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How to game Priceline to get the best deal on a hotel room
Map out a bidding strategy using free re-bids
If you're familiar with Priceline, you know that if you're opening bid is rejected, you need to alter either the star level, dates of travel, or geographic zones in order to bid again. Otherwise you have to wait a full 24 hours before submitting the same request, even if you're willing to increase your bid.
A good way to circumvent this rule when bidding on hotel rooms in large cities is to determine what level of accommodation Priceline offers within each geographic zone. All you have to do is click each zone, one-by-one and see what star levels below gray out. For example, Atlanta has 21 zones. If you click into each, you'll discover that only 6 of those zones have 4 star hotels; 3 other zones have nothing better than 3.5 star hotels; 7 zones max out at 3 stars; 3 offer only 2.5 or 2 star hotels, and 2 allow bids only on 2 star hotels.
So if you want to bid on a four star hotel in Buckhead, you actually have 15 free re-bids in the zones with no 4 star offerings, at no risk. If you're willing to pay up to $90, for example, start out with a $45 low-ball offer, and then move up in $3 increments each time your bid is rejected, adding a "safe" zone each time.
Bid 1: 4 star, Buckhead- $45
Bid 2: 4 star, Buckhead, Druid Hills, $48
Bid 3: 4 star, Buckhead, Druid Hills, Forest Park, $51
And so on. If you strike out getting the 4 star hotel and are willing to move down to 3.5 stars, you start all over again, and, based on this example have 12 free re-bids on "safe" zones that have no 4 star or 3.5 star hotels. This can be time consuming, but I've gotten some incredible deals using this method, which has been explained on other sites as well, including the Westin Atlanta North at Perimeter Center for $55, the Hyatt Regency Philadelphia at Penn's Landing for $45, and the Marriott Toronto Airport for $48, to name just a few.
If you're the kind of person who hates Priceline's element of surprise- you never know exactly what hotel you'll get until after you enter your credit card information- do some research on sites like Bidding for Travel and Better Bidding to find out what you might get. Bidders post successful and unsuccessful bids in the forums and the sites also features lists of reported hotels in the different zones in many cities around the world. Don't assume that these lists are comprehensive- I've gotten hotels that aren't on these lists, but they are useful to give you an idea of what you might get. A new site, Bidding Traveler, allows you to enter a low-ball bid and a final offer and then advises you on an optimal bidding strategy based upon recent accepted and rejected bids on Priceline.
One other tool travelers might want to be aware of involves a glitch on the Priceline site I read about in a forum on fatwallet.com, regarding credit card security codes. Priceline requires bidders to enter their credit card information before they bid, but the glitch is that the system reportedly allows unsuccessful bids to go through with an incorrect security code. Only if your bid is accepted will it prompt you to correct your security code.
Practically, this glitch provides some good intel. For example, let's say your $50 bid was rejected, but you try again at $70, with an additional zone or reduced stars, and the system prompts you to correct your security code. That means they want to accept your $70 bid. But perhaps you have some free re-bids and would rather try again at $60, knowing you can always come back to $70 and get your room.
After your bid is accepted
Some hotels practice a sort of informal discrimination against travelers who book via third party sites like Priceline, by giving them the least desirable rooms. In order to try to avoid this, call the hotel as soon as your bid is accepted. Express your room preference and give them your frequent guest number. Some chains won't give you points on a Priceline stay, but some will, if not always for the room, then at least for other incidental charges you might accrue while staying at the property.
If you have any kind of status at that chain, they are a lot less likely to shaft you just because you booked on Priceline, and even if you haven't signed up for that hotel's frequent stay program before, it's usually worth your time to do so before arrival, since those with no status tend to get last choice of rooms.
Using Priceline for rental cars and flights
I've also had some success using Priceline for rental cars, sometimes scoring rides for as little as $12 per day before taxes and fees. There is no free re-bid system but you can start at the luxury or premium level and work your way down to economy or compact. I've found that in practice, most rental companies will allow you to upgrade if you bid on a small car and decide you want something different, assuming they have the category of vehicle you want.
I've been less successful using Priceline to book flights. I've only tried it twice and both times I wasn't happy with the itinerary I got. I used it to book a flight from Chicago to London and ended up with a long layover in Cincinnati. The second and last straw for me was a Chicago- New York flight that departed at 6 A.M. and had a long layover. For international flights, you can depart at any time midnight-midnight on your proposed date and for domestic, you'll travel between 6 A.M. and 10 P.M. I'm a big fan of non-stop flights that leave well after the start of the Today show, so Priceline does't really work for me on flights.
Priceline not for you?
If Priceline still seems a bit too risky for you, you might consider trying a new site called BackBid. The site allows travelers to post their existing reservation and then invites other hotels to try to beat it. I'm not very risk averse and I love Priceline, so I haven't tried it yet. If you have, let us know how you made out in the comments section, and happy bidding.
Image via Flickr, Loren Javier.