Is Priceline Lowering Its Standards For 3-Star Hotels?

crappy hotelI’ve been a devoted user of Priceline’s “Name Your Own Price” bidding tool for years. In the past year, I’ve written columns here on how to game their bidding system, how to overcome their new bidding hurdles, and another piece about trying to decode their star system. I still love the bidding concept but after several negative experiences of late, I have a few words of cautionary advice on how to bid for hotel rooms.

Two years ago, Hotel Deals Revealed did an analysis comparing Hotwire to Priceline on how generous they are in assigning star levels to hotels and concluded that Priceline was more cautious in assigning stars (i.e., they weren’t overrating hotels). But based on several recent experiences bidding on three-star hotels in Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio and London, I think Priceline has lowered its standards for how they classify three-star quality hotels.While bidding on three-star hotels in the U.S. in the last three months, I’ve gotten Holiday Inn hotels on four consecutive occasions. Each hotel was adequate, sort of, but none was as clean or nice as what I’ve been accustomed to getting – Marriott, Hilton, Hyatt, Sheraton, etc. – for three-star bids on Priceline over the years.

Charlottesville, Virginia, is a good example of how Priceline’s ratings have changed over the years. I’ve gone to Charlottesville several times over the years and have used Priceline on multiple occasions. There are a number of good three-star hotels in town – Hampton Inn, Doubletree, two Courtyards, a Residence Inn and others. But Priceline now considers two Holiday Inn locations in town as three-star properties as well.

I’ve stayed in both and they simply aren’t as clean or nice as the hotels mentioned above. The furniture at the University location, for example, is dated and ill fitting – the office chairs in the room don’t level up with the desk, for example, and on a recent stay there were a host of dead bugs in the sliding glass door, which also had a broken handle.

But as mediocre as the Holiday Inn Charlottesville University is, it’s the Taj Mahal compared to the Avni Kensington, a supposedly three-star property I got from a recent bid on Priceline in London. (Priceline refers to this hotel by its old name, the Kensington Edwardian.) My first impression was of their bathroom in the common area. There were no hand towels next to the sinks – just rolls of toilet paper to dry your hands.

My room had three droopy old single beds plus a broken television and non-functioning Wi-Fi. (The Wi-Fi was later fixed; the TV was not.) Trip Advisor categorizes the hotel as a two-star property, which is about right. I made a complaint about the property to Priceline but they stated that the hotel was “unwilling” to issue a refund so I was out of luck. A Priceline spokesperson told me several weeks ago that the company uses a number of criteria in categorizing hotels, including some factors that travelers might not care much about – like if the place has a full-service restaurant, a pool and others.

But what I found most interesting about the experience is the fact that I was unable to review my hotel experience in London on the Priceline site. I asked the customer service rep how I could leave a review of this hotel on the site because they use the customer reviews as a basis for how they categorize the hotels, but she said I had to wait to see if I received an email inviting me to take the survey. I looked through my inbox and noted that I had received survey requests for all of my previous hotel stays (none of which had I issued complaints over) but I didn’t get one from this stay in London.

Priceline gives bidders guarantees that they’ll receive a hotel with positive feedback (it varies based upon the star level you are bidding on); so I can’t help but think that they flag customers who complain about a property not to receive the survey email.

What can you take away from my bidding experiences? The most import thing is to do your homework before you bid. Use Priceline’s normal search function and look at what they are offering at each star level. Then check the reviews of those hotels online and assume you’ll get the place that has the lowest reviews. If you can’t live with that, you need to bump up the star level you’re bidding on.

For example, if you are bidding in the north suburban area of Chicago, and you see that Priceline has a hotel they consider a three-star property but that it has horrible reviews, assume that if you bid three stars, you will get that hotel. If you can’t live with that, you need to bid 3.5, or find another way to book your room.

July 8, 2013 Update: A spokesperson for Priceline tells me that the company sent me a survey email on 6/22 inviting me to review the hotel I stayed at in London. I have double checked both of my email addresses and I never received it. Either way, there should be a way for customers to review the hotel they stay in, whether one gets their email inviting them to do so or not. And, after bidding on yet another 3 star hotel in Portsmouth, NH this week, and, once again, getting another Holiday Inn with so-so reviews, I stand by what is written above. 3 stars with Priceline used to mean Hyatt, Hilton, Marriott, Sheraton and so on. These days, it seems to be Holiday Inn and other brands in that tier.

Hotwire Launches TripWatcher.com, Offering Real-Time Price Information

trip watcher
Hotwire

Hotwire is promising to make travel searching even easier with the launch of their new real-time alert system, TripWatcher.com. The site offers up-to-the-moment price alerts for flights – even for unadvertised sales.

They aren’t the first to offer this service – Kayak offers a price tracker, as do several other sites, but as data shows that many travelers search multiple sites before booking, it’s an easy-to-use platform that lends another chance for a discount from a reputable name in travel. The technology has existed for some time, actually, but today marks the launch of TripWatcher into a spin-off site.

“We’ve all experienced it, we look and look for low fares and the day we decide to take a rest, we hear about a lower-priced ticket after it’s already gone. So a couple of years ago, Hotwire developed the Trip Watcher tool to alleviate some of the guess work from getting a great deal,” said Clem Bason, president of the Hotwire Group in a release. “Using the site, travelers can rest assured they will get up-to-the-minute alerts when prices drop on their ideal flights, giving us all a chance to get the best deal.”

A few things we like:

  • The simple-to-use interface, which allows for registration via Facebook or Twitter
  • The ability to be contacted the way you want to – via email, Facebook or Twitter
  • Planning capabilities for weekend, flexible or exact date trips
  • The ability to watch hotel and car rentals (coming soon)

What do you think about this new way to search for discount travel?

Fly Here, Stay There: Best Places To Score Air & Hotel Deals This Month

hawaii sunsetIf the start of the holiday season has you itching to get out of town, you’re in luck. Hotwire has tracked this month’s best deals, based on month-over-month and year-over-year cost analysis and found that many warm weather destinations are offering better than average deals. So where should you go?

Stay Here
Las Vegas tops the list for the fourth month in a row with a 10 percent drop and hotel prices for four-star accommodations from $85 and up. Convention business continues to be slow, but that’s good news for leisure travelers looking to hit the pools, shows and casinos at a fraction of what it typically costs. You’re in luck weather-wise too, with temperatures hovering in the upper 60s and low 70s in early December.

Knoxville and Milwaukee join the list as newcomers with eight and seven percent drops, respectively. In Milwaukee, hoteliers are concerned that this winter’s weather won’t be as mild as it was last year and are lowering rates to adjust. Hotels are reasonable too, at $82 and $86, respectively.

Palm Springs and Charleston – named the top destination in the world in the 2012 Condé Nast Traveler Readers Choice Awards – round out the list with six percent drops. Convention business is down in this Southern California resort town, leaving Palm Springs with rooms to spare, while hoteliers in Charleston are discounting to keep the momentum going from a busy October and early November.Fly There
Colorado Springs is a best bet for cheap airfare this month with an 18 percent drop and average fare of $258. Hawaii, however, continues to be a booming spot for great deals, where you’ll find great deal to a number of cities and islands, including Honolulu (16 percent drop), Lihue, (12 percent drop) and Kahului (11 percent drop) for an average fare of $452.

If you want to leave the country, you’ll also find great deals to Toronto, with an average fare of $358.

Drive Anywhere
Driving is particularly cheap in Cincinnati, Jersey City, Seattle, Detroit, and Miami Beach, where average per-day car rental prices all hover below $40, with many prices in under $30.

So we’d suggest booking a trip today. After all, you don’t want to be one of those travelers who leaves vacation days on the table … the average traveler leaves nine unused days each year, the site found.

[Image Credit: Buck Forrester]

Haven’t Booked Your Thanksgiving Travel Yet? Hotwire Says You’re Not Alone

trafficAccording to new data from Hotwire.com, 78% of Americans who plan to travel for Thanksgiving have not yet made their travel plans as of October 26. We’re hoping they’ve booked by now, but if you’re one of those crazy people waiting for the last minute to make your car rental, air reservation or hotel stay, we’ve got some tips to help you out.

The number of travelers who haven’t made reservations yet is actually less than last year (82%), but airfare and hotel prices have risen.

“Booking last minute travel can be risky during these busy times, but it’s not impossible to nab a deal. Procrastinating travelers are just going to have to be a bit savvier and more vigilant in order to score savings over the next few weeks,” says Clem Bason, president of the Hotwire Group, in a release.

Here are some of their tips (with our additions):

Book your plane tickets ASAP. Airlines started hiking fares up just after Halloween. This is not the time to wait for a deal. If you must search for a deal …

Consider flying into an alternate airport that can offer cheaper fares (try this for cars too!). Consider Oakland in place of San Francisco, Ft. Lauderdale in place of Miami, or Baltimore in place of Washington, D.C. Seek out lower-cost airlines or those that have recently expanded routes to an area, as they’re likely to have more flights in case you get kicked off or the flight is canceled due to weather.

Avoid traveling on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving and the Sunday after, as these are the most expensive days by far. You’re travelers. We think you know this already, but just in case you didn’t … there it is again.

When booking hotels, your smartphone can be the best place to find a great deal. Many hotels offer increasingly bigger discounts to fill their empty rooms the closer you get to your stay. Hotels are typically less full on Thanksgiving than on other holidays, so you may even get a great deal by waiting.

[Image Credit: epSos.de]

Find hotel deals with new booking site Guestmob

hotel deals guestmob collectionsThe Internet has brought us many ways to research and book hotels at prices much lower than the hotels’ published rate. Aggregate sites like Kayak and Orbitz give you the best available rate (BAR) without pre-payment on a specific hotel, while “opaque” sites like Priceline and Hotwire allow you to bid for a room below BAR but the actual property remains hidden until after you book and the purchase is non-refundable. Now a new booking site offers you hotel deals well below BAR while ensuring consumers flexibility and a standard of quality.

Guestmob differs from other hotel booking sites by combining high-tech algorithmic pricing and expertly curated properties hand-picked for their high user ratings. The site works by grouping hotels into collections of four to eight properties in a given category and neighborhood. You enter your travel dates and can immediately see a room rate of up to 50% below BAR for each hotel collection. The Thursday before you check in, the exact hotel is revealed but you are guaranteed one of the specific hotels in the collection. Best of all, unlike other opaque booking sites, you can cancel your reservation up to three days before check-in.hotel deals guestmob booking pagePreviously, some savvy travelers have tried to “game the system” with sites like Bidding for Travel, a forum that tries to guess winning bids and participating hotels on opaque sites by sharing successful bookings. Guestmob removes the need for this research by specifying hotels in each collection and immediately offering a deeply discounted price. While room upgrades, frequent guest points and other requests are still at the discretion of the hotel upon check-in, it’s still a great option for travelers with flexibility.

A Guestmob search for a hotel in Chicago on a weekend in mid-May yielded a price of $164 for a 3.5 star hotel on Magnificent Mile (such as a Courtyard or Embassy Suites), or $203 to bump up to a 4 star in the same area such as a W or Westin Hotel. The same properties ranged from $221 to $279 on other sites. Most Guestmob hotels are part of well-known chains such as Marriott or Starwood, or smaller chains like Kimpton and JDV.

Guestmob soft-launched last year in San Francisco and has now expanded to include New York, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Miami, Orlando, San Diego, San Jose, Seattle, Boston, Washington DC, Philadelphia, Minneapolis, Atlanta, Houston, Dallas, Portland and Phoenix. The site is well connected to social media so you can get help, learn news or give feedback on Facebook, Twitter and Google+. You can also chat with them right on the site if you have questions.