Tracy Antonioli and her husband are both teachers in Pennsylvania's Lehigh Valley area. They spent much of the summer road tripping from southeastern Pennsylvania up to Maine, never paying more than $100 per night for a hotel, even in major cities. Their secret weapon? The "Name Your Own Price" feature on Priceline.com.
Travel sites like Priceline and Hotwire offer affordable travel deals but there's a lot less transparency than other booking options, so you don't always know what you're getting. In anticipation of the holiday travel season, U.S. News talked to Antonioli and Anne Banas, executive editor at SmarterTravel.com, for tips on smart travel bidding.
Do your homework. Banas points out that you won't automatically get a better deal on Hotwire or Priceline. Check regular booking engines like Hotels.com, Travelocity.com, or Orbitz.com before you place a bid to see how much hotels in your destination are charging. Then bid 15 to 30 percent below that. To get a ballpark of what others are bidding, you could also consult forums like BetterBidding.com, where users share information on their successful bids.
With Hotwire (which is what Banas calls an "opaque site" rather than a bidding site), you can see the hotel's geographic area, icons for some of its amenities, and the price—but not the name—of the hotel. However, as Banas points out, that's sometimes enough detail to figure out which hotel it is using Google Maps. Then you can determine if you'd want to stay there at that price before entering your credit card information.
Set your geographic parameters carefully. These kinds of sites are most useful for bigger cities that have lots of major chain hotels. When traveling to a more rural or suburban area with mainly independent hotels or bed and breakfasts, your hotel options might be more limited. And if you want to be near the beach, bidding sites may not make sense for you either, because you can't limit your geographic criteria to the coastlines.
Aside from that, Antonioli says she sticks to 3.5-star hotels in safe, centrally located areas. If it's a city she's not familiar with, she'll scope out the neighborhood on Google Maps or set her filter to 4-star hotels instead of 3.5. Based on her experience, "they don't put nice hotels in bad areas," so aiming for higher stars has meant not only a nice hotel but a nice neighborhood, often with attractions nearby.
Priceline and Hotwire also offer car rentals, which Banas says can offer savings compared to other sites. Geography is important when booking a car rental, because taking a taxi to some out-of-the-way rental location that offered a great deal can cancel out the potential savings. For convenience's sake, "a lot of people want it to be on the airport premises," adds Banas. Using the airport code can help locate car rental options in the vicinity.
Adjust your expectations. Although Antonioli says she's stayed at well-known hotels like the Marriott through Priceline, she notes that you don't get to filter based on amenities or other factors. If you're expecting a hotel with a gym or a cocktail lounge, you might be disappointed. "The last time we went to New York, we wound up in a place where people stay during the week for business," she says, "There was no lobby, no coffee station, and you checked in at a kiosk, which was a very different hotel experience."
On a trip to Washington, D.C., she stayed at a Renaissance Inn that was under construction. In hindsight, she adds, "that might be why they were offering rates really low." Antonioli tolerated the jackhammer noise in the lobby (or the lack of a lobby, in the other case) because it meant getting a good deal.
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Time your search appropriately. With Priceline, you must wait 24 hours before rebidding higher on the same quality of hotel in the same neighborhood. Antonioli says she'll sometimes rebid the next day or adjust her geographic parameters so she can rebid on the spot. However, she says, "you have to be willing to let it go." There's a certain emotional attachment that can occur with bidding, so Antonioli tries not to get too invested. With spur-of-the-moment road trips, she says, "I have bid for things, not gotten the price I wanted, and just not gone."
While these sites can offer some very attractive deals to last-minute travelers (for instance, Antonioli says she's booked a room in Philadelphia for $55 a night bidding two days in advance), Banas says it's a bad idea to wait if you know you need to be at a wedding or a conference on a certain date, especially during peak travel periods. If inventory sells out, you could be out of luck with Priceline or Hotwire. However, for day-of hotel bookings, she suggests trying the HotelTonight app (available on iPhone or Android) or Tonight-Only, Priceline's new iPhone app.