Many of you turn to "opaque" online agencies to get the very best available hotel deals. As long as you can specify the hotel's quality range and general location, if the discount is big enough, you're willing to accept the agency's selection of an individual hotel—and the discounts are often the biggest you can get.
The popularity of opaque sites is demonstrated by the fact that several of the biggest mainstream online travel agencies (OTAs) have added some form of opaque buying to their broader offerings. And, as is often the case in a fast-moving market, new ideas and suggestions steadily improve your chances of getting a great price on a good hotel.
Priceline remains the best known opaque agency, and its "name your price" bidding model is still unique, as far as I know. And a new online site, TheBiddingTraveler, has mounted a beta version of an automated system to help you bid. As with Priceline's own entry page, you list your destination, date(s), and hotel rating; the site also asks you for a minimum-to-maximum bidding rate range. When you select a district within a big city, the site displays recent winning and losing bids at specific hotels within each range. The site responds with a "recommended lowball offer" and "recommended final offer," based on recent experience. Then, you can either bid manually or the site will automatically bid for you. Other sites that provide information from other travelers about successful bids, unsuccessful bids, and hotel identities include Better Bidding and BiddingForTravel. They're always worth a look before you enter an opaque bid or accept an opaque price, too.
Hotwire, the other giant opaque site, provides planning tools you can't easily find in other places. It's unique among the big OTAs in that it regularly mines its immense database of traveler bookings to post findings that can help you cut your costs.
Hotwire's latest compilation is a list of the major U.S. cities where hotel prices drop the most within the last week of booking. The result: Week-before-arrival prices drop by 50 percent or more in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Dallas-Fort Worth, Denver, Orlando, Phoenix, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, and Washington.
Ongoing reports in Hotwire's TripStarter include displays of a two-year history of hotel rates in (and airfares to) a long list of larger cities in the United States plus three in Canada—excellent for planning the best times to visit. Other TripStarter postings include "best times" of the year to visit the major cities.
Ongoing "travel value index" figures provide a composite index of the "value" of the 50 largest U.S. cities, and a less-useful "travel savings indicator" compiles the five cities exhibiting the biggest year-to-year price drops in hotel rate, air tickets, and rental car rates.
All of these postings are based on actual prices paid by Hotwire customers for open (not opaque) bookings. In a distant past, when I was involved with travel research, I would have killed for a database like this. Now, anyone can take advantage.
Meanwhile, in case you hadn't noticed, some other big OTAs have added opaque buying to their hotel options. Expedia provides both a single "daily deal" at a specified hotel and a longer list of "unpublished" opaque rates; Travelocity provides both a single identified "dashing deal" and a list of "secret" Opaque rates; and Quikbook lists "secret savings" at many of the major cities it covers. Although the chances you could use one of those daily deals are pretty remote—most of the ones I've seen have been for upscale deluxe rooms in big Las Vegas hotels—the opaque deals are on par with what you find on Hotwire.
Opaque deals aren't good if you need specific bedding arrangements—they typically apply just to a single queen or king bed—or location within a hotel, but they're fine if you're not fussy. I use them routinely for my business travels, and I've always had good results with both Hotwire and Priceline.