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Beat the bidding : Priceline bidding strategies for hotels

This summer I have a lot of travel planned. Between conferences, vacations and family get-togethers, we are looking at dropping a good chunk of change this year on travel. I have a goal of visiting at least eight National Parks this year, so even though most of our stays are going to be in campgrounds, we will spend quite a few nights at hotels too.  Figure a night for every 2-3 days of camping or a night to crash while driving to a park.

Whenever we don’t need a fancy hotel, my favorite way to get one for cheap is Priceline, esp. the “Name your own price” way.

Priceline hotel bidding disadvantages

Priceline is not for everyone. There are a few major negatives which makes it scary for a lot of people –

  • You are choosing the type of hotel, not a specific hotel. For example, if you want a microwave in the room or if you want to stay at a particular Ritz-Carlton, you should not bid on Priceline.
  • You can choose which part of the city you want to stay but can’t get more specific. If you want to stay right next to the stadium you want to attend the game at, bidding is not for you.
  • No refunds. No cancellations. No change. Period. If you end up with a hotel that you hate, sorry, tough luck, you are not getting any refund. Your plan changes? Not their problem.

Why do I still like it? Because Priceline really does have some killer deals that you cannot find anywhere else – IF you know exactly what your plans are, IF you are not particular about the hotel you stay in as long as it is in the area you want and the star rating that you like and IF you don’t have any special needs (like an extra bed or a microwave in the room).

How to beat the bidding to get good deals?

Getting a good deal in Priceline is an art that can only be mastered via experience. Yes, I speak from some painful experiences during my initial trials with Priceline. I swore off the bidding war altogether. When I had to travel every week without getting reimbursed for my stay though, out of desperation, I gave it a second chance. This time I did a lot of research, hours and hours in fact. Slowly I got the hang of it and now I have a process in place that I go through step by step. Caution : it is time consuming so don’t enter the bidding if you are not willing to trade your time for money.

There are two crucial steps to get a winning bid on the hotel –

  1. Before you bid, know how much to bid. This is the biggest mistake I made during my first trial with Priceline. If you don’t have this information, you will end up overpaying.
  2. Know how to rebid. Priceline has this annoying policy of letting you bid only once every 24 hrs for a specific configuration of the bid. For example, San Diego, CA has 17 zones (areas within the city), each zone will have 1-5 star hotels. So if you want to stay at a 5 star hotel during the Memorial Day weekend in the downtown area, you can bid once today with a specific price. If you want to increase the price, you have to either change the zones, star rating or the dates. Most of the time you don’t want to change the dates, you might not want to stay in a 1 star hotel if you are used to 5 star stays and you might not want to stay far away from your destination either. As you can see, you are pretty much stuck,  unless, you use the strategies for free rebidding (which, I will explain in detail in part 2 of this post).

You can get an even better deal by using the information from Hotwire (again, I will explain how it is done).

How much to bid for hotels on Priceline?

Priceline works by being opaque, which means you don’t know the exact hotel you will get and by extension you don’t know how much to bid. While Priceline and the hotels available on Priceline don’t want us to know how much to bid, there are three independent sites that provide a wealth of information on winning bids making it easier to make an educated guess. Before that, we have to figure when to start bidding.

Know when to bid

Hotels provide unsold rooms to Priceline which sells them for a fraction of the published rate by not letting the bidder choose or know the hotel name. Hotels use their past inventory movement (corporate hotels know that Thanksgiving will be a slow weekend for them) and current major bookings (like a wedding) to put the hotels on sale on Priceline. Most group reservations are not finalized 90 days in advance, so starting to bid 3 months before your planned travel date will give you plenty of time to start low and increase the bid.

There is the issue that 90 days might be too early for you to commit. Given the no refund, no cancellation policy with Priceline you will have to come up with a good compromise between rates and your plans.

I have found 2 months to be the ideal time to start bidding, if the stay is more than 3-4 days. I start with a low ball rate and increase $2-$5 with every bid. If it is a short stay, I usually don’t waste my time and just start my bidding 2 days or even the day before my stay.

Know how much to bid

At this point you should have your dates set, decided on the minimum star rating of the hotel and nailed the area of your visit down to the neighborhood. Armed with this information, you have to make use of 3 sites to come up with bidding strategies –

  1. Biddingfortravel.com
  2. Betterbidding.com
  3. Biddingtraveler.com

The first two are forums contributed by fellow bidders.  The sites are organized by State/City. People who have bid for a specific city/star rating/date share that information in the forums. Sometimes the information given is minimal – “I won Grand Hyatt Denver for $100/night, 6/12 – 6/14″. Other times, people share the entire bidding history – “Time of stay 7/2 – 7/5, bid 4 star $90 rejected, bid 3.5 star $95 rejected, won $100 Marriott San Diego Downtown”.

If your stay looks like this : Visiting San Diego, May 25, 2012 – May 27, 2012. Want to stay near SeaWorld and San Diego Zoo in at least a 3 star hotel, these are the steps you will go through to get the bidding price –

  1. Map the SeaWorld and San Diego Zoo to Priceline zones. In this case, it will be Zone #3 and #7. Priceline Hotel Bidding how much to bid
  2. Check out what hotels are normally available in your star rating in the chosen zone. For example, Betterbidding lists all the hotels and their star rating in specific neighborhood in their hotel list. And the Biddingfortravel San Diego hotel list provides similar information. Check both of them to avoid any surprises. Priceline classifies all “resorts” as 5 star places and several hotels that you might categorize as 3 stars might be rated 3.5 or higher. Priceline hotel bidding how much to bid 2
  3. Go to Biddingfortravel.com and Betterbidding.com, look up winning bids in San Diego.
  4. Narrow it down to dates that are close to yours.Priceline hotel bidding how much to bid 3
  5. Compile the numbers and come up with minimum and maximum bidding rates -

If you see a lot of winning bids from the same hotel, chances are that the hotel has a lot of unsold inventory. If you bid close to the winning rate, there is a high probability that you might get the same hotel. Looking at all the winning bids will give you an idea of what hotels you might get.

Hotel Zone Winning bid Rejected bids Date Notes
Double Tree Downtown 3 $100 $90, $95 05/23-05/29 Close to Zoo
Hyatt Regency Mission Bay 7 $89 $50, $60 05/26-05/29 Close to Sea World
…. …. …. …. …. ….

Now armed with this knowledge start your bid with a low ball offer if you have a lot of time, or start a little lower than the lowest winning bid based on the zone if you are tight for time.

Priceline tries to be “helpful” and offers its own suggestions on how much you should bid. Ignore this number and use the numbers you got from the two sites.

There is a new site which I have used only once, biddingtraveler.com. It uses information contributed by users as well, but the value of this site lies in the fact that they compile the information and provide you with a bidding strategy based on zones and your travel dates.  If that is not enough, Bidding Traveler has an autobid feature (which I did not use) that promises to automatically do the work for you if you enter a minimum and a maximum amount you are willing to bid. That would save a lot of time and get you a sweet deal!

If your bid is rejected and you want to retry for the same zone/star combination, you have to wait for 24 hrs, unless you use the free rebidding strategy which I’ll share in part 2 of this post.

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