport, courtesy of priceline.com. I got my room for $85, a better deal than the $149 Hilton offered on its own website, or through other travel websites such as hotels.com. Expedia. and Travelocity.
I also booked a room a few weeks ago at the Sheraton Delfina Santa Monica. several blocks from the Pacific Ocean. Again, priceline.com saved me a substantial amount: I paid $100 for a room that Sheraton and other hotel websites were listing for $199 a night.
For a Good Deal, Sleep Near the Airport
The moral of these stories is that even when occupancy is going up, hotels are bound to have nights when they have empty rooms.
The hotels' problem is that they don't want their higher-paying customers to know that they'll discount deeply in order to fill some of those empty rooms. Therefore, they use services such as priceline.com or Hotwire.com to dump the rooms at bargain-basement rates. I've used both services several hundred times over the last few years, frequently staying in four-star hotels at rates as low as $50 a night.
The lowest rates I have discovered can be found at airport hotels, which can suffer from low occupancy rates more frequently than downtown hotels.
If you have your heart set on a particular hotel, these services are not the way to go: There's no guarantee that you will end up in the hotel you want. However, say you need to stay near the airport, and you don't care whether it's a Sheraton, Radisson, Marriott or Hilton. Then, priceline.com or Hotwire are viable options.
Beware the One-Star Hotel
Users of the services do have some choices. They pick the "star rating" of the hotel, usually one to four stars, as well as the general location of the hotel. In a large city like New York City, priceline.com offers 15 different zones.
The sites are not without flaws, particularly when it comes to booking low-end establishments. Their ratings are usually accurate, particularly when it comes to four-star hotels. But from my experience, one- or two-star hotels may not even live up to low expectations.
I've booked one- or two-star hotels on the sites many times and landed in a perfectly acceptable La Quinta Inn or Days Inn. However, I've also ended up in a few "trucker motels." When I checked into one in Dover, Del. there was a bra still on the bed of my run-down, 1970s-style room.
Hotwire did refund my money after I explained that situation.
I later learned that neither priceline.com nor Hotwire do their own hotel inspections. Instead, they weed out lodging establishments or downgrade them based on
Simplicity vs. Frugality
The two basic differences between the two services is that on priceline.com, you bid on the hotel room, while on Hotwire the price is already displayed. Hotwire also lists the amenities of a particular hotel, such as a swimming pool, Internet service, a business center, etc.
One key disadvantage of both services is that they usually won't guarantee bedding choices. That's not a problem if you're a single traveler and you don't care if you're in a room with one or two beds. It can be an annoyance for two people who aren't a couple traveling together, because the hotel is under no obligation to provide a room with two beds.
Priceline.com is also a little more complicated to use than Hotwire. Since the rates are not set, like on Hotwire, travelers need to come up with a winning bid to snag a room. If your bid is too low, you are locked out of making the same reservation for 24-hours. However, there are ways to game the system. Priceline.com will allow you to re-bid if you change some characteristics of your original requests such as your star level, the particular area in which you want to stay in, or the day of the check-in/check-out.
I've found that you usually can get slightly better deals on priceline.com then Hotwire. The tactic I use to get rooms at the lowest rate is to first look at the Hotwire rate for a specific star-level of hotel in a location and underbid it by 10% on the priceline.com website.
Of course, if that underbidding on priceline.com fails and you don't want to wait 24 hours to try again, you can always go back to the Hotwire site and score a room then and there.
One helpful website that can guide you in your bidding choices is called BiddingForTravel.com. Priceline.com and Hotwire bidders disclose their winning bids to the website, along with the name of the hotel they landed, giving future travelers some guidance about what acceptable bids may be.
Rooms booked through both services are nonrefundable, though I have found that a customer service representative will work with you to rectify an error such as booking on the wrong night. Unfortunately, that means an extra fee, such as a $25 charge to rebook for a different night.
You Get What You Pay For
Can you get stuck with a dud hotel while using these services? Based on my experience, the answer is no -- as long as you stick to bidding for hotels with a minimum of three stars.
That doesn't mean, however, that you will absolutely love your hotel.
I was excited several years ago when my priceline.com bid was accepted for $150 a night in Midtown Manhattan, especially when I found out I would be staying at the trendy Hudson Hotel. It seemed like a good deal given that rooms on the hotel's website started at $400 a night.
What I didn't anticipate was the 100-square-foot room I ended up in. The bathroom was so small that I couldn't sit on the toilet and keep the bathroom door closed at the same time.
The room might have been claustrophobic, but at least I got a good deal -- which is what blind hotel booking sites are all about.