Priceline is one of those sites that seems like a great idea, if only you could figure out how to use it. Sure, you might have to jump through a few hoops and take a few chances, but you could save big on your next hotel by using Priceline. Here’s how:
1. Do your research. Know which part of the city you want to stay in. For example, if you’re going to New York City, do you want to stay uptown, midtown, or downtown? East side or west? In the outer boroughs? Where can you walk safely at night, and where will you need a bodyguard and pepper spray?
2. Go to http://www.priceline.com/ and click on “Name Your Own Price.” Click “Bid Now” under the Hotels tab. Enter your city, dates of travel and number of rooms needed. Don’t freak out, you’re not actually bidding right now, no matter what the tab says. You can stop at any point before you put in your credit card number, so go ahead, jump in. Experiment.
3. Choose the number of rooms carefully. Priceline guarantees that each room will accommodate two adults. You might get lucky and get a room with two beds, but it’s not guaranteed. If you’re taking your family, you might want to bid for multiple rooms at the same time to make sure everyone has a place to sleep. Priceline also will not guarantee a non-smoking room, but I’ve always been able to call the hotel and request one after my bid was accepted, except one memorable trip to Disneyland. We were on the smoking floor, and it wasn’t pretty. We pretty much smoked a secondhand cigarette all week long, so you do take your chances.
4. Look at the city map. Large cities are divided into several areas, or zones. Small cities might only have one or two areas. Small towns usually aren’t covered by Priceline, but there’s no harm in at least checking. Podunk, Idaho might be on their list, who knows?
5. Select the areas you want to stay in. In our NY example, let’s select Midtown East, Midtown West and Times Square, because this theoretical trip is all about the Broadway shows. If you select each area separately, you can see the level of hotels available. Today, Midtown East has no 5-star or 1-star hotels, but has everything in between. Midtown West has 1-star through 4-star hotels, but no 5-star hotels. Times Square has everything, from 1-star through 5-star. If you’re determined to stay in a 5-star hotel, you either have to stay in Times Square or choose a different area. The more you limit your options, the more you limit your possibility of getting a bid accepted.
6. Decide on your star level. My own rule is to stay above 3.5 stars if possible, unless I’m staying in an area that only has lower stars available. It’s not that I’m anti-Motel 6, it’s that I’m anti-bedbugs, rats, ghettos and muggings. There are no guarantees, but your chances are better if you’re in a more upscale neighborhood. And with Priceline, you can afford to be!
7. Place your bid. You will have to enter your payment information at this point, so make sure you’ve selected the exact date, star level and area that you want. Now, this is where it gets tricky. You can only bid once every 24 hours, unless you’re willing to add more areas to your bid. So let’s say you bid $50 for Midtown East at 4 stars (which I can guarantee will get rejected, by the way. Midtown for $50? Dream on). The bid is rejected. You can wait 24 hours and bid again, or you can add an area. Well, we’re in luck, you’re equally happy to stay in Midtown West. So you up your bid to $55 and add Midtown West. The bid is rejected. You go up to $60, and add Times Square. The bid is rejected. Woe is you, you’ve used up all three areas you’re willing to stay in, so you’re stuck waiting another day to bid, right?
Wrong! You can get free rebids, because while Priceline can move you up to a higher-star hotel, it cannot move you down. All you have to do is find an area that has no 4-star hotels available. Add that area, and you’re essentially still bidding on the three areas you want because you can’t get the 4th area. Nifty! In this case, let’s add Coney Island to the bidding list. No, we do not want to stay in Coney Island. Ever. But it only has 1- and 2-star hotels, so as long as we stay at 4 stars, we’re safe from Coney. Raise the bid and try again. Rejected.
Continue with this pattern, adding other free rebid areas: Long Island City, Madison Square Garden, Queensborough Bridge, Upper East Side. None of them have 4-star hotels, so you can use all of them to continue bidding without having to wait a day between bids. Bear in mind, if you choose an area that has no 4-star hotels, but does have a 5-star hotel, you could still get a hotel there, because Priceline can move you up to a higher level. If you’re determined not to stay in an area you’re using for a rebid, make sure it only has hotels lower than your selected star level.
8. ALWAYS check each zone separately every time you begin to bid. Today, Long Island City doesn’t have any 4-star hotels available, but tomorrow it could, and before you know it your Broadway dreams have been replaced by a long slog on the Long Island Railroad. Once the bid is accepted, there’s no going back, so check the city zones religiously.
9. Rinse and repeat. If you use up all your free rebids, try again tomorrow, but consider not being a cheapskate. Seriously, hotel rooms in midtown Manhattan go for hundreds a night, so you’re probably not going to get into one for less than about $90, and probably more than that, at least at the 4-star level. I got a beautiful room in Midtown East for $140/night, and I considered it a bargain. The rack rate for the room on the hotel’s website was over $500.
10. Get an accepted bid. See which hotel you got. Look it up online and see how much you saved. Dance on the table. Then start packing.