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.

How To Get Around Priceline’s Annoying New Bidding Hurdles

shatnerIf you’re accustomed to bidding for hotels, flights and rental cars on Priceline, you may have noticed that in recent months the bidding process has become more cumbersome and time consuming. When your bid is rejected, you need to change some element of your offer before bidding again – the dates, the geographic area, the vehicle class for car rentals or the star level for hotels – in order to bid again. Or you wait 24 hours to submit the same bid.

In the past, if your bid was rejected for say a full size SUV, you could try again for a mid-size SUV, and if you were rejected again, you could keep going right on down the line to full-size, standard, intermediate, compact, economy and so on (same concept for hotels but with stars and geographic zones). But recently Priceline appears to be making a concerted effort to prevent bidders from making more than a couple bids in quick succession.I’ve noticed that while bidding for cars and hotels recently that after my bid is rejected, the system will often try to sell me on an “exclusive offer” (none of which have ever been remotely tempting) or it will tell me I can bid again without changing any parameters at a higher price. For rental cars, the system now only allows one to bid twice before it fails to allow you change parameters and bid again.

For example, while bidding on a rental car for an upcoming trip to San Francisco, after having bids on two car categories rejected, the system gave me two choices: an “exclusive offer” of a mid-size car rental for a ridiculous $523 per week (double the lowest price I saw online) or a “limited time offer” of $26 per day, not including taxes and fees. I didn’t want either one, and there was no link to simply re-bid for a different type of car. But take a look in the upper right corner of your screen and there is a very small, almost hidden link that says, “Update itinerary.” All you have to do is click that, adjust your pick up or drop off time by 30 minutes and then you can bid again. (Don’t worry; the rental car company isn’t going to hold you to an exact arrival time.)

But in some cases, especially with hotels, that link isn’t even there, so you have to go back to the home page, re-enter all your information, adjust your bid and try again. This is extremely time consuming but it also beats the alternative. I use Priceline all the time and have found that whatever price the Priceline system allows you to rebid at isn’t usually the lowest price you can get. For example, if they allow you to rebid without changing any criteria for a car at say $20 a day, or a hotel zone at $100, you can probably get the car for $17-18, and the hotel for around $80, so it’s worth it to return to the home page and simply start from scratch, rather than following their prompts.

Remember, the more money you spend, the more they make, so Priceline has no incentive to get you the best price. For more on how to game Priceline’s system click here and for more on how Priceline sets their hotel star ratings click here.

[Photo credit: Loren Javier on Flickr]

Holiday Inn Or Hampton Inn? Trying To Decode Priceline’s Star Ratings System

william shatnerI’m a cheapskate and a risk taker, so Priceline’s “Name Your Own Price” bidding tool was made for me. Over the years, I’ve bid on and gotten three- and four-star hotels in cities all over North America and Europe for an average of about $75 per night and as little as $35 using the free-re bid system outlined here. I love the deals but for me, part of the fun is the serendipity of seeing William Shatner, the Priceline spokesperson, pointing at me on my computer screen, watching the page spin and then seeing it spit out a result. It’s a hell of a lot more fun than playing the slots but sometimes the Priceline gods give you a baffling selection.

Before I bid, I usually use the site Bidding for Travel to do a little research and develop a bidding strategy and I often use Priceline’s ordinary hotel search just to see what pops up and what the star level and geographic bidding zone is. For example, if I’m thinking of bidding on three-star hotels in downtown Cincinnati, I’ll look at their search results and take note of what three-star hotels there are downtown in the search results because, chances are, you’ll get one of those. And if you know how to bid, you’re likely to get the room for a lower price than what you see advertised in the search function.I’ve used Priceline for hotels and car rentals dozens of times over the years and have been satisfied with the results at least 90 percent of the time. But last week, I bid on hotel rooms in Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, at the beginning and end of a road trip and found the hotel classifications in both cities puzzling.

In the Steel City, I bid on a three-star hotel in the Pittsburgh South Side zone and got the Holiday Inn Express Pittsburgh-South Side. I was a little surprised because I’d previously gotten Holiday Inn and Holiday Inn Express hotels via Priceline only on two or 2 1/2-star bids, but never on a three-star bid. Also, there are four other HI Express hotels in the Pittsburgh area (not in that specific zone) that are rated 2 1/2-star hotels and one HI Express rated as a two-star hotel in Priceline’s hotel search function.

There are also seven Hampton Inn locations in Pittsburgh that come up in Priceline’s search. Five are rated as two-star hotels and three are rated 2 1/2-star properties. I found the HI Express we stayed at to be adequate but a notch below chains like Hampton Inn, Hilton Garden Inn, Marriott, Hyatt Place and so on.

Later that week, I bid on a three-star hotel in the Cincinnati North-Sharonville zone, after striking out at the four-star level, and got the Holiday Inn I-275 North (now is that a romantic sounding hotel or what?). Despite a lot of so-so reviews of this place on Trip Advisor, I thought it was decent, but again, not quite as nice as many of the Hilton, Marriott and Hyatt brands that I’ve often secured with three-star bids on Priceline. I have no beef with the HI brand but in general I think the quality of the mattresses and pillows and the décor at many HI and HI Express locations are a notch below some of the other major chains mentioned above.

In Cincinnati, Priceline rates four Hampton Inn’s at 2 1/2 stars and three at just two stars. And there is a Hilton Garden Inn and a Homewood Suites by Hilton both rated 2 1/2. In my opinion, these chains are typically ahead of Holiday Inn, not behind it.

Priceline also rates two Crowne Plaza’s north of the city as three-star hotels. Since Crowne Plaza is supposed to be Holiday Inn’s upscale brand, I’m not sure how they can rate nearby HI’s the same as Crowne Plazas. And perhaps most curiously, they rate the Holiday Inn Riverfront just 2 1/2 stars, despite the fact that it has significantly better customer reviews on Trip Advisor than the three-star I-275 location.

After my trip I contacted Priceline for an explanation of how they rate hotels and a spokesperson told me that they evaluate each property on an individual basis, so bidders can’t count on a chain always having the same star rating (i.e. all Holiday Inn’s being 2 1/2 or all Courtyards being three, etc.).

When I asked why a Holiday Inn would be rated higher than a Hampton Inn, for example, the spokesperson said that three-star properties might be more likely to have a full service restaurant and an on-site fitness center than a 2 1/2-star hotel. This didn’t explain my two bids, neither of which had full service restaurants, but he also said that the age of the property and its overall condition are factors. Additionally, Priceline says that they pay attention to the customer service surveys they send out and hotels can have their ratings changed depending on the feedback they get.

In fairness to Priceline, Hotel Deals Revealed did an analysis of their star ratings versus Hotwire’s and found that Priceline was significantly more conservative in assigning star ratings. And hey, if you bid two stars and get a Hampton Inn, that’s a pretty sweet deal, if you ask me.

What can bidders learn from my experience and from Priceline’s response to my inquiry?

1. Do your research. On these two occasions in Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, I didn’t have time to comb through the search function and look at the zones on Bidding for Travel, but this is the best way to preview what you might get.
2. Take their survey. It’s a good idea to complete their survey no matter what your experience is, but it’s particularly important if you have a disappointing stay. If enough customers complain about a property, they will reassign its rating.
3. Expect the worst. Imagine the worst-case scenario and assume that you’ll get the least desirable property. If you can’t deal with the hotel that you least prefer in that zone and star level, either move up a star level or don’t bid at all.
4. What amenities do you want? I rarely take meals at the hotel and if the place doesn’t have a good gym, that isn’t a deal breaker for me. I’m most interested in having a nice room with smart décor and a very comfortable bed with quality pillows and linen. It’s important to know what your priorities are and understand that Priceline takes factors into account that you may or may not care about. For example, if you are keen to stay in a hotel with a full service restaurant, it’s probably pretty risky for you to bid on hotels below the three-star level.

[Photo credit: Loren Javier on Flickr]

Which App Offers The Lowest Hotel Prices? Priceline, Tonight Or Hotel Tonight?

william shatner pricelineFinding a dirt-cheap hotel room – either at the last minute or well in advance – is an art, not a science, and I’m always looking for new tools to save money. For years, Priceline has been my go-to resource for cheap hotel rooms and rental cars because I have a system for gaming the site and it works beautifully for me.

Here’s a few examples of deals I’ve scored by bidding – not using the search function – on Priceline in the last few months.

  • Full-size rental car with Avis at LAX for a bid of $13 per day (with taxes and fees the total price came to $18.44 per day for a 9-day rental).
  • 4-star Westin Gaslamp Quarter Hotel in San Diego- $70 per night bid ($82 per night including tax and surcharges).
  • 4-star Hyatt Regency Chicago- $55 bid- ($67.66 all inclusive per night)
  • 3-star Courtyard by Marriott- Flint, MI- $50 bid ($63.25 all inclusive)
  • 3.5- star Galt House Hotel- Louisville, KY- $50 bid ($64.95 all inclusive)
  • 3-star Courtyard by Marriott, Fair Oaks, VA- $51 bid (63.94 total)

As you can see, I’ve gotten some killer deals on Priceline and I’m not really brand loyal, so I don’t mind the element of chance in bidding. But my biggest complaint with Priceline is that I sometimes get stuck with hotels that charge for Wi-Fi and have expensive parking. (If you’re looking for a list of hotels that offer free Wi-Fi click here.)

The Hyatt Regency in Chicago, for example, charges $52 per night to park, and a hotel I got on Priceline in Orange County in December charged $14 per computer per night for Wi-Fi, which works out to $28 per night for my wife and I. I almost never pay to park at the hotel I’m staying at and I’m adept at finding free parking just about anywhere, but it’s hard to get around paying for Wi-Fi, unless you can find another signal or if it’s free in the common areas.

I’ve tried other sites and apps with less than impressive results but on a recent last minute trip to Milwaukee, I decided to give two other apps, Booking.com’s Tonight and Hotel Tonight a go (the Jetsetter app doesn’t work in Milwaukee). Hotel Tonight had just four options for us, ranging from $50 at a Radisson outside the city to $189 for the ultra hip Iron Horse Hotel. But while the selection was lame, we did get a $25 credit for registering, so if we’d been up for staying at the Radisson in the suburbs, we could have snagged a hell of a good deal.

The Tonight app had almost the exact same results from a regular Priceline search (not their bidding tool) – the same hotels and the exact same prices (Hotwire, Expedia and others all tend to generate similar offers). All the downtown hotels we had our sights set on – Hilton, the Iron Horse, Residence Inn, Hilton Garden Inn and a few others were all at least $129.

So I went back to my old reliable method of bidding on Priceline, using the free rebid system, which relies on the fact that some bidding zones don’t have 4-, 3.5- or 3-star hotels. In Milwaukee, like most U.S. cities, there are several geographic bidding zones that have no 3- or 4-star hotels (you ascertain this by checking the boxes and seeing what star levels are grayed out), so I started the bidding at $35 for a 4-star hotel and after being rejected at $35 and trying again at $40, got a message stating that if I’d increase my offer to $55, I’d get my 4-star hotel.

I’ve gotten messages like these before but I never given in at this point because I figure there’s always room for an even cheaper price and usually there is. In this case, I got the 4-star Hilton City Center for a $45 bid ($59.07 total). This same hotel was on the Tonight app and in the Priceline search field at $129 not including taxes per night.



The hotel was beautiful and we even found free street parking right around the corner, which saved us $25. This is just one example, but I’ve found over and over again that there is really no substitute for bidding if you want a really low price. Some people can’t handle the element or risk or surprise, however you want to put it, but you can mitigate those risks by researching what you might get on sites like Bidding For Travel.

If you like the security of choosing your own hotel, Tonight or Hotel Tonight are worth exploring, but if you simply want the lowest rate, you are usually better off bidding.

[Photo credit: Loren Javier on Flickr]

Booking.com Launches Last Minute Hotel App

booking.com tonightCapitalizing on the success of apps like Hotel Tonight, Priceline Group’s Booking.com has launched a same-day booking product for iPhone and iPod touch.

The inherent advantage with this app is Booking.com’s much larger user base – over 200,000 hotels. While we’re longtime fans of Hotel Tonight, which allows us to find some of our favorite name-brand hotels at a lower cost, we’re well aware of the need for an app like this for nights when we just need a place to sleep – or when our other options aren’t quite yielding what we want.

A recent search for a hotel in our area near DC showed 94 options with same-night availability. Hotels were found at a minimum rate of $70 for the Budget Inn, Falls Church, and a high rate of $695 for the Mandarin Oriental DC.

We do like that the app really streamlines the mobile experience to those features users need. One tap on the app retrieves all the available hotels in the immediate area, including those special last-minute deals.

Booking is simple too – just two clicks and the room is yours. Achieving what it calls “from app to nap in five taps,” the app also takes care of the after-booking process by contacting the hotel, emailing you a reservation confirmation and showing a detailed map of how to get to your destination.

We’d call that pretty simple. Even better? The app is free in the iTunes store.