hotel roomHow much would you like to pay per night for a room at a four- or five-star hotel in Seattle? How about $77? Does that seem fair?

Rather hit the Big Apple? We found an $88-per-night bargain at the luxury Roosevelt Hotel.

How about Chicago? Is $84 for a room at the Palmer House Hilton in the Loop reasonable?

For several years, we have plugged away at and almost always secured rates for high-end hotel rooms far lower than those offered at competing websites.

How much can you save? For that stay in Seattle, where we booked a room at the snazzy Edgewater for $77, other sites—including the hotel’s own site—typically quoted $143 per night; for New York, almost all the other sites quoted $159; and for Chicago, other sites ranged from $101 to $139.

Price Quotes for Stays at Four- and Five-Star Hotels (Per Night)

Priceline Hotwire (without knowing specific hotel) Hotwire (booking specific hotel) Hotel’s website Hotel (via phone) Cheap Expedia Orbitz Travelocity
Boston–Hyatt Regency Boston $99 $115 No quote $135 $144-$169 $135 $135 $135 $135 $150
Chicago–The Palmer House Hilton $84 $101 $129 $129 $139 No quote $129 $129 $139 $129
Manhattan–The Roosevelt Hotel $88 $95 $159 $159 $159 No quote $159 $159 No quote No quote
Minneapolis–Radisson Plaza Hotel $98 $117 $188 $188 $188 $188 $188 $188 $188 $188
Orlando–Marriott Orlando World Center Resort $97 $119 No quote $194 $194 $174 $174 $174 $174 $174
Portland, Ore.–Hotel deLuxe $75 $101 $111 $139 $111 $112 $111 $111 $112 $111
Seattle–The Edgewater $77 $85 $143 $143 $143 $143 $143 $143 $143 $143

These deals aren’t flukes. We regularly shop for hotel rooms in dozens of major U.S. cities at different times of the year, and almost always get steeply discounted rates from Priceline—both several weeks in advance and the day before the trip.

Priceline gives users two options for searching for hotel rates (and airfares and car-rental rates). One option is similar to Expedia and other online-booking sites: You search an area for a hotel, and Priceline indicates availability and rates for the dates you’ve selected. This option’s per-night rates are generally about the same as those on the other online-booking sites.

Priceline’s “Name Your Own Price” option, however, is what we used to access extraordinarily low rates. With this option, you enter the city where you will be traveling and the dates for which you will need a hotel room. You then select a neighborhood within your destination city, the minimum star level of hotel, the price you wish to pay—and Priceline notifies you whether or not your offer was accepted.

One major difference between Priceline’s “Name Your Own Price” and its standard search option—and the search options on most other sites—is that you don’t choose specific hotels. If your price is accepted, you are automatically booked at the hotel Priceline picks for you—and your credit card is charged for the hotel room: no backing out. Also, “Name Your Own Price” doesn’t let you check rates for several hotels; if your price is accepted by any hotel that meets the conditions you set, that’s where you’re booked. Because you don’t get to choose, Priceline bidding works best if you bid only on four- or five-star hotels—so you can be reasonably sure of ending up at a nice place.

One obvious strategy would be to enter an extremely low rate—say, $20 per night—and if that price isn’t accepted keep raising your bid until it is accepted. But Priceline doesn’t allow this. If your bid is rejected, you’ll have to wait at least 24 hours to rebid at a higher price. And since Priceline tracks its users’ bids not only by credit card numbers but by the billing addresses associated with the credit cards, you can’t game the system by using different cards for each bid.

If Priceline rejects your bid, however, the site does allow you to rebid—under certain conditions. So long as you either expand your search to additional areas in the metropolitan area or add a lower category of hotels according to Priceline’s star-level rating system, you can rebid without waiting 24 hours. It’s this feature that allows you fairly quickly to exploit the site for the best deals.

Below, we take you step-by-step through the system we use. Be aware that it might be confusing to try to follow each step unless you’re at a computer following along on Priceline’s site. Also, don’t be scared off because our strategy involves 12 steps. Once you get the hang of Priceline’s “Name Your Own Price”, the process of submitting bids and then rebidding takes only a few minutes. Further, we find that we usually have to rebid only two or three times to obtain a great price from Priceline.

  1. Before turning to Priceline, get some idea of a baseline rate for hotels located in the area where you’re traveling. Check rates and availability on Expedia, Travelocity, etc., for four- and five-star hotel rooms for the city and dates of your trip. Don’t bother checking more than a few sites; you’ll probably find little price variation. Another useful resource is the travel Web forum, which lists rates reported as booked through Priceline.
  2. At Priceline’s website, click on “Hotels,” and then click on “Bid Now.” Enter your destination city and the dates when you will be staying.
  3. The site will now display a page showing Priceline’s geographic zones for that city. For example, Las Vegas has 15 geographic zones, including Las Vegas Strip Vicinity North, Las Vegas Strip Vicinity South, Near Las Vegas Strip East, Las Vegas Convention Center, Las Vegas Airport, etc.
  4. Select the first geographic zone listed and jot down whether or not that area contains any four- or five-star hotels, according to the options that appear under “Choose the star level for your hotel.” Then deselect the first zone, select the second zone, and note whether it has any four- or five-star hotels. Do this for every zone in your destination city.
  5. Choose the Priceline geographic zone where you would most like to stay. Note that in order for our strategy to work, your preferred zone has to contain Priceline four- or five-star hotel options. Deselect all other zones, select only your preferred zone, and in the hotel star-level section select four-star and/or five-star.
  6. Under the Name Your Own Price section of the Web page, enter $60 per night, about the lowest rate we find Priceline will accept for high-end hotel rooms. If you found per-night rates below $100 on Expedia, etc., consider bidding $50. On the other hand, if the lowest rate available from those sites for a four- or five-star hotel exceeded $300, bid more (say, $70) so that you don’t waste too much time. But we usually start with $60, and because we usually wind up with rates between $70 and $100, $60 seems reasonable.
  7. After you’ve entered your name, address, credit card information, etc., Priceline will inform you if your bid was accepted or rejected (ignore ominous warnings that your bid is likely too low to be accepted).
  8. If your bid is accepted, congratulations—you’ve booked a good hotel room at a substantial discount. If it’s rejected, Priceline will give you the opportunity to try again, so long as you add another geographic zone. This is the key to our strategy. Go ahead and select an additional zone, but add a zone that does not include any four- or five-star hotels (use your notes from Step 4). You can increase your bid by $5 and have Priceline check its rates again without the risk of winding up in an undesirable area (since the second zone has no four- or five-star hotels) and without waiting out Priceline’s 24-hour embargo on rebidding.
  9. If Priceline rejects your second bid, rebid by selecting your preferred zone and a different secondary zone that has no four- or five-star hotels. Up your bid by another $5, enter your billing information again, and let ’er rip.
  10. If your bid is again rejected, select your preferred zone plus a third geographic zone that has no four- or five-star hotels, increase your bid again, and resubmit it to Priceline.
  11. Still no success? Repeat until Priceline accepts your incrementally inflated offer. Each time you bid, request your preferred zone and different combinations of secondary zones. For example, if we label your preferred zone as Zone A, and label three additional zones that don’t have four- or five-star hotels as zones B, C, and D, your bid and rebid opportunities are A, AB, AC, AD, ABC, ABD, ACD, and ABCD.
  12. If you run out of combinations of secondary zones with no top-tier hotels to include in your bid, wait 24 hours and start the process all over, with a bid slightly higher than your final bid the day before.

The only other site that offers rates anywhere close to Priceline’s is Hotwire, which has a pricing option similar to Priceline’s. With Hotwire, you can either book stays at specific hotels, as you would on any other travel site, or search for a hotel room in a specific neighborhood with a certain star level and select any hotel that meets your search conditions. If you are willing to pay that rate and then book through Hotwire, you won’t find out which hotel you’ve chosen until you’ve paid.

In some scenarios, Priceline’s “Name Your Own Price” won’t generate lower rates than other sites. For events such as the Super Bowl, the NCAA Final Four, New Orleans’ Jazz Festival, and other spots during times when hotels are already—or expect to be—almost completely booked, you’re very unlikely to find a deal on Priceline. But it’s still worth a shot.

Booking through Priceline does have disadvantages.

First, when naming your own price you can’t specify the hotel where you’d like to stay. This may be a problem if you plan to attend a meeting or wedding taking place at the hotel, or need to stay within a few blocks of the meeting, specific tourist site, sports arena, etc.

Another drawback: You might disagree with Priceline’s hotel-rating system. For example, Priceline gives three or four stars to Crowne Plaza properties; in our experience, that often seems a bit generous. Since you can’t exclude specific hotels from the Priceline bidding process, you might get stuck in a hotel for which a four-star rating is a stretch.

You might also want to avoid booking with Priceline—and other booking sites that require prepayment—if there’s a reasonable chance that you’ll cancel your trip. On the other hand, if you secure a $75-per-night rate and have to cancel, you won’t be out much for short-time bookings.

One last drawback to using any booking site that requires prepayment is that you lose a great deal of leverage if things don’t go right. For example, if you’re assigned a room with a view of a parking garage instead of the ocean, or if the room is small or located in a noisy area of the hotel, you’ll have to count on the benevolence of hotel staff to make things right since you’ve already paid. Indeed, several subscribers who booked through Priceline have complained of being assigned small lower-floor rooms. On the other hand, we book a lot of hotel rooms for our staff and have encountered few of these types of issues. And when we have had problems with room assignments, hotel management has immediately complied with requests to move to better rooms.

A final caveat: Although these price-saving strategies can save you on rooms, you’ll still have to pay the regular rates for other services—such as $43 per night to park at the Hyatt Regency Boston. Similarly, check whether resort fees are included in the prices quoted at Priceline (they should be). And, unfortunately, Priceline has not yet built a Name Your Own Price component for in-hotel meals and minibar goodies.