Priceline Title

I’m late in looking for a hotel for my upcoming trip to Orlando, so I thought I’d share some of my searches with you, and in doing so give you some Priceline tips/tricks.

The Basics of Priceline

The basics of Priceline (PL) have been around so long we’re all familiar with them; you “bid” for your hotel/flight/car, and if the bid is accepted you’re committed to the purchase. In reality PL is an opaque booking site, similar to Hotewire, and others.

Lets peel back the “bidding” idea and see it for what it really is; PL uses the lack of transparent pricing to try to get you to overpay for opaque bookings.  You don’t know the hotels, and don’t know the prices–so you put what you “think” is a good price, and if it is accepted on the first go around, you feel good. What it really means if your first bid is accepted is you likely overpaid.

They lock you into this thinking by only allowing one unique bid per day. We’ll talk today how to get around that, and make sure we pay the absolute minimum while being able to also see the hotel we’re bidding on.

If you love a brand, and want to focus on that brand, Priceline might not be for you.  If you like saving money, and still staying at very nice places Priceline could be for you. Let’s see how this works by stepping into a PL booking:

Starting Out with Pricline

Picking an area of the city you want to be in is the first step in any PL booking. Priceline carves up the city into sections, such as these for Orlando:

Priceline MCOFor an idea which hotels are in each zone, the excellent betterbidding.com has a list, which is sometimes a bit out of date, but can help.  I’m looking at Zone 7, which is International Drive East/Convention Center.  Better Bidding reports the following hotel options:

Zone Detail BetterBiddingIf I do a hotwire post I’ll show you how you can pick a specific hotel with Hotwire–with Priceline I have to be ok with any of the Hotels in my Star Range. Fortunately the Hyatt Regency is the only 4.5 star hotel in this zone–so as long as I keep bidding for 4.5 in the Convention Center zone I can be pretty sure of getting the Hyatt Regency. There is always a risk this list is wrong–so be ready for a small curveball.

What I like to do is search on either LMTclub.com and see what I’m looking at for certain areas of the city I’ll be visiting.  LMTclub has the Hyatt Regency for $160+tax, which is a good deal, but we can do much better with Priceline

Starting a Priceline Search

Starting out is easy, pick a Zone, pick a Star rating, and enter what you’re willing to pay. If the bid is accepted you’re committed (you enter your CC number before finding out if you “won”). If your bid is rejected you can’t just rebid–you need to wait 24 hours, or change your bid somehow–add a zone, change the star rating, etc.

We’ll use those basics to rebid and keep rebidding until we find the absolute floor for our chosen hotel. I’ll explain that last sentence more as we go along with this process.

My Opening bid: $55 per night.

This is never going to be accepted–but I have to start somewhere. I think we can get this hotel for $90 a night or so… Hyatt wants $200+. My starting bid is far, far too low; and I receive the message:

Try Again PricelineNotice the wording: “Select different areas or star levels, and resubmit your offer.” This is the exploit we will use with Priceline.  Prior to booking I went through each zone and took down which star levels exist in which zones:

5 4.5 4 3.5 3 2.5 2 1
X X
Disney Area – Lake Buena Vista East
X X X X X X
Disney Downtown – Lake Buena Vista
X X X X X X X
Disney Maingate – Celebration Area
X X X X X X
Disney Maingate West
X X X X X X X
Downtown Orlando
X X X X X X
Intl. Drive – Convention Center
X X X X X X X
Intl. Drive South – Sea World
X X X X X X
Kissimmee
X X
Maitland – Altamonte Springs
X X X X X
X
X X X X
X X X X X
X X X X
X X X X X
X X X X X X X
X X X X X X
X X X
X X X

As you can see above, out of 19 zones only 4 have a 4.5 star property. This is good news–and means that we can add any of the other 14 zones for a free re-bid. You cannot duplicate an exact bid with Priceline, so you must either add a zone, or change your star levels–we’ll be adding a zone. In this case I’ll add zone 1–Casselberry which only has a 2 star and 1 star option.  Keeping 4.5 stars selected for my bid means I’m re-bidding in the same zone. This time I’ll try $60 per night (I have 14 more re-bids so I can go $5 at a time. I’ll then continue adding zones which do not have a property in my star level, forcing the bid against my zone only.

We’ll continue as we go–adding zones which do not have a 4.5 star hotel, and re-bidding up to the lowest possible price. I’ll spare you from the details of each bid, but $60, $65, $70, $75, $80, $85 were all rejected. At $95 I knew I was close; Priceline offered me a “One time deal”:

You're close--and so they want to get a little extra cash from you, bidding $113 ends up costing your $39 more than it needs to. Use this notice to slow your bidding down. I switched to $1 increments after this message came up.
You’re close–and so they want to get a little extra cash from you, bidding $113 ends up costing your $28 + tax more than it needs to. Use this notice to slow your bidding down. I switched to $1 increments after this message came up.

At $99 I finally get the message that my bid was accepted! Knowing I had 14 free rebids and getting the $113 rebid message meant I could slowly get up to $99 and know I paid rock bottom for this hotel.

Priceline Express:Useful for Bidding

Priceline has a hotwire-esque booking site; Priceline Express. You see the star level, the zone, and a price. You can almost always beat this price. As you can see they wanted to charge $111 for the same category 4.5 on PL Express:

PL Express 4.5 star

So PL Express lets us know around where we should be bidding. Did my $55 opening bids stand a chance? No, not likely–but with 14 free rebids, why not start low? Did we best this $111, yes–not by nearly as much as I would have liked to, but still a great deal.

A second piece of information PL Express can give us is further confirmation of our hotel choice. When you click “choose” and get to the booking screen on Priceline Express you’re presented with an actual breakdown (but still no hotel name):

Take note of the Resort fee--and compare it to the resort fee the hotel you think you're booking is offering. In this case the $45.20 is exactly identical to the Hyatt Regency Orlando.
Take note of the Resort fee–and compare it to the resort fee the hotel you think you’re booking is offering. In this case the $45.40 is exactly identical to the Hyatt Regency Orlando.

We’ll see this same $45.40 when we do a comparison booking on Hyatt.com, and can use this to feel pretty confident of our chosen “mystery” hotel.

Comparing Priceline and Hyatt.com

This Hyatt property is a category 4 hotel–so it costs 15,000 Hyatt Points per night. For 2 weekend nights the paid breakdown is:

Add $45 to the Priceline total for the resort scam fee.
Add $45 to the Priceline total for the resort scam fee. There may or may not be a service charge added once checking out–so the Priceline bid could go as high as $282 or so.

All told we’re looking at $278.68 vs. $519.83. At $520 30k Hyatt (Plus $45.40 in resort fees) look like a good deal–at $278.68 they start to look much worse. This is why Milenomics’ view on hotel points is rather low–there are just so many ways to get into good hotels for less than hotel points cost. I also see these Priceline bids as instant upgrades–from lower end hotels I’d have paid cash or points for to a higher end hotel.

Milenomics Loves Hotels, Not Hotel Brands.

I love hotels. Love them.  I lived in one for 3 months, and even that didn’t cause me to rethink my love of hotels.  However, it should come as no surprise that I do not like hotel brands very much. Sure I appreciate certain brands in the micro sense of the word “brand”. When looking at a hotel brand in the macro sense of the word I have very little confidence that the Sheraton in Location B is going to be a great experience because the Sheraton in Location A was. For a good example of this, follow Stacey @VeryGoodPoints as she’s been outlining her SPG stays on the different Hawaiian Islands.

My view is that ultimately if a hotel is part of a brand or not management decides how good/bad your experience is at the hotel.  Staff who are taken care of and empowered to solve problems care for patrons. The more I travel the more I’ve realized that “innkeeper” is a highly skilled trade.  Thinking you can manage a hotel, and managing a hotel are two very different things.</rant>

Results Not Guaranteed

Is Priceline always the right tool for the job? No. If you’re looking at all zones with very similar star ratings the above tricks won’t help you much. When it works best is in dense, urban areas with lots of zones, and a variety of star levels. It also helps to try to book the top end of the star levels. Regardlenss, today’s post is imporant; to show you that the price is not always the price, and that Priceline can be a great way to save big money.

Had I been looking for an even lower end property I could still have used Priceline successfully–look at the above chart showing the breakdown in each zone– 7 zones don’t have a single 3.5 star hotel–which means you could bid at least 8 times on a 3.5 star hotel–these are usually able to be booked for $40 or so. I would have started a 3.5 star booking with 7 rebids at $25/night. I’m pretty confident I’d end up somewhere between $25 and $60 per night for one of these.

When in doubt–check the list of Priceline and hotwire hotels linked above. When the hotel you’re interested in staying at is on that list, and is the only property in a star level you can be much more sure of your results. Otherwise the above tips still work–you just won’t know which specific hotel you’ll end up in until your bid is accepted. The Higher the star level the more free re-bids, but also the more expensive the hotel.

If you’d like to discuss more follow me on twitter, @Milenomics or on like Milenomics on facebook. And as always you can email me; Samsimontravel@gmail.com

Update: Be Sure to check the comments section for this post, readers Joe and Brandon have included excellent tips (and I added one of mine as well). Thanks to all who comment and make the posts stronger!


Everything below this line is automatically inserted into this post and is not necessarily endorsed by Milenomics:

– Written by Sam Simon. All ideas are my own, but I encourage you to see my point of view and I promise I’ll try to do the same. Connect with me on Twitter @Milenomics.

18 thoughts on “Using Priceline to Save Money on Hotels

  1. Check out this post from The Miles Professor about more tips for bidding on Priceline, if you haven’t already. The main idea is to use gift cards with a low balance, like 5 or $10, as your method of payment when doing bids. You can experiment with different rates when bidding and not have to book it if the bid is accepted. Also, if you have multiple gift cards, then you can get more re-bids.
    http://themilesprofessor.com/2013/03/22/priceline-hotel-bidding-low-price-revealed/

    • Brandon; I just read the post, thanks for sending it in. Those are great tips as well. I use a zero balance gift card for all my Priceline bookings–sort of like a safety net for a tightrope walker 😉 An Absolutely great tip, but one I wanted to keep out of the post. I don’t think using a giftcard is a replacement for solid PL bidding and research, so I don’t want readers using it as a crutch, and just bidding without understanding the process.

    • Scott: Good advice, I am a huge forum fan–and betterbidding is a great resource. Also read your post–and I’ll have to hit you (and Elaine) up for Portland ideas if/when we take a trip up there. Thanks for the comment.

  2. Thank you for the information. I didn’t think to use the extra fees to help identify the hotel – I’ll add that to my repertoire. My only beef with Priceline is that they don’t include those resort fees in the “total price”. With extra, but mandatory, fees spreading like a virus across the country, Priceline currently has the clout to require resort fees to be included – if they would just do it! With resort fees excluded, it makes the budget end of the hotel spectrum much more difficult to plan for and execute.

    Besides the sites mentioned, one other site that might be useful to beginner-to-intermediate users of Priceline is thebiddingtraveler.com. Discussed on blogs from time to time, this site will make bidding on Priceline semi-automatic. It can also use the simplified free rebid zones strategy.

    For those interested in the absolute lowest price, the “advanced free rebid strategy” can expand your free rebids exponentially. In the advanced strategy, the sequence of adding zones matters. Bids therefore increase by 2 to the power of x, where x is number of rebid zones. So, in your example, 14 free rebid zones would not mean 15 total bids, but 16,384 – well into overkill territory! (The 3.5 star example, with 7 rebid zones, would yield 128 total bids.) Unfortunately, I haven’t found an online bidding engine to automate the complete strategy, increasing bids $1 at a time. When I had more time than sense, I did make a spreadsheet for up to 8 rebids zones, giving me 256 total bids.

    Definitely time consuming, but the savings can be substantial. I think my last Priceline bid was D.C. in August. A 3.5 star with 4 rebid zones gave me 16 bids. Increasing only $3 at a time (!?) ended up saving 51% over booking directly at the boutique hotel website.

    Thanks again!

    • Thanks Joe. I’m with you on the Resort Fees–I personally don’t think they should even be legal. The issue is worse with Priceline, where you don’t even know the fee until after you pay. How can *that* be legal? Sure you agree to the terms and conditions–but it seems horrible to keep that information hidden until after your bid is accepted.

      Caution should be used with 3rd party auto-bidding sites–they can pocket your 4-5% cash back you could be earning on top of the PL discount. Always fight for your own Cashback.

      All the tips you’ve outlined are great ones, the site you mentioned looks solid as well. And the Exponential strategy you’ve described is indeed powerful, and opens up a world of possibilities, and almost unlimited bids. I’ll have to get more into it in another post. I also had a spreadsheet for it, which I’ll dig up and dust off. I haven’t used it in quite a while, preferring my PL safety net instead. But great minds think alike 😉

      When it comes down to it–there is work involved in a PL booking, but there can be huge savings. Your D.C. Booking and my above Orlando experience are great examples of that. The above booking was done in under 30 minutes. That’s $12.50 at my T-rate, but well worth it with the savings over the $209 rate direct from Hyatt.

      Also, PL also almost always blows Hotel point redemptions out of the water. The above example was a value of just $0.0077 per Hyatt Point/UR!

  3. Question, just out of curiosity:

    Would switching between accounts (one for my wife, one for me) and computers (home PC and work laptop) allow one to get in more bids?

    • It should. You can also do the exponential bidding that reader Joe mentioned in the comments.

      The basics are to create unique pairs of zones, then triplets, then unique 4 zone searches, and so on. If you had free rebids in zones 1,2,3,4 and 5 and you were trying to book in zone 6 try zone 6 then 6 & 1. Then close your browser and go back in and do 6 & 2, 6 & 3, 6 & 4 and then 6 & 5. Next go 6 & 1 & 2 then close out and do 6 & 1 & 3 and so forth until you reach 6 & 1 & 2 & 3 & 4 & 5. In this method the 5 free rebids give you 32 total bids. Try it and let me know.

      • Not planning any hotel visits in the foreseeable future, so I’ll have to defer to someone else. I enjoy the blog and blog post, by the way.

  4. This isn’t the first time I’ve read through this process and looked at it all the way through before I realized that it only works for couples. I hate hotels :/

      • Or singles of course. I guess we could get lucky and get a room with 2 beds. But you don’t get to choose your room type, so the only way to be sure you’ll get space for four people is to bid on two rooms.

        • Ahhh… that makes sense. I can say that I’ve never in practice had that be an issue. While you can’t guarantee a room with more than one bed as a part of a PL bid, once the bid is accepted you can call the hotel and put in a request. If you get someone who doesn’t budge, Hang up, call back later.

          You could also ask the front desk, nicely, at check in. Once on a PL booking I was overnighting and just wanted to sleep, and my room was in a noisy corner next to the elevator. I went back and explained it–and was moved without any trouble. Smile and be upfront, at the end of the day only the very worst hotel would flat out deny if they could at all accommodate your request.

          You should also be tipping at check-in–Using pointssummary’s $20 technique to hopefully get a much better room, with your choice of more than one bed, or even more than one room. 😉

          In an oversold situation there is a chance you won’t get your specified room–but that’s possible no matter what channel you book in when a place is oversold.

          • Thanks for your reply – I’ll give it a shot at some point. I still find hotels, particularly ‘nicer’ hotels, to be overstaffed with overdressed underpaid people who suffocate you with their idea of service which I can’t stand. Is there a tipping trick that says “I don’t ever want anyone to offer to do anything for me unless I ask for it at either the front door or the bar, and I carried my one little bag halfway across the world, I can make it to the freaking elevator!” End rant. I shouldn’t stay at hotels that are higher than the bottom two tiers or so of any chain, they raise my blood pressure.

  5. Depending on what type of trip it is…you might consider staying at a vacation rental type place where you take an hour tour and then get a whole bunch of free stuff. Orland is famous for that. It can really off set a hotel’s costs. I took a tour in Kauai and $150/night credit and some other goodies.

    • Oh gawd. That only encourages those blood suckers. I’d rather stick a fork in my eye than do an “hour” tour or presentation.

  6. Bidders picking unwanted zones for a fast rebid need to watch out for zones which have resorts indicated by a small palm tree in the star list for that zone. PL treats those resorts as high star properties and you could “win” a bid in a zone far from where you intended. I wound up winning a bid for Phoenix that was 40 miles from where I needed to stay.

  7. Are you saying you can use a total zero balance gift card? If so, then you never have to worry about hitting a bad place. That’s huge.

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