“Exclusive” prices for a “select” few lucky consumers. That’s the pitch you see from the several “private sale” websites that evoke “experiences” more than products, stock up with limited-time offers, and project the image of a gated community. These sites sell travel plus a lot of other stuff. Are the deals for real, or is the whole system nothing but marketing hype? The answer is, “Yes.” You find some of each in this growing niche marketplace.
The Basic Idea
The basic private sale concept is simple: Travel providers (and other suppliers) with excess inventory use a number of backdoor outlets to sell off some of that excess at reduced prices without nominally and openly disturbing the official pricing schedule. Private sale sites are one of many such outlets; other suppliers turn to “opaque” sites Hotwire and Priceline or to some of the many “last-minute” options.
But, at least in travel, the private sale sites are somewhat different. As I look at them, I see several distinguishing characteristics:
- Their primary travel focus is on hotel and resort accommodations. I saw no airfare or rental car deals while I was studying the marketplace, and just one cruise offering, although some airlines and car rental companies may use them at other times.
- They tend to focus on upscale services, although you may find a few budget options, as well.
- Typically, at any given time, they offer far fewer hotels than the opaque or last-minute megasites.
- Many of the featured prices are “from” rates, with actual prices that vary from the base figures by day and date.
- Most “open to buy” listings appear for just a short time, such as a few days to a week or so. “Last minute” applies to the buying window. However, the travel period can extend many months.
Several require that you “register” and go through the whole tsimmes of entering a user name and password before you get to the good stuff. Two make a fuss that you have to apply for membership.
Private sale sites differ from other big-discount operations in degree, not fundamentals. According to Eric Sinoway, president of Axcess Luxury & Lifestyle, a marketing group that focuses on arranging partnerships and marketing deals, the private sites target high-end suppliers, many of them reluctant to use mass-market, last-minute, or opaque sites. They’re a way for luxury suppliers to discount without degrading their brands. They also offer a mechanism for suppliers with excess inventory to offer a short-term “flash sale” without a longer-term commitment to any discount outlet. And the requirement for consumers to “register” for “membership” creates the perception, if not the reality, of exclusivity.
In this, my initial look at private sale sites, I checked five of what appear to be the larger players. Three are worth serious consideration for anyone planning a trip.
Tablet Hotels seems to have by far the largest inventory of accommodations—several hundred, as far as I can tell. It really focuses on two different buying options: last minute and ongoing.
- Some of the last-minute deals are truly outstanding. Tablet had the Gild Hall in New York City “from” $129 per night, compared with $236 on Expedia, and the Shoreham at $159, compared with Expedia’s $329. Or the La Torretta Lake Resort near Houston starting at $99 per night, compared with Expedia’s $187 and $249 on the hotel’s website.
- But others were mediocre: The Fortyseven Hotel in Rome at €171, for example, (about $234) compared with $228 on Expedia and €180 list price from the hotel’s website.
- Overall, the ongoing listings I saw were generally underwhelming, including some that were actually above the hotels’ regular rates.
Tablet Hotels offers enough good deals that you could consider checking with this site when you’re planning a trip. Keep in mind, however, that some of its “deals” are actually not good deals at all: As the saying goes, “Trust but verify.”
JetSetter focuses on hotels, resorts, and rental “villas,” but with only a handful of listings at any one time. Still, when I checked, some of those prices were pretty good: $1,675 a night at the Frankfort Villa, Jamaica, compared with a list price of $2,360, and the Royal Hideaway Playacar, at Playa del Carmen, Mexico, at $400 per night, compared with an advertised rate of $612. Other featured hotels include the Bauer Il Palazzo, Venice, at $445, versus $627 on Expedia.
Each purchase window is typically open for no longer than a week. The site shows “previews” of upcoming sales. And although limited, the deals are good enough to warrant a look.
Kayak, one of the leading search sites, just inaugurated a private sale option. Kayak’s sales run for one week, starting at noon each Thursday (Eastern). When I checked in early March, Kayak had a total of just four deals, three of which were the same as offers on JetSetter. And, as with JetSetter, the deals are good enough to interest a few of you.
I checked two other sites, neither of which consistently offered a range of travel services:
- RueLaLa offered only one travel option during my research, but it was quite good: A Windstar Mediterranean cruise, at $2,100 per couple, more than half off Windstar’s own “sale” price. It was for one sailing, leaving in a few weeks, and the buy window for a nonrefundable purchase was open only two days. Other travel suppliers have used RueLaLa in the past—notably some hotels, resorts, and luggage outlets. For the most part, however, for RueLaLa, think “upscale QVC.” Most of the offerings are high-end style merchandise, with huge discounts from list prices, but still more expensive than similar goods lacking a big-name designer’s logo. Others are obvious overstock deals.
- With Groupon, think “online Entertainment books.” This site posts one coupon-based promotion per day for each of 49 big U.S. cities plus Toronto, Vancouver, and London (U.K.). None of the one-day deals I saw covered travel, but the site lists previous offers of “luxury bus” coupons for several western cities that promoted cheap tickets—in this case, the Los Angeles area to Las Vegas for $49. But that wasn’t much of a deal: You could get a ticket at the same price through the bus line’s website without the coupon hassle. Beyond that, the coupon offers tend to be similar to those in the Entertainment books: local restaurant, amusement, and spa venues trying to lure you in the door with twofers, dollars off, and similar promotions.
Private sale sites are certainly not the only places you find some really good deals on hotel accommodations. Hotwire and Priceline, the big opaque sites, can do at least as well and often better, especially in the budget and midprice ranges. But with the private sites you know the hotel before you buy, plus most also offer specific bed options as well as upgrades to rooms with superior views and to suites. As noted, you probably also find a different mix of hotels through the private sale sites, especially very short-term promotions from hotels that don’t want to make a longer-term commitment to an opaque site. And you may find occasional cruises.
As so often happens, new niche markets make your life more complicated, not easier, when you’re looking for your best travel deals.
- Tablet Hotels is the only one of the four sites with enough consistent hotel/resort inventory to view as a routine “place to check.” If you’ve already decided where and when you want to travel, you could easily find some good last-minute hotel/resort deals.
- JetSetter, Kayak, and RueLaLa, on the other hand, post too few listings at any given time to offer any reasonable chance of finding an accommodation where and when you want it. Instead, they’re places to check for deals good enough to entice you to take an unplanned quick trip.
- You can probably ignore Groupon without fear of losing out on any great travel deals, but you might find it useful for minor bargains in your home area or a big-city destination.
- Although travel options are limited, keep RueLaLa in mind for good buys on clothing and household items. I actually bought a pair of shoes for my wife while I was checking out the site.
Have you ever used a private sale site to make a purchase? Do you think you will look to these sites when making travel plans? 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 Hotwire.)