“Why don’t you book that hotel on Priceline?” my friend asked me 10 years ago, when I was looking for a place to put my brother and his wife that didn’t involve sleeping on my couch. It was my first introduction to the world of online bidding for travel.
I took her suggestion, solicited a few tips, and shortly thereafter got them a luxury waterfront hotel room for $70 that normally sold for $179.
“Not bad,” I thought to myself. “I'll have to do this again.”
If you’ve ever wondered what William Shatner is shilling on TV, or you’ve tried Priceline and it confused you, well, you’re not alone.
Here’s my best effort to help clear up the fog.
You can buy travel from Priceline three ways. The most well-known way (and the best deal) is to bid blind for hotels, cars or airfare, using the “Name Your Own Price” function. You do not know the name of the hotel, airline or rental agency from whom you’re buying. When you “Name Your Own Price” for a hotel you enter a bid that you would like to pay for a certain class of hotel, based on the number of stars, and on the location. But you don’t specify which hotel.
If it’s a big city, you'll have a choice of different districts, such as downtown or the West Side. Personally, I always go for a four-star hotel or above, on the theory that I want to stay in a hotel that I normally can’t afford, or I might as well just go to Motel6.
The system will tell you what it thinks is the normal rack rate for that hotel and suggest a bid, but you can ignore it and bid as low as you want. In fact, bid low.
If you “win” your bid and your offer is accepted, your credit card is charged immediately, and you then find out the name of the hotel you will get. After you win, you can’t back out. You’re stuck with it. No changes or refunds.
This method is by far the most cost-effective way to use Priceline.
Keep in mind that hotels use this service to fill unsold rooms. Sometimes, it’s just low season or low-occupancy periods, for example, business hotels have empty rooms over holidays. Sometimes, it means the hotel is unpopular because it’s dirty, shabby or the management stinks. You’re taking a risk when you book, because you’re stuck with the outcome. So make sure you bid low to make it worthwhile.
Priceline also offers hotels by name that you can reserve online. These named hotels may not offer a particularly good deal. Often, you can get your room as cheaply on the hotel’s website or by using your Auto Club discount. I never use this function on Priceline, and I don’t suggest you do, either.
A third option is “express deals,” which are similar to Hotwire deals in that you don’t know the name of the hotel, it’s cheaper than the named offerings, but you don’t have to undergo the agonizing stress of bidding. You’re not going to get as good a bargain as if you bid, but it’s faster.
You can also reserve rental cars and buy airline flights on Priceline. The rental rates don’t include extra insurance, and note that some rental companies will hound you to buy their extra insurance, which can get quite pricey.
If you’re going to bid for a flight on Priceline, keep in mind that you’re bidding for any flight within a 24-hour day. So you could leave any time between 12:01 a.m. and 11:59 p.m. that day. This means it’s not a good method for weekend getaways, because you could find yourself leaving at 11:59 p.m. on Saturday night, and coming back at 1 a.m. on Sunday morning. And, of course, you won’t have a choice of airline.
But it could still be a good deal if you must fly somewhere last minute and you’re facing huge fares.
Bidding tips: When you bid, start low. Pick a price lower than seems likely, and lower than the Priceline analysis tells you. You can bid once every 24 hours, so come back and bid again if you get rejected.
I once got a $180-per-night Marriott hotel room in Atlanta for $79. I thought that was a steal, until I found out that someone else got that same hotel for $41 a night. The following night, I tried again and got the second night for $41 as well. Sweet! Except that I felt stupid, of course, for “overpaying” the first time around.
Sometimes you don’t have to wait 24 hours to bid again after you’ve been rejected. For hotels, start out bidding in the smallest map area that Priceline allows. If your hotel bid gets rejected and you want to bid again immediately, enlarge the area in which you’re searching — or change the star level of the hotel. The system will let you bid again on this different configuration.
Note that any “resort fees” the hotel charges won’t be included; you’ll still get stuck with them on top of what you pay Priceline.
Important point: For hotels, Priceline will not guarantee the number of beds in the room, regardless of the number of guests you report. You could show up and find out there’s only one bed for three people. If you definitely need multiple beds, either be willing to gamble the hotel will oblige, or use Hotwire, which usually will guarantee the bed setup.
Priceline does have a mobile app, with a groovy photo of William Shatner on it, but the full version is a bit easier to use.
Want more tips about using Priceline? Go to BetterBidding.com or BiddingForTravel.com to learn more secrets on how to successfully bid as low as possible. People post their tips and tell about their winning bids, pooling information to help others.