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]

How to game Priceline to get the best deal on a hotel room

If you like to stay in nice hotels but hate paying full price for them, you’ve probably tried to bid for a room on Priceline at some point. But are you sure you got the lowest possible price? I’ve been using Priceline to bid on hotel rooms for years and I think I have the experience down to a science. Here’s how I use the site.

Map out a bidding strategy using free re-bids

If you’re familiar with Priceline, you know that if you’re opening bid is rejected, you need to alter either the star level, dates of travel, or geographic zones in order to bid again. Otherwise you have to wait a full 24 hours before submitting the same request, even if you’re willing to increase your bid.

A good way to circumvent this rule when bidding on hotel rooms in large cities is to determine what level of accommodation Priceline offers within each geographic zone. All you have to do is click each zone, one-by-one and see what star levels below gray out. For example, Atlanta has 21 zones. If you click into each, you’ll discover that only 6 of those zones have 4 star hotels; 3 other zones have nothing better than 3.5 star hotels; 7 zones max out at 3 stars; 3 offer only 2.5 or 2 star hotels, and 2 allow bids only on 2 star hotels.

So if you want to bid on a four star hotel in Buckhead, you actually have 15 free re-bids in the zones with no 4 star offerings, at no risk. If you’re willing to pay up to $90, for example, start out with a $45 low-ball offer, and then move up in $3 increments each time your bid is rejected, adding a “safe” zone each time.

Bid 1: 4 star, Buckhead- $45
Bid 2: 4 star, Buckhead, Druid Hills, $48
Bid 3: 4 star, Buckhead, Druid Hills, Forest Park, $51

And so on. If you strike out getting the 4 star hotel and are willing to move down to 3.5 stars, you start all over again, and, based on this example have 12 free re-bids on “safe” zones that have no 4 star or 3.5 star hotels. This can be time consuming, but I’ve gotten some incredible deals using this method, which has been explained on other sites as well, including the Westin Atlanta North at Perimeter Center for $55, the Hyatt Regency Philadelphia at Penn’s Landing for $45, and the Marriott Toronto Airport for $48, to name just a few.Do your homework

If you’re the kind of person who hates Priceline’s element of surprise- you never know exactly what hotel you’ll get until after you enter your credit card information- do some research on sites like Bidding for Travel and Better Bidding to find out what you might get. Bidders post successful and unsuccessful bids in the forums and the sites also features lists of reported hotels in the different zones in many cities around the world. Don’t assume that these lists are comprehensive- I’ve gotten hotels that aren’t on these lists, but they are useful to give you an idea of what you might get. A new site, Bidding Traveler, allows you to enter a low-ball bid and a final offer and then advises you on an optimal bidding strategy based upon recent accepted and rejected bids on Priceline.

Still nervous?

One other tool travelers might want to be aware of involves a glitch on the Priceline site I read about in a forum on fatwallet.com, regarding credit card security codes. Priceline requires bidders to enter their credit card information before they bid, but the glitch is that the system reportedly allows unsuccessful bids to go through with an incorrect security code. Only if your bid is accepted will it prompt you to correct your security code.

Practically, this glitch provides some good intel. For example, let’s say your $50 bid was rejected, but you try again at $70, with an additional zone or reduced stars, and the system prompts you to correct your security code. That means they want to accept your $70 bid. But perhaps you have some free re-bids and would rather try again at $60, knowing you can always come back to $70 and get your room.

After your bid is accepted

Some hotels practice a sort of informal discrimination against travelers who book via third party sites like Priceline, by giving them the least desirable rooms. In order to try to avoid this, call the hotel as soon as your bid is accepted. Express your room preference and give them your frequent guest number. Some chains won’t give you points on a Priceline stay, but some will, if not always for the room, then at least for other incidental charges you might accrue while staying at the property.

If you have any kind of status at that chain, they are a lot less likely to shaft you just because you booked on Priceline, and even if you haven’t signed up for that hotel’s frequent stay program before, it’s usually worth your time to do so before arrival, since those with no status tend to get last choice of rooms.

Using Priceline for rental cars and flights

I’ve also had some success using Priceline for rental cars, sometimes scoring rides for as little as $12 per day before taxes and fees. There is no free re-bid system but you can start at the luxury or premium level and work your way down to economy or compact. I’ve found that in practice, most rental companies will allow you to upgrade if you bid on a small car and decide you want something different, assuming they have the category of vehicle you want.

I’ve been less successful using Priceline to book flights. I’ve only tried it twice and both times I wasn’t happy with the itinerary I got. I used it to book a flight from Chicago to London and ended up with a long layover in Cincinnati. The second and last straw for me was a Chicago- New York flight that departed at 6 A.M. and had a long layover. For international flights, you can depart at any time midnight-midnight on your proposed date and for domestic, you’ll travel between 6 A.M. and 10 P.M. I’m a big fan of non-stop flights that leave well after the start of the Today show, so Priceline does’t really work for me on flights.

Priceline not for you?

If Priceline still seems a bit too risky for you, you might consider trying a new site called BackBid. The site allows travelers to post their existing reservation and then invites other hotels to try to beat it. I’m not very risk averse and I love Priceline, so I haven’t tried it yet. If you have, let us know how you made out in the comments section, and happy bidding.

Image via Flickr, Loren Javier.