If we know each other in real life, chances are I've talked your ear off about my obsession with discount travel: the Travelzoo top 20 list, Kayak flight alerts, rental cars from Hotwire and my personal favorite, name-your-own price hotels on Priceline.
We are heading to Newport in a few days for a long weekend, and I've been bragging to anyone who will listen about the deal I scored ($55 a night at a 3 1/2 star Hyatt! Not that you asked...). I thought it might be fun to share some of the tips I've discovered after years of ruthless negotiations with William Shatner.
1. Research. People often hesitate to book using Priceline's name-your-own-price option because the hotel you wind up can be a bit of a mystery. I totally understand this fear, but there are a few ways around it.
First, do a standard hotel search on Priceline to see what hotels are available in the place you're visiting. In Newport, 46 hotels are listed. But if I adjust it to show only 3 1/2 star hotels, four are listed. If you look at them in map view, you can see what neighborhood they're in. This is helpful because one of the criteria you fill in while naming your price is neighborhood. If there's a hotel listed that you don't want to get, make sure you don't include that neighborhood in your bid.
2. Bid really low. Once you select the neighborhood and star level you want, you have to fill in your bid. Priceline will tempt you to bid high by telling you the median price for the criteria you entered (for Newport, 3 1/2 star hotels are $189). You might even think starting with $100 is too low. It's not. In fact, I typically start around $40. Depending on where you're heading, this may turn out to be too low, but you never know!
Typically, the first bid will be rejected. Unless you want to change your neighborhood or star level, you must wait 24 hours to bid again. I typically go up in increments of $5-10 dollars each day, depending on how quickly the trip is approaching. Occasionally, you will put in a bid that's pretty close to what a hotel will accept, and Priceline will let you know (for example, instead of the $75 you bid, a hotel will accept $83). You can complete the process then if you're okay with the price they offer, or wait another 24 hours to bid again.
3. Wait until the last minute. I don't have any insider knowledge, but this just seems like common sense: hotels should be more willing to give you a room at a very low rate if the date is fast approaching and they aren't booked. Unless there is some sort of major convention or sporting event taking place, you can be pretty confident that the area you're visiting will not run out of guest rooms. I like to start bidding about two weeks before vacation starts.
This does require a certain amount of flexibility, either with your price point or the destination. For our winter trip this year, I was trying to get a deal in Montreal, but they wouldn't accept a low enough bid. We ended up in Vermont instead! I don't mind this sort of travel planning, but realize it's not everyone's cup of tea.
4. For wedding travel, wait until after the block expires to book. When booking a hotel for a wedding, wait until two days after the block has expired. I've done this many times, and usually end up at the hotel all the other guests are at for a much cheaper rate because a bunch of unused rooms were released at the last minute. Not a fool proof plan, but it works more often than not!
5. Have a back-up. When I first started to dip my toe into Priceline, I felt very nervous that I wouldn't have anywhere to sleep on vacation. So, I booked at a hotel that had a very lenient cancellation policy (Marriott will usually let you cancel up until 5:00 PM on the day you're supposed to check-in). This helped ease my worries, and pushed me to make more aggressively low bids.
What about you guys -- any good tips and tricks for booking inexpensive travel? I could chat about this stuff all day long!