Winning Priceline Bids: a Name Your Price Hotel Tryout

Chinatown is one of San Francisco's top attractions.

Mark Kahler

Winning Priceline bids can be elusive and sometimes result in marginal savings. That fact inspired a 13-night "name your price hotel" experiment.

On the trip, I stayed in nine locations during those 13 nights. You can see a detailed breakdown by destination, or you can consider the broader picture of how the experiment played out.

 Priceline Basics

 For those unfamiliar with the Priceline "name your price" bidding methods, consider this very brief tutorial: bidders agree to put up a nightly room rate for unnamed hotels in a certain geographic zone and in a certain level of quality. The quality is measured in star ratings. A one- or two-star hotel offers few amenities beyond a bed and perhaps a breakfast option. Three-, four- and five-star properties are equipped with restaurants, recreational facilities and other luxuries that make a stay more comfortable and more expensive.

You'll only learn the actual name and address of your hotel if the offer is successful. At that moment, your purchase is charged to your credit card and becomes non-refundable. If your plans should change later, the odds of recouping your charge are slim to non-existent. Such are the pros and cons of Priceline.

Those who assume these risks and form sound bidding strategies are sometimes rewarded with nightly room rates that are deeply discounted over the standard (rack) rates. Some fall into common Priceline mistakes and lose money.

The Experiment

Many trips involve spending no more than a night or two in many different places. I took a combination business/vacation trip of this type, and sought winning Priceline bids for 13 of the 20 nights on the road in the western U.S.

The nightly destinations varied greatly in size and location. For example, some of the nights were in the middle of San Francisco, one of the world's best-known and cosmopolitan cities. Another night on the same trip was spent in Clinton, Okla., a small city that is far-removed from major metropolitan areas. 

The idea was to look at a snapshot of how bidding for travel unfolded in this variety of settings during the same two-week period.

The Results

 The total cost of those 13 nights, based on what was posted on each hotel's Web site at the time of my Priceline bid was $1,785 USD, for an average of $137/night.

I paid a total of $1,155, for an average nightly cost of about $89.

That's 35 percent savings, and a dollar savings of $630 ($48/night). This is money that was freed up to pay for other travel-related expenses such as parking, gasoline, entry fees, and more.

Significant savings were gained using Priceline. But it must also be said that some sacrifices were involved.

Remember that although I had a choice of zone in each city, I was not able to choose the exact location of my room. If I had driven into town and surveyed possible hotels, some of the places where I was booked would not have been my first choices. Some rooms were more convenient for visiting the location than others.

But in most cases, I wound up with a comfortable stay near the attraction of interest. In all purchases, I got a reasonably clean room in a safe location.

Priceline allows you to re-bid if your offer is rejected, but you must change your star-level or zone to do so. If you don't make one of those changes, you must wait 24 hours to try again.

Note that your results will vary from mine, perhaps by a wide margin. In fact, you could bid this very sequence of zones and star levels with much different results. The goal here is not to provide bidding help or prove that Priceline is good or bad for travelers. The intent is to show a typical trip, and the variations in savings each night. Some nights were definitely better values than others.

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