For a short time, Priceline—one of the two major “opaque” booking sites—is posting current and recent successful bid prices for hotel accommodations. Going the other way, a formerly “transparent” site, Quikbook, has added “opaque” booking features. Opaque means you don’t know the name of the hotel (or airline or car rental company) until after you’ve made a nonrefundable payment. And opaque buying can cut your hotel bills substantially if you know how to do it.
By now, you probably know of Priceline‘s “name your own price” booking system. You select a quality range (based on Priceline’s “stars”) and a general location, and then enter a bid for that room. If your bid is accepted, Priceline charges your credit card and gives you the name of the hotel you just bought. Once accepted, Priceline bids are nonrefundable, although Priceline sells trip-cancellation insurance that will reimburse you if you have to cancel for a “covered” reason—usually accident or sickness; usually not for work requirements.
For at least a few weeks, Priceline will be posting recent successful bids, showing specific dollar “savings,” but not the names of the hotels. When I checked, I found winning bid data for lots of locations, including some pretty small towns. And the site showed plenty of good buys in the more popular visitor centers. Samples include a four-star hotel near a major attraction in Orlando for $80 per night, a four-star hotel near the Las Vegas Convention Center for $60 (Priceline says 68 percent off), and three-star hotels in several Manhattan neighborhoods at $100.
On average, Priceline claims that more than 40 percent of its customers got hotel rates at least 50 percent below the hotels’ official asking prices. On the whole, my impression is that the claim is probably reasonable. The last time I used Priceline, I got a hotel room in New York City for half the rates quoted by the big online travel agencies.
Going the other direction, longtime hotel discount player Quikbook has added a few opaque listings. So far, choices are extremely limited: two hotels in Chicago, three in New York, and one in Washington.
Quikbook is following Hotwire’s business model rather than Priceline’s. You know the price; you just don’t know the name of the hotel. Quikbook’s prices look reasonably good—a deluxe hotel on Chicago’s Michigan Avenue for $100, for example, or a deluxe hotel in Manhattan’s Murray Hill area for $149. Quikbook is something of an anomaly: It was one of the first hotel discount sites on the Internet, didn’t grow as dramatically as competitors Expedia and Hotels.com, but retains a niche market that apparently works. It lists hotels in fewer cities than its giant competitors, but books many of them on a reservation-only basis, with either no cancellation penalty or a penalty for only late cancellations, and with most, you pay the hotel only when you check out from your stay. It’s certainly a place you should look.
Meanwhile, as I noted earlier, Travelocity has also entered the opaque buying scene, but with fewer listings than Hotwire or Priceline. However, if the venture appears successful, I’m sure Travelocity will expand its options. Expedia doesn’t need to add an opaque feature; it already partners with Hotwire. Orbitz remains yet to be heard.
My main beef with all opaque sites is that you can’t specify the bedding arrangement you want. Although the sites promise a room that accommodates two adults, I’ve found that guarantee usually means a room with just one queen or king bed, and sometimes just one regular double bed. If you want twins or two queens, you can negotiate with the hotel when you arrive, but you can’t specify in advance.
Nevertheless, I routinely use Hotwire and Priceline for hotel accommodations, especially when I’m traveling alone for business and don’t really need more than one adequate bed. To avoid disappointment, I usually ask for (or bid on) three-star or higher properties, and I’ve never been put into an unsatisfactory spot.
Have you ever booked a great deal with an opaque travel site? Do you think the risk of not knowing what hotel you’re booking is worth the savings? Share your thoughts, experiences, and advice by submitting a comment below!
(Editor’s Note: SmarterTravel is a member of the TripAdvisor Media Network, an operating company of Expedia, Inc. Expedia, Inc. also owns hotels.com and Hotwire.)