Travel sites that let you bid on flights, hotels, rental cars and vacation packages seem like a great value, and many times you can get the best deal that way. The rub is that you don’t know what you’re getting until you’ve paid for the transaction. I’ve had many people tell me they would never use Priceline or Hotwire to bid on a hotel room for fear that they would end up at a MotorLodge on the side of a highway. I’ve thrown caution to the wind a few times, and it has turned out great (like today, when I snagged a room at the Hilton in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor) and horribly – like when I ended up at a creepy HoJo in Tel Aviv. Here’s some tips on when to try and save some money (or try to upgrade your accommodations) by bidding online.
1: You know the city you’re visiting:
If it is your first-ever visit, it might not be the best time to bid on a hotel. There’s the possibility you’ll end up in an area that’s remote, dodgy or otherwise undesirable. Even if you pinpoint a certain region of town, it’s tough to say where your hotel might be until your bid is accepted. Lima, Peru is a perfect example. The city is enormous and frenetic – and even knowing that certain neighborhoods are considered central, or safe, or trendy –it was too much of a gamble to end up in a decent hotel at the end of a deserted street. I found a site called betterbidding.com that has a lot of tips on how to narrow down search results if you’re bidding on a hotel and not familiar with the city.
2. Star it up:
Perhaps the biggest mistake in online hotel bidding is accepting the 3 star (or, I’ll admit it, the 2 star) option and then ending up skeeved out by your abode. The range of what passes as 3 stars can be pretty broad. One forum on BetterBidding.com was dedicated to whether there was “star inflation” on travel sites. One user writes: “I personally “have a problem” with Hotwire’s hotel ratings because they seem over-generous. Most folks are, after-all, more familiar with the priceline system — which also seems to square better with common-sense (like if an ordinary Holiday Inn is a 3-star, what is a 2 star?).”
A good way to ensure that you’re not going to end up with hair in your shower is to try for as many stars possible — think 3.5 or even 4 to be really safe. If you have a chance to refine by amenities, do it. An iron in the room and free Wi-Fi speaks volumes.
3. Compare what’s available:
You’ll basically know which hotel you’re getting if you scour multiple online sites looking for what’s available. If you are setting your bid price, this will also give you a benchmark as to what to offer. Travel writer Mark Kahler writes “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.”
But the upside is this: At any given time, and in any given city, after refining search results by stars and location, you won’t find more than 10 to 15 available hotels. If you see the same hotels crop up on Google, Kayak, Expedia, Travelocity – chances are when you bid, you’re getting one of those. And that can help you decide if the gamble is worth it.