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Crash course with a Priceline newbie

By Marnie Hunter, CNN
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Get Clark Howard's bidding tips
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Booking unidentified hotels can yield significant savings for flexible travelers
  • Find out what rates other bidders have scored by reading online forums
  • Research the best retail rates for hotels that are likely to be available to bidders
  • Be aware of occupancy restrictions and additional fees such as parking

(CNN) -- I'm really late to the Priceline party.

I just ventured into the world of blind bidding on nonrefundable hotel rooms for the first time this week, more than a dozen years after the granddaddy of the hidden-identity travel deal was born.

The idea of paying a decent sum for a room in an unidentified hotel is intimidating to this risk-averse bargain lover. But I'm learning to play the game. If you're the suspicious type, take note of these lessons from deal site veterans (and a newly minted bidder).

You're never alone on the Internet

Online forums address all things Priceline and Hotwire, the other big player in cutting rates for unnamed hotels. Sites like BiddingforTravel.com and BetterBidding.com offer strategies, winning bid amounts and name properties that have typically emerged from behind the deep-discount wall.

Both Priceline and Hotwire also offer details-disclosed prices, but I'm looking at discounts for those willing to skip some of the specifics for a better price (the name of the hotel and exact location is hidden until after you book and pay in this "opaque" pricing model).

They also offer the hidden-details option on rental cars and airfares, but I don't need either for an upcoming trip to Nashville. And shopping pros and travel experts say huge flight-time windows and possible connections make airline tickets bought this way pretty inconvenient for anyone but the most flexible, or desperate, traveler. Rental cars booked close to the time you need them can be a steal, though.

But a hotel deal is what I'm looking for, and I'm going opaque.

Hotwire's hidden-hotel rates are fixed, so you know what you're paying from the start. Priceline's trademark Name Your Own Price option is where bidding comes in. I studied the forums to prep for my debut and called BiddingforTravel's founder and some users to hear about scoring the most delicious deals.

Understanding the game

Sheryl Mexic has been running her forum, BiddingforTravel, since 1999, the year after Priceline launched. She reads all the posts on the site and responds to about 98% of them. She is strict about users doing their homework, reading frequently asked question posts and getting on Priceline and Hotwire to learn the ropes and read the fine print.

Users cannot rely solely on the information compiled in her forum, she cautions online. The travel sites may change offerings and how they rate and categorize them at any time.

For savvy bidders, Priceline offers the best deals around on U.S. hotels, Mexic said during a phone interview. "Priceline is a much better deal than Hotwire and the reason for that is because Priceline will accept a bid at their cost or higher and their profit comes from overbids," while Hotwire's profits are built into their set prices, she said.

For my trip to Nashville, I looked at 3.5- to 4-star hotels among Hotwire's hotel Hot Rates and came up with prices from about $110 to $140 downtown or near Vanderbilt University. That's more than I wanted to pay after looking at forum posts for similar hotels in those areas secured on Priceline for $80 or less.

A benefit of Hotwire is that hotel amenities are listed even when hotel names are not, so shoppers can see what extras the hotel offers. Customers also have a better chance of figuring out a hotel's identity before booking through web sleuthing or using tools like BidGoggles, a site that cross-references amenities with information from recent customers to try to identify the hotel.

The rules of the game

Companies that unload unsold inventory in opaque travel sales are hiding their identities to protect brand and rate integrity. In exchange for price breaks on retail rates, travelers agree to shop at least partially blindfolded. In terms of hotels, here are some of the wild cards:

Zones. You can pick your desired area, but you won't know the street address until after you pay. Some of the zones are fairly broad, so look closely at the maps provided. If you want a very specific location, you're probably better off using conventional booking.

Fees. Most typical taxes and fees are shown on a second screen before you're locked in, but those don't include extras like parking or resort fees charged by some high-end properties. You're responsible for paying any additional charges to the hotel separately.

Beds. Priceline only guarantees double occupancy, so you could end up with only a double or king bed. Many hotels will give guests two double beds if they're available, but others will play hardball and hit Priceline customers with an upcharge. Hotwire allows bidders to specify the number of guests (so no one will end up on the floor), but users aren't always able to specify bed configurations.

Tricks from the pros

For Priceline deals, take your cues from experienced bidders. Elizabeth Faria, a paralegal from Overland Park, Kansas, uses Priceline a couple of times a month, regularly posts on BiddingforTravel and other forums and makes bids for friends and family members.

She recently scored a room for a friend at an airport Hilton in St. Louis for $45 a night. The hotel's website listed the same night for $189, she said. Another bid resulted in a Residence Inn room for $50 a night near Florida's Fort Myers Beach. "It was absolutely awesome. We had a suite, free breakfast. It was great. We scored on that one," she said.

The trick to Priceline bidding, as any experienced bidder will tell you, is the "free re-bids." If a hotel bid is rejected on Priceline, shoppers either have to change the parameters of the bid (date, star level or zones) or wait 24 hours to bid again.

The best way to target one desired zone without waiting a day is to re-bid a higher amount adding zones that only offer hotels at lower star-ratings than you've selected. So if you want four stars, add areas that don't offer anything above 3.5-star hotels.

That way those zones are ruled out, but you've still modified your bid and can immediately re-bid. Check each zone's quality-level offerings first by selecting that zone by itself using Priceline's Name Your Own Price tool. (You kind of have to read the forums and try it for yourself to see how re-bidding works. Doing your reading is key, as Mexic will attest.)

The deal

I started with four-star hotels in Nashville, hoping to score a deal on a property above my pay grade. First I visited hotel websites and other hotel booking sites to get standard rates for properties the forums identified as Priceline four-star wins.

Retail rates on the hotels' websites for my dates ranged from about $140 to $250. Based on other winning bids, I decided to aim for $80. I found out most of the hotels would charge about $20 a day for parking, so I factored that cost into my goal.

I started at $60 and gradually added zones only offering hotels below four-stars, upping my bid by $4 each time a bid was rejected. By the time I hit $80, I was kind of hooked and ventured a notch above my limit (like a true gambler), with a bid of $85. Accepted.

Honestly, it was a letdown. I wanted to keep bidding. What would I have paid for a 3.5-star hotel? Or could I have booked the same room for only $82? And I wanted to test a Priceline counter-offer, when the site counters your bid. So if you bid $80, it might offer the room to you for $95.

Don't fall for that, Faria says. "You can always undercut that by at least half, I've discovered, and usually less than half."

No counter-offer for me this time. The bill for the Marriott near Vanderbilt was already on the screen. The deal was done, the credit card charged. Humph. It IS real money. Still, the best standard rate on Marriott's site was a summer promotion for $159 with breakfast and free Internet or an AAA deal for $135 with breakfast. I'm doubting Priceline buyers get those perks, but still, not bad for my first try.

Does the savings pay for the time I invested in the deal? Nope. But future deals will probably offset the crash course.