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

Finding 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]

Tips For Gaming Hotel Websites To Get The Best Room Rates

Major hotel chains have sophisticated software that dictates room rates based upon expected occupancy, but with a little knowledge and a bit of effort you can ensure that you get the best deal. The key to getting the best possible price is understanding hotel demand and trying different search terms to see which combination of dates yield the lowest prices.

Depending on location and time of year, some hotels have dramatically higher occupancy on the weekend, while others that cater to business travelers are busier during the week. If you want to save money, schedule your trip accordingly.

For example, let’s say you’d like to spend a week dividing time between San Francisco and the nearby Sonoma County wine region. If you want to save a bundle on hotels, hit Sonoma during the week, when it’s nice and quiet and the room rates are low, and then on the weekend stay in a business class hotel in the suburbs of San Francisco or in Silicon Valley.In many destinations, you can find a good deal on hotels any night of the week, save Saturday nights and sometimes Fridays. You can either work around this, as outlined above, or manipulate your search terms to make sure you’re not paying the higher Saturday night rate for more than one night.

If you plan to stay more than one night at a chain hotel, particularly if part but not all of your stay includes a weekend night, definitely split apart your travel dates into one-night increments to see how the price changes. For example, if you search for a room on the website of the Hilton Inn at Penn in Philadelphia for a two-night stay, checking in this Saturday night, you’ll find a AAA rate of $260 per night. But if you split your search term to see the price for Saturday night and Sunday night, you’ll notice that while the Saturday rate is $260, the AAA rate for Sunday night plummets to just $134. The Hilton is quite content to charge you the higher rate for both nights but you’d be a fool to pay it.

This is not an isolated example. I did a quick search for other hotels this weekend and almost every hotel I checked out had a different rate for Saturday night versus Sunday night, but none offered the Sunday discount to the customer booking both nights together in one reservation on their sites. The Renaissance Marriott in Philadelphia offers a AAA rate of $279.95 for a two-night, Saturday, Sunday stay this weekend, but if you search just for Sunday night, you’ll notice the rate plummets to $180.45 – though you don’t get that rate unless you make two reservations.

The Hyatt Regency on the Magnificent Mile in Chicago has a Saturday night rate of $170 versus $116 on Sunday, but again their site doesn’t give you the lower Sunday rate unless you make two reservations. And the same goes for Chicago’s Westin River North, which has a $233 versus $118 split for this weekend.

The split can work the other way as well, especially in the suburbs. For example, the Hyatt House in Plymouth Meeting, outside Philadelphia is $18 more expensive on Sunday night compared to Saturday this weekend. And there are also occasions when the hotel offers a better rate for multiple night stays compared to a single night stay. Again, it all depends on expected occupancy.

This summer, Orbitz got a lot of bad press after admitting that it shows higher priced hotel options to those searching for rooms on a Mac, so many advocate double checking searches on a PC, if you can, but I tested various searches on my PC and my MAC and they all appeared to yield the same results.

The bottom line is that you always need to check and split apart your travel dates when searching for a multiple-night stay. If you can save money by making multiple reservations, go for it, and add a note in the comments section asking them to combine the reservations so you don’t have to move rooms.

Then remind them again when you check in. Or, to simplify matters, call the hotel directly, tell them what you discovered online and ask them to extend the lower rate for your entire stay. They might not do it, but it’s worth a try. Whatever you do, don’t throw away money by failing to explore all your options online before booking.

[Photo credit:Uggboy Ugggirl on Flickr]

Better Search, Blazing Fast, Tested

Travel search engines commonly claim to produce the lowest prices or best selection. Some say they have the most accurate reviews or are quick at what they do. When we received a press release from hotel-finder Room 77 claiming “blazing fast” results, we put them to the test.

On our 25.5 Mbps DSL line, it took just 3.5 seconds for Room 77 to deliver 573 results for an overnight stay in a hotel in Miami later this month. That did seem fast so we compared it to a couple other hotel-finding sites. Hotels.com brought 437 in 3.6 seconds and Kayak returned 354 in 3.8 seconds – about the same speed-wise. But in addition to more results, Room77 delivered lower prices and included hostels in the search.

“Room 77 searches other sites for you and compares the prices right in the search results,” Kevin Fliess, Room 77’s general manager and VP of product development told Gadling. He added, “In addition to a fast and comprehensive search, we also allow travelers to earn loyalty points or pay at the hotel.”

Going a step further, Room 77 has their Room Concierge, a free service when booking a 4-star or above hotel that helps travelers identify a hotel room matching their preferences. Buyers specify what type of room attribute is most important – size, noise level or view – and Room Concierge staff goes to work finding just that room for buyers.

On Room 77 and other travel-related sites, it’s all about providing detailed, intuitive results that match what buyers want: a search process that is quick and easy.

Another site that delivers rich content fast in a very “we’re not wasting your time” sort of way is a new feature from Nerd Wallet that searches and compares airline fees.

Nerd Wallet, best known for finding and comparing credit card offers, says they “scour the financial universe to bring you any and every bank and credit union we can find, along with our own unbiased take on what various rewards programs or deposit accounts are actually worth,” on their website.

Now, Nerd Wallet’s Search and Compare Airline Fee finder, gathers information for pretty much all domestic airlines quickly and efficiently. Users can compare, say, the baggage fees of all airlines or find out all the details about one airline in a speedy and easy search.

The results at Nerd Wallet also are intuitive and consistent with predictions made earlier this year; new technologies may create changes for our future travel planning methods.

“Today, we stand at the forefront of a technological evolution in travel that we refer to as Online Travel 3.0, which recognizes the power shift from suppliers to retailers and to end consumers,” Stephane Durand, Director, Online & Leisure at Amadeus, a major provider of advanced technology solutions for the global travel and tourism industry told Gadling earlier this year.

That was just back in February when Gadling covered how travel search was becoming more personal, focused and nosy.

Then, we told of a global study that identified the online shopping behavior and future motivations of trend-setting travelers: micro-targeting information to specific consumers offering products that are actually relevant for the buyer.

Today, sites like Room 77 and Nerd Wallet’s Airline Fee Finder are delivering on that promise.

Up next, look for sites that learn from our online behavior over time and become interconnected, sharing information about us among each other.

[Flickr photo via Viernest]