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I’m a huge fan of Priceline’s “name-your-own-price” system for booking hotels.  The challenge of choosing a competitive bid, the anticipation of scoring a great deal, the mystery of not knowing which hotel will accept my bid and the uncertainly of if and when the bid will be accepted all contribute to the rush I get from bidding on Priceline.

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I’ve been very pleased with the results to date.  On just two occasions I’ve abandoned bidding because I wasn’t able to obtain the price I was willing to pay.  That’s when it’s handy to rely on the cache of points in my favourite hotel loyalty program and redeem points for a hotel stay.

Experience with hotel bids

In February 2013, my bid of $60 was accepted for a four-star hotel in Halifax, Nova Scotia – at 38% of the advertised rate.  It was cheaper than a private room in a hostel around the corner and on par with the cost for two people to stay in a dorm at the same hostel.

In early September of 2012, there was a mix-up for the first night of my booking of an apartment in New York City.  This came to my attention just two days before leaving, so I made a relatively high first bid (for me) of $150 on a four-star hotel in Manhattan and it was accepted by The Waldorf-Astoria – at just 35% of the advertised price.  The Waldorf-Astoria – an iconic tourist attraction in and of itself!  I quickly applied for membership in the Hilton Honors Reward Program and as a result received a room upgrade at check-in.

In May 2012 I was meeting up with a former colleague who had a work assignment in Washington D.C.  She had a room reserved at the Washington Hilton at a rate of $199 per night.  As I wanted to arrive a few days earlier, I lodged a bid on a four-star hotel and coincidentally the Washington Hilton accepted an $80 bid… at 40% of the advertised price.

How it works

Essentially, a person selects a location, zone(s) within that location and star level category, and then lodges a bid.  Generally speaking, only one bid can be submitted in each 24-hour period unless the date, star level or zone(s) can be changed for a subsequent bid.  If so, multiple bids can be placed one after the other on the same day.  If a bid is accepted, the name of the hotel is revealed and the identified credit card is immediately charged.  There is an option to add additional night(s) at the same price and if available, the card is charged a second time.

Timing when to bid

I usually start bidding as soon as my travel plans are firmed up.  I work from the premise that hotels have occupancy projections based on a number of factors and have only so many rooms, if any, being offered at a heavily discounted rate.  I have often arrived at a fully booked hotel and assumed that had I left my bidding until the “last minute” the inventory of rooms with Priceline might have been non-existent or at a premium rate.

Study the zones and locations of desirable hotels

More often than not, my first choice is to bid on four-star hotels as they tend to be more centrally located in safe neighbourhoods and offer the best value.  In my experience, a “bad apple” is more likely to be found in two-star and possibly three-star categories.

I review the list of Priceline’s zones and the locations of the four-star hotels in relationship to those zones.  This is important because it gives me an idea of how many rebids I might be able to make within a 24-hour period.  For example, the four-star hotels in Halifax are located on the Halifax side of the harbour.  There are no four-star hotels in the other three Priceline zones – Dartmouth, Bedford-Bayer’s Lake and Halifax Airport.  So, if my initial bid for the Halifax zone is not accepted, I can usually get in a free rebid by adding Dartmouth and then another free rebid by adding Bedford-Bayer’s Lake (as opposed to waiting 24 hours before I am eligible to bid again).

Determining what to bid

As with other booking sites, it’s possible to book a specific hotel at a specific price at Priceline.  I check that section of the site for the list of hotels within each star level category to obtain information on Priceline’s rates.  I check Priceline’s “express deal” section for those prices as well.

I also visit the sites of three or four hotels I’m interested in and compare their prices with those of Priceline.  And lastly, I check Hotwire for their rates.  (Like Priceline’s name-your-own-price and express deals, the name of the hotel at Hotwire isn’t revealed until it is booked.)  The Hotwire price tells me the most I will have to pay for the dates I’ve chosen.  For example, my successful bid of $60 was for a four-star hotel in Halifax with an advertised price of $159.  Hotwire’s advertised rate of its lowest priced four-star hotel was $89.

If time is on my side, my opening bid is usually 30% to 35% of the lowest advertised rate of the hotels in my chosen category.  I don’t allow Priceline’s suggested median retail price to influence my bid.  If I receive a message indicating my bid has no chance of success, I may increase it if I don’t have several days or weeks before I need to have a confirmed booking.  I usually ignore the other type of message that my bid has little chance of success.

Subsequent bids

If my initial bid isn’t accepted, subsequent bids will usually be in $5 increments unless I have several weeks in which to bid or my booking is for several nights.

If I receive a Priceline counteroffer advising me that if I’m prepared to raise my bid by $15 I can immediately rebid, in my experience this tells me I’ll be successful with my next bid of just $5 more.

For each bid, I record the amount and time of my bid.  That way, I can return to the bidding process a little over 24 hours later to submit my next bid(s).

Contact the hotel

Once my bid is accepted, I contact the hotel if I have any requests associated with my reservation.  Although I’m paying a discounted price, I’ve never felt I was being treated differently from those guests paying premium rates.  I also make sure I have a loyalty membership for that particular hotel and always present it when I check in.  While it might not be advertised, complimentary Wi-Fi may be available to members and I occasionally ask if there are any complimentary room upgrades available.

Useful sites

A relatively new site, The Bidding Traveler lists recent successful and unsuccessful bids posted by readers and steers travellers in the direction of the hotel with the best chance of lodging a winning bid.  While the posted bids tend to be a few months old, it can be a helpful tool. On the other hand, iBidLow lists winning bids just a few days old and based on my experience bidding for a four-star hotel in Halifax in January 2014, the posted bid of $76 was very close to my winning bid of $75.   Also, iBidLow has excellent information – all anyone wanted to know and more about Priceline bidding.  BetterBidding (“Priceline and Hotwire Hotel Bidding and Advice”) is also a useful site with its reader forums and FAQs.

Bidding from overseas

There are several forums where travellers have shared their tips on navigating Priceline’s system that is built for US and Canadian contact information.  Priceline accepts credit cards from many countries, and communicates with account holders by email, so the key information needed to set up a Priceline account is a valid credit card and a valid email address.  However, the company requires a mailing address and telephone number but Priceline has never communicated with me using these avenues.  Unfortunately, the system is built to match US or Canadian details (state/province, zip/postal code and a 10-digit telephone number).  The most common suggestion for getting around this structure is to input the correct address as much as possible and adapt the rest, making the choices as close as possible to a valid address.  For example, a forum contributor from Western Australia chose WA (Washington) as her state, added an extra digit to her four-digit Australian postcode and massaged her telephone number into a ten-digit format.  iBidLow has done an excellent job of summarizing these suggestions.  Or, simply use a US or Canadian address of a family member or friend.

Bidding on Priceline may not be for everyone

As the name of the hotel isn’t revealed until the bid is accepted, there could be additional charges for parking, breakfast or Wi-Fi that might have been complimentary at another location.

Priceline has a strict policy when it comes to refunds and changes.  There are none.  Once “buy now” is activated, if the bid is accepted, the buyer’s credit card is charged and “use it or lose it” kicks in.

The stay is not eligible for frequent flyer miles or points towards the hotel’s loyalty program.  Still, it doesn’t hurt to present your card just in case.  It is also not eligible for upgrades, vouchers or other discounts but it doesn’t hurt to ask.  I have received room upgrades, complimentary in-room Wi-Fi and vouchers for discounts in a hotel’s restaurant.

While the taxes and fees are revealed before a person activates the “buy now” button, Priceline charges fees in addition to what would be paid if booking directly with the hotel.  For example, my $60 bid incurred $17.94 extra, which included the Nova Scotia Harmonized Sales Tax of 15% and the 2% city tax for a total of $10.20.  This left $7.74 charged by Priceline – and Priceline pocketed the difference between what I paid and the rate the hotel listed with Priceline.

Bidding may not be for every occasion

There have been a few occasions when I’ve bypassed Priceline in favour of more traditional approaches.  Sometimes, the price of uncertainty just isn’t worth it if I have a particular hotel or a particular set of amenities in mind.

For example, on a trip to Munich with two other women, we wanted a room with three beds – which might have been impossible to obtain at a Priceline-selected hotel, even with follow up contact.  On another trip, I chose to book a specific hotel offering a major bonus of frequent flyer points.  On yet another trip… to Québec City, I found a great deal on the amazing Château Frontenac.  I was confident I could have obtained a four-star hotel for $30 to $40 less for the night by bidding on Priceline (perhaps even the Château Frontenac) but the extra money for the security of choosing where I wanted to stay was worth it.

While it’s not perfect, Priceline bidding is an excellent tool for budget-savvy travellers.  Done right, there are some colossal bargains to be had.

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