July 13, 2014

Travel Tips: How to Use Priceline for Hotels

This post marks the beginning of a new series here on travelingfan.net that I’m calling “Travel Tips.” Each post will focus on one aspect of travel—how to save money on various travel needs, gear reviews, useful items to take, etc. Keep an eye out for future installments and feel free to offer topic suggestions (and start thinking about tips of your own for a future “Travel Tips from Other Traveling Fans” post).

A few months back, I wrote a blog called Spend Less; Travel More: Six Tips for Saving Money on the Road. Tip #4 was “Don’t pay full price for hotel rooms” and talked a little about how to use discount sites to save on hotels.  I’m a big fan of Priceline and have had people ask me how to use it effectively, so I think a more in-depth guide is a great way to begin this series. Here are a few things to keep in mind when using Priceline:

1. Simply searching for hotels by date and city will most likely NOT save you money.

This seems to be a common misconception for first-time Priceline users. I’m guilty of treating Priceline like a travel search engine, a place I can input my trip details and generate a list of results from all over the internet in one stop. This is essentially all you’re doing by using the search options offered on Priceline’s homepage. Yes, it’s quicker and easier than going to every hotel chain’s website individually, but the majority of the time if you see a room being offered for $89/night on Priceline, you can then go to the hotel’s own website and find the same room for $89/night.  Once in a while you'll find a real deal in Priceline's listings, but if you’re not saving any money, always book directly through the hotel or airline. If issues arise, it’s easier to deal with the company directly than having to go through a third-party site first. Original hotel sites often have more generous cancellation policies, too.

2. Read the fine print.

Priceline’s offers and policies will not always match those offered directly by the hotel, and they won’t always match other offers on Priceline, either. Some Priceline rooms are refundable, and some are not. Sometimes freebies on amenities like parking and wi-fi are offered, and sometimes they aren’t—even if you got them in the past at the same exact location through Priceline.  Details change, so just read it all before you pay and make sure you know what you’re buying.

3. Priceline deals work best when you have your own transportation.

Both Express Deals and Name Your Own Price require you to book a non-refundable hotel before learning the exact address. If you’re driving or flying in and renting a car, this won’t be an issue. If you’re planning to use public transportation you don’t want to find out that the hotel is actually located 10 minutes beyond the last subway stop, or wind up having to pay for a longer than expected taxi ride that cancels out any savings you got on the hotel room.

I once used Express Deals to book a hotel “Downtown” in a city where “Downtown” usually means everything is within walking distance. We got a great deal on a hotel about a 5 minute drive from downtown—but on a freeway. Thankfully we DID have a car, but our trip would have been a nightmare if we had to walk everywhere or call a taxi every time we left the room. The loophole here is if the only transportation you will need is to and from the airport, you can select an unnamed hotel with a guaranteed airport shuttle.

TL;DR: Don’t use Express Deals or Name Your Own Price unless you have a car, or choose a listing in Express Deals that guarantees an airport shuttle in the amenities.

4. Name Your Own Price.

This is the tool that made Priceline a household name (and taught today's generation of kids to recognize William Shatner). The bidding page can look a little intimidating at first, but it’s pretty straightforward once you understand how it works. After you’ve put in the dates of your stay and the city, you’ll be presented with a page with three steps.

Step 1: Choose where you want to stay.

Each city on Priceline is broken up into smaller regions like “airport” and “downtown.” The regions will be in a numbered list next to a corresponding map. You can click each area on the map for a close-up view of that region’s boundaries. If you select a specific region, your hotel is guaranteed to be somewhere within that area on the map.

Step 2: Choose the star level for your hotel.

You can choose between 1 and 4 stars as your MINIMUM star rating. Sometimes you’ll get bumped up to the next star rating automatically if one fits your price and selected region, but you’ll never be downgraded. (ex. I put in a bid for a 3-star hotel and was given a 3.5 star hotel, but you’ll never bid for a 3-star and get stuck with a 2-star.).

Step 3: Name Your Price.

You can name any price you want. To have some hope of being accepted, you’ll want to shop around and see what the advertised prices for hotels in that area look like. Priceline advertises NYOP deals as being “UP to 60% off,” so calculating 60% off of an average priced hotel in the area is a good place to begin.

Bidding Tips:

You can only bid the same set of details once per 24 hour period, so aim for what you want most first, then branch out to what you're willing to accept. Pick the highest hotel rating you think you can afford (I usually start with 3.5 or 4), pick one area you want most, and make a low bid. If your bid is rejected, you will be prompted to change at least one detail in the first two categories for the chance to bid again. This means if you want to make another bid without waiting 24 hours, you'll need to either 1) add in a second region in step 1, or 2) choose a lower star rating (this is why you start high). You'll probably also want to raise your bid by at least a few dollars to increase your odds. Repeat these steps until either your bid is accepted or you exhaust the details you're willing to accept, and then try again tomorrow.

Obviously the earlier you begin bidding, the more chances you'll have to work up to a bid that will be accepted. If you don't have days or weeks to bid, tag team the bidding with anyone splitting the room with you. Keep track of your bid details and if one person fails, the next person can bid on the same day and avoid using the same details you used that were rejected.

(Shoutout to the one time we managed to put in a successful bid literally five seconds before the 11 PM same-day deadline. Double shoutout to Hanson for canceling a show with no notice and putting us in that situation with no place to stay. We survived; there was a free breakfast bar with bacon; all is forgiven.)

5. Express Deals.

Express Deals are Priceline's version of Hotwire's Hot Rates. You still don’t get to see the name of the hotel, but you don’t have to bid and it's not so intimidating. You choose dates and a location, and Express Deals will offer you a list of hotels available on those dates and show you the star rating, guaranteed amenities, and price. You can further narrow results by selecting a certain region or amenity. (This is my go-to deal for when I'm flying in somewhere and won't have a car, but will need airport transportation. I choose the "airport" region and "airport shuttle" under amenities). The discounts aren't always as cheap as bidding, but it's much easier to use, and if you're like me and occasionally find yourself on the way to a destination with no place to stay that night, Express Deals on the Priceline App are a quick and easy Godsend.

If you want to become a real Priceline guru, you can also look into sites like betterbidding.com that offer data compiled from consumers into lists of likely results for bidding. Be aware that it's not 100% accurate and consider it an educated guess from bigger travel nerds than myself.

There are plenty of ways to mess up and get stuck with a room you don't want with any discount hotel service, but if you're a relatively flexible, easy-going traveler, there are some great deals to be had.


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