Priceline Expands Opaque Booking Options

Priceline, the originator of opaque buying, has added a third option for buying discounted hotel accommodations. In addition to the original "name your own price" system and the clear listings, you now have the additional choice of an "Express" deal: You see the price, but you don't know the name of the hotel until you make a nonrefundable purchase. This, of course, is the opaque pricing model that Hotwire has been using since its inception, and the approach that Travelocity has added in its "top secret" hotels. But Priceline has added some features that the others do not offer—at least not yet.

Although the name of the hotel remains concealed, Priceline shows a complete list of amenities and important guest policies at each hotel—availability of a pool, Wi-Fi, a fitness center, a restaurant, "free" breakfast, "free" parking, whether the facility is pet friendly, and so on.

Some Priceline Express hotel listings also give you a bedding option, such as one large Queen or King bed, two Twins, or two Queens. 

Over the years, I've been a big booster of arranging hotel accommodations through opaque sites. You get to select a general range on the price/quality ladder—typically some number of "stars" assigned by the site—and, in a big city, you can specify one or more neighborhoods where you want to stay. I've generally stuck to the upper range of hotel stars, at three-and-a-half or better, and I've never been disappointed in the hotel. I've also found that the agencies' star ratings are reasonably accurate and not inflated: When I've selected a four-star hotel, it's always turned out to be a unit of a well-known upscale chain. Working between the opaque and open lists, I've sometimes even been able to identify specific, supposedly opaque, hotel names before committing.

The biggest obstacle to opaque buying I've encountered has been the inability to specify the type of bed arrangement—my wife and I generally preferred two beds—and the default selection was almost always one Double, Queen, or King. Most of the time I was able to arrange what I preferred at check-in, but a few times we had to accept less than what we wanted. Now, however, Priceline's latest option offers a choice, at least at some hotels.

The ability to determine, in advance, the availability of no-charge Wi-Fi, parking, breakfast, and some of the other amenities is also a big advantage. Of course, unless you're a high-ranking member of a hotel chain's loyalty program, your opaque buy generally nets you the lowest-category room each individual hotel has to offer. But modern hotels these days seldom have any really bad rooms, so that has not been a problem.

I've also found opaque buying to be a good way to arrange rental cars. Usually, as long as I can specify the general size range, I don't care which rental company actually provides the car. The biggest drawback to opaque car rentals is that you typically have to forego the rental company's membership-based express pickup and car-choice system.

On the other hand, I'm not big on using opaque buying for air tickets. To me, schedule is too important in choice of itinerary to leave to the luck of the draw. And as far as I can tell, many other travelers agree with me: The main action on the opaque sites seems to be in hotels and rental cars.

For now Priceline's new "Express" option puts it ahead of prime competitors Hotwire and Travelocity. I wouldn't be surprised, however, to see them play "me too" fairly quickly: Real advantages don't tend to last long in this business.

Presumably Priceline's "name your own price" rates are and will remain lower than even the Express deals, and you can often determine a good bid price from BiddingforTravel. But if you don't want to guess the price but still want to pay bottom dollar, the new Priceline system, along with Hotwire and Travelocity, should work for you quite well.

Ed Perkins on Travel is copyright (c) 2012 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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