Priceline bidding in the "name your own price" category won't fit every travel situation. But there are times when it pays budget travel dividends.
When my favorite college basketball team was invited to play in a prestigious holiday tournament in Indianapolis, my order for game tickets went out immediately.
The game venue was the impressive Bankers Life Fieldhouse. It is downtown, as are a number of other attractions.
I decided not to stay in the suburbs, but neither did I want to pay $250 USD/night or more for a convenient room.
It's these situations for which Priceline is made. Low-ball the downtown hotels and steal away a room at half-price, right?
It would be far easier if you knew what bids have been successful for that particular zone and class of hotel in the recent past, but Priceline's policy does not allow such revelations.
The basis of Priceline's deal with vendors is anonymity.
But these days, the Web boasts a number of sites dedicated to passing along such information.
How It Works
Most of these sites are organized by state and city. Indianapolis is visited enough to have a track record, and I noticed entries from several Priceline winners who had snagged downtown rooms in three-star operations for (at that time) $50 USD/night.
When I placed that bid on Priceline, I got the standard warning that it was too low.
The advisory said something to the effect that Priceline really wanted me to be successful, so it would be wise to "increase your original offer price."
I didn't accept the advice.
Some 15 minutes later, I had a pre-paid reservation notification in my email box. With taxes, the total came to $60.37 USD.
A quick check of the hotel's reservation site got me a quote of $140+ for the same room at the same time.
Remember, this was one moment in time several years ago. Your results will vary, but the principles for finding a bargain remain unchanged.
What You Need to Know
Priceline takes your credit card number before bidding. If they find a service at the price you set, the transaction is billed to your account. No refunds.
You don't get a choice of flights, hotels, etc. It all hinges on where Priceline can match your bid.
Processing charges and taxes can add 20 percent to your total. Parking fees, energy fees, and other add-ons aren't included, either.
If your first bid is unsuccessful, you'll have to revise your amount and choose other variables on the next attempt. If you're unable to do so, you'll have to wait 24 hours to try again. If you think that's bad, consider that at one time years ago, the wait was 72 hours.
With hotels, all you get is a room. Examples: requests for non-smoking rooms or two beds will be considered, but the hotel is under no obligation to provide anything beyond a room with a bed.
Web sites that reveal vendors and successful bids provide their services free of charge, but they request as many details as possible in return: price, location, amenities, dates of travel, and other items helpful to future bidders for similar products.
BiddingForTravel.com is the best-established of the sites posting secret bids. They offer help with airfares, car rentals, hotels and vacation packages. There are literally thousands of posts, helpful FAQs, and a section for reporting glitches in the system.
BetterBidding.com is another site with lots indexed bidding histories. It offers Hotwire and Priceline information.
One of the first rules of good salesmanship is to never reveal your lowest price.
Those secrets are the basis of Priceline's success since its start in 1998. Swanky hotels don't want you to know they'll take your reservation at $50/night when they usually receive three times that amount.
So why would Priceline tolerate these Web sites that reveal such secrets? One reason might be the loads of exposure they provide.
In a free society, it's doubtful Priceline could prevent the sharing of such information if it wanted to do so. Clearly, it does not. With Priceline even paying commissions to such Web sites, it's clear they are encouraging these efforts.
Priceline continues to grow when many "dot.coms" are struggling or have ceased to exist.
So you can expect these bid-revealing sites to increase alongside Priceline. Use them wisely.
Start by checking the going rate through the sites of major airlines, hotels, car rental firms, etc. (Expedia and Travelocity are helpful for this research).
For hotels, survey a few four-star properties, then move down to some three-stars or even two-stars (nice rooms, no gift shop in the lobby).
Next, go to the bulletin boards to look at successful (and unsuccessful) bids, then act accordingly.
Realize that because someone got a given room/flight/car rental at a certain price last week, you are NOT guaranteed a similar result tomorrow.
Economic conditions change with holidays, travel seasons, world events, and other variables.
Be patient. If you have several months with which to work, don't be too quick to bid a high amount or lower the quality rating.
It's possible to pay half-price for a Manhattan hotel room using Priceline, but remember your results will vary. Sometimes, you'll beat that standard. Other times, you might scramble to earn a small discount. Exercise patience and savvy.