Ads for Priceline's Name Your Own Price option*, Hotwire's Hot Rates, and Travelocity's Top Secret Hotels promise discounts of 45 to 60 percent off regular room rates. They're called opaque or blind websites: You don't learn the identity of your hotel until after your bid has been accepted (Priceline) or you've agreed to the site's price (Hotwire and Travelocity). The savings are substantial because hoteliers consider the rooms "distressed," meaning that they'd otherwise go unoccupied that night.
To see how much we could save using one of the services, we requested a room at a high-end hotel near Chicago's Magnificent Mile. One of Hotwire's selections seemed good, based on the description, a rating of four and a half out of five stars, its general location, its standard amenities, user reviews (they don't identify the hotel, though Sherlock Holmes might figure it out), and the price: $133 per night before tax. It turned out to be the boutique James Hotel.
We then backtracked to find a better deal, using every trick in our arsenal. We started by searching BookIt.com, Expedia, and Hotels.com. We also revisited Priceline and Travelocity to see what they charged for rooms at the James on the side of the sites that lets shoppers search for hotels by name. Next, we sniffed out discount and promo codes, contacted AAA, and looked for discounts through other affiliations. Whatever we tried, the price was far higher than Hotwire's--about $230--and didn't budge. We thought we'd hit pay dirt with a rate of $125 through Affinia Hotels, a chain that has a business affiliation with the James. But the rate was a promotion for travel agents.
We called the hotel's corporate toll-free number, and then contacted the hotel itself. The price remained about $230. Might we get free parking (a $52 add-on for valet service), a room upgrade for the same price, or a free breakfast? Nope. And if we wanted a $20 AAA discount, it would be deducted from the standard rate of $259. The clerk said our $234 rate was already a discounted price; that rate required payment up front and was nonrefundable.
Bottom line. If you're not loyal to a particular hotel chain and are willing to choose from among a number of brands at a certain price level, consider an opaque site. We've discovered through years of experimenting that they offer some of the lowest rates around, along with enough information about location, amenities, services, and guest feedback for you to make an informed decision. Remember, though, you can't cancel or change a reservation. Opaque travel-site users share strategies, advice, and experiences on several websites. Consult BetterBidding.com, BiddingForTravel.com, and BidLessTravel.com.
*Priceline is unusual because you set your own price. You bid on a hotel in one or more categories in one or more areas and wait a few seconds to see whether you've won. If you don't, you must wait 24 hours to rebid unless you alter your search to include another area or a different level of hotel.