I scored a room through Priceline at a luxury hotel in San Diego for $90 a night this weekend, which amounts to 35 percent of the $259 going rate. It was gratifying, but it wasn’t quick and it wasn’t particularly easy.
Priceline allows visitors to bid a certain amount for a certain quality of hotel room in a certain area on a certain date. If your bid is accepted, your credit card is charged immediately. The charge is not refundable.
The rules for bidding and rebidding are complex, and the strategies that aggressive bidders use are truly convoluted. Priceline has its own instructions on how it works. Those who are really into it use the tips, maps, lists and strategies on sites like biddingfortravel.com
To get the $90 rate in San Diego, I researched, bid, re-bid, researched and bid again. I had to be persistent, and flexible. I wanted a room for three nights. But when I looked at the prevailing rates on traditional hotel booking engines, I realized that prices were much higher on the Saturday night than on the Sunday and Monday nights — maybe because the Los Angeles Dodgers were scheduled to play the Padres in a series ending on Sunday.
So I booked a hotel for Saturday night in an outlying town. Then I bid the $90 rate for the Sunday and Monday nights in downtown. And it worked.
Price is the only upside to Priceline hotel bidding, but it’s a big enough upside that I’ve used the service plenty. It’s hard to argue with $90 a night for a luxury hotel – and I’ve seen even lower. Here are the downsides:
No refunds. As I mentioned, the rates are pre-paid and non-refundable. The husband and I got burned by this once, when we had to cancel a trip. Those are the chances you take.
No choice. You can’t pick your hotel. If you bid $90 for a three- or four-star hotel in downtown San Diego, you have to take what you get.
Bed bingo. Each room can accommodate two people, but that may mean in one bed or two. Better be sure you like your travel companion.
Smoke. You can’t be completely assured of a smoking or non-smoking room. I’ve been stuck in a smoking room on a Priceline reservation, though only once.
Cheap treatment. You usually get a standard room (and we’ve twice had upgrades) but you may be more likely than the guest paying the rack rate to end up in the least appealing or least conveniently located room. Some Priceline bidders are angered by that, but it strikes me as a sound business practice. Better to vex someone paying $90 a night than someone paying $259.
Extra charges. The bid price doesn’t include extras. With taxes and fees, my $90 rate became $106. And if I needed parking I’d have had to add a whopping $26 a night.
Less atmosphere. Forget local flavor. Most of the hotels on Priceline’s bidding lists belong to large hotel chains.
NoVegas. In my opinion it’s foolish to use Priceline for a Las Vegas room. You ought to be able to get a good deal, with more control over your location, through careful shopping of hotel specials.
Diminishing returns. I’ve been much less satisfied with the results for budget hotels using Priceline. In my experience, it’s much better at getting a deep discount at a luxury hotel than at getting a rock-bottom price at a budget hotel.