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Get a Room, Part I: Basics of Using Priceline to Bid on Hotel Rooms

Need a room for RWA’s upcoming national conference in New York City?

Daunted by the prices and complexity of finding the best deal in the right location?

Wish you could use Priceline to bid your way into a fabulous room, but afraid of ending up in New Jersey?

FEAR NOT! I’ve been using Priceline for years, and I’m here to walk you through it in this two-part series. Today we’ll tour the Basics of Bidding. Next week, look for an advanced course in maximizing your bids using free re-bid zones (don’t worry–it’ll all make sense eventually!).

PART I: THE BASICS OF BIDDING

What is Priceline?

Priceline is a website that allows you to bid on hotel rooms (and other travel). It’s daunting because you don’t know which exact hotel you’re bidding on when you place your bid. You are allowed to specify a quality level and narrow down to a zone within a greater region (you can bid on a 4-star in Times Square, for example), and Priceline guarantees you a room that will sleep two adults (if they’re willing to share a double bed), but beyond that, it’s a mystery. Right?

How can I know what hotel I’m bidding on?

It’s usually not a mystery. See, lots of us have gotten together to game the system. When I bid on a hotel room, I always have a good idea of which hotels I’m bidding on. There are lists that record which hotels have turned up successful bids in each zone, all across the world. Check out this forum for rundowns of every possible Priceline region.

Let’s look at my favorite New York City list. See how a big region — New York City — is further broken up into zones? Downtown Financial District, Midtown East, Midtown West, Time Square Theatre District, etc.? See how within each zone, hotels are further classified by quality as designated by star level? (Note that Priceline decides what star level each hotel is. The hotels’ own claims have little influence in the matter.)

Take a closer look at the Time Square Theatre District zone: Best NYC Priceline Hotel List

If you bid on a 5-star in the Times Square Theatre District zone, you’re bidding on The Chatwal. If you bid on a 3.5-star in the Times Square Theatre District zone, you’re bidding on the Hilton Garden Inn Times Square. (Caveat: I wouldn’t be surprised to see a different but similar hotel pop up in that particular zone/star level. Hotels come and go on Priceline, so while the moderators try to be up-to-date, I always take these lists with a grain of salt.)

Here’s another New York City Priceline hotel list. (This one makes you click through to the region (such as “New York City”) and from there, you can see the different zones offered.Alternate NYC Priceline Hotel List

This one also isn’t as updated as the one I presented first. It only shows 17 zones in New York City, whereas I know there are now 21. (Worth noting: it added a 17th zone while I was researching this, so someone is updating it, but not very quickly or accurately). But it also shows a few additional hotels in those zones, so while I know it’s not as current as my favorite list, I still cross-reference it when I’m doing my research.

So it’s not a complete crapshoot. You just have to decide which zone and star level you want.

How do I decide which zone and star level to bid on?

Sometimes it’s easy. You want an airport hotel, and you can’t stand anything less than a 4-star. Other times, you have more flexibility. Sure, you could map out every hotel listed on the region’s cheat sheet and check their amenities to be sure they’ll meet your needs. (I’ve done that. Deeply satisfying.) Or you could go to Priceline and look at their maps to see which areas each zone covers. Really, open up a Priceline window while you finish reading this post. You need to see how the site works.

OPEN THE MAP: Go to Priceline and click on a “For Deeper Discounts, Name Your Own Price” button. This window will open: Priceline Bidding WindowEnter the details for your trip. Click “Bid Now,” and don’t be afraid. You haven’t given them your credit card information yet — they can’t charge you without that!

FIND YOUR ZONE: The next page will show you a map with every “zone” in that region outlined. Priceline NYC Zone MapFor New York City, there are 21 zones outlined on the map — just as there were on my favorite hotel list, so we know my list is fairly current. Ignore the names of the zones — they’re often trying to mislead you. Which zone is closest to where you want to be? Which zone(s) would you be happy in? I can’t give you an answer here, but I often cross-reference theย hotel lists to figure out which region has hotels that will best suit me, and yes, I still sometimes map each hotel out to make sure there aren’t any outliers (there sometimes are). Assume nothing based on the zone’s name — just because you bid on an “airport zone,” for example, doesn’t mean you’ll get a hotel that has an airport shuttle. Trust the zone’s boundaries, not the name of the zone.

SEE THE STARS: Click on the zone you think you want and the star levels offered in that zone will be revealed below. The Times Square Theatre District (zone #18), for example, offers rooms in all quality levels. Priceline Star Level OptionsYou have lots of options there. But un-click that zone and click on Coney Island (zone #4). Coney Island Priceline Star LevelsSee how now only 1- and 2-stars are highlighted? Not every zone has a 5-star…or even a 3-star!

How much should I bid?

First, understand that there is no minimum bid, but you can only bid once every two hours (you can game the system to let you bid more often, but I’ll go into that in Part II. For now, assume one bid per two hours and you won’t screw anything up). How much you choose to bid depends on your target zone’s current availability and rack rates for your dates, as well as the prices that other bidders have been getting on rooms in that region. Generally, Priceline can get you up to 60% off a rack rate (which is the basic rate available to anyone via the hotel’s own reservation system), but that’s only if the hotel anticipates having excess rooms for those dates and makes them available via Priceline. Sometimes, for example, a convention will come through a zone and snap up all the rooms, making great deals less likely. But you have to start somewhere. I usually take myย hotel lists and go to each possible hotel’s site to see what their rack rates are for my dates. That gives me a sense for what I’m dealing with. Sometimes, there are no rooms available or they’re horribly expensive, so I consider dropping down a star level or moving my target zone to save money.

I like to bid in very small increments so that I don’t waste a penny. I often begin incredibly low, like at $30 for a 4-star. It’s absurd, and Priceline often gives me repeated warnings to raise my bid after I enter a bottom-basement value. See the red warning that pops up when I input a laughable $50 for a 5-star in the Times Square Theatre District? Priceline Bid Warning

“Based on recent data, your price has almost no chance of being accepted.” Whatever. I stick to my discount guns. I’ve gotten amazing deals just by being patient and cheap…and organized. (Spreadsheets will be revealed in Part II!)

Warning: hotels classified as “resorts” will add daily “resort fees” on top of your bid, and some other hotels will make you pay extra for parking and Wi-Fi. You’ll be warned by Priceline if you’re bidding in a resort hotel zone. Usually happens to me in Las Vegas, not NYC.

For #RWA15: How much should I bid on a room in Times Square in July?

Okay, you know the basics. Now let’s get our hands dirty. If you’re looking specifically at Times Square, it’s gonna be pricey. Availability is low. Prices are high. I haven’t started bidding yet (it’s still a little early — hotels often release rooms to Priceline late). I can tell you that for the RWA conference in in 2011, I needed a room the day before the conference began (as I do this year). I spent days bidding on a 3.5-star and ran all the way up to $155. I didn’t want to pay more than that, so I lowered my star level to 3 and tried again. I eventually won at a room $125 a night. It was for the Manhattan Hotel at Times Square, a great hotel with a rack rate that night of $263. RWA’s hotel was at least $200. Bidding on a 3-star in New York can be risky (small, old, decrepit), but I got lucky with a good hotel at a great price.

This year? Let’s look at prices for Tuesday, 7/21/15, for all of the Priceline hotels (as recorded on the hotel lists) in the Times Square Theatre District.

5 STARS:

  1. The Chatwal: $514 for a queen.

4.5 STARS:

  1. Intercontinental New York Times Square: $324 king or two doubles.
  2. W New York – Times Square: $349 queen (might be a double).
  3. The Premier Hotel Times Square: $347 advance purchase queen.

4 STARS:

  1. Crowne Plaza Times Square: $317 king.
  2. Doubletree Guest Suites: $512 king or queen suite.
  3. Hilton Times Square: No rooms available.
  4. Hotel Mela: $295 full, $303 queen.
  5. Hyatt Times Square: $349 king.
  6. Marriott New York Marquis: $427 king.
  7. Millennium Broadway: $235 king or queen.
  8. Night Hotel Theater District: $299 queen.
  9. Night Hotel Times Square: $309 queen
  10. The Muse: $370 king.
  11. Renaissance New York: $424 king or double.
  12. Row NYC: $322 full or queen.
  13. Westin Times Square: $449 double double.

3.5 STARS:

  1. Hilton Garden Inn Times Square: $314 advance purchase queen.

3 STARS:

  1. Best Western PLUS President Hotel At Times Square: No rooms available.
  2. Edison Hotel: $297 double or accessible queen.
  3. Manhattan at Times Square Hotel: No rooms available.
  4. Paramount Hotel: $220 twin, $229 full, and $246 queen.
  5. The Time Hotel: $255 advance purchase queen.
  6. Night Hotel Times Square: $309 queen.
  7. Tryp by Wyndham Times Square South: $297 advance purchase queen.

As you can see, the 4.5-stars aren’t necessarily priced higher than the 4-stars. The 3-stars are lower, generally, than the 3.5 and 4-stars, but not in all cases (at $235, the Millennium Broadway seems like a decent deal if you want a refundable rack rate, but I’ve seen it reported to go on Priceline for $145 or less).

In this zone, I’d start by bidding on a 4.5-star at $50 and go up to $150 or so, which is about as much as I want to pay for one night, and then work my way slowly down through the stars, probably maxing out at $150 at each level before proceeding to the next. I’d very much hope to have won a room before I had to drop down to the 3 stars. The Paramount offers the cheapest rack rate in the 3-star class, making it a likely “winner” in that star class, but their rooms are *tiny,* and I’d rather not stay there.

In fact, I’d take an Express Deal before I risked bidding on a 3-star.

What are Priceline’s Express Deals?

Priceline’s “Express Deals” are more like what Hotwire does — they show you the price for a hotel in a designated zone and star level, and tell you what amenities it offers and what it’s traveler rating is, but they don’t tell you exactly which hotel it is. Express Deals are offered via Priceline’s main page. In fact, since you always pay more for an Express Deal than you would by bidding on that same zone/star level combination, Priceline really wants you to take their Express Deals. Sometimes, it’s for the best, because of course, people have figured out which hotels match up with (many) Express Deals. (The same is true for Hotwire).

Go to Priceline and click on “Search Express Deals Now. Enter your travel details. For 7/21/15, the Times Square Theatre District is offering a 4.5-star for $161* a night. The little icons tell us that the hotel offers an on-site restaurant, fitness center, free internet, and a business center, and that guests have rated the hotel a 9/10.

Priceline Express Deal 4.5 starThe hotel lists I pointed you to earlier reveal these Express Deal hotels below the regular Priceline hotels. Scroll down to the bottom of each list or do a Control-F search for “Express Deals.” My least-favorite list actually reports more hotels as Express Deals in this zone/star rating. They show the following two hotels as possible Express Deals in this zone/star rating: Express Deal Hotel List NYC 4.5 starsThese amenities clue you into which hotels match up to which Express Deals. Recall that the $161 deal* offers “on-site restaurant, fitness center, free internet, and a business center.” It doesn’t say “pets allowed,” so it’s probably not the Intercontinental, but it does offer “free internet.” It’s a perfect amenities match for The Premier Hotel Times Square, which is lovely and has a rack rate of $220 that night for advance purchase. The conference hotel, the Marriott Marquis, is considered a 4-star by Priceline’s standards, which implies that The Premier would be even nicer…and $266 cheaper. But if this Express Deal is for The Premier, then it seems pretty likely that if you bid on a 4.5-star, The Premier will take an offer before $161. See? Because if they’re putting an Express Deal out there at $161, they’ll take something a little lower. I might anticipate getting into the Premier as low as $140, but I’m an optimist.

Over on Hotwire, they’re offering this*:Hotwire NYC 4.5 star offeringThis one’s trickier — it looks like a very solid deal, but my hotel lists don’t show a good match for amenities. I’d guess that it’s the Hyatt Times Square, which is $349 that night for a king, so that’d be an amazing deal…if it is the Hyatt. Even if it isn’t the Hyatt, it’s going to be a good hotel of a similar quality.

What should I do?

Try bidding. Figure out how much you’d like to spend, and go no higher. Start low and bid once per day on a high star level (given the price parity between star levels in this zone), increasing slowly ($5-$10) each day. When you hit your personal dollar limit, stop, and bid the next day on a lower star level — but remember to start again with your lowest price! Don’t hit $150 on a 4.5-star and then think you need to bid $155 on a 4-star the next day. Start by bidding no more than $50 on that 4-star, and go up from there, just as you did on the 4.5-stars.

Next Wednesday, I’ll post my guide to a method of bidding that gets you more bids per day — almost an unlimited number in regions like New York City. Makes things go faster, but it’s definitely not for the faint-hearted.

For now, start simply, and let me know how it goes! If anyone has a bid accepted or snaps up an Express Deal or Hotwire deal, LET ME KNOW what hotel you get!!!

*Well, great. It’s 10:33 PM on Wednesday and neither of these deals is showing up anymore. They were on Monday, when I wrote this post. Frankly, I’d hold off on bidding until I saw the Express Deals coming down in price, maybe watch it daily for two weeks and see what’s shaking. If they just go up, I’d probably panic and start bidding, but that’s me — I’m not a terribly cool cucumber when I know what I want. I think everyone else wants it, too. But the current deals just aren’t very good — $189 for a 4-star at Priceline doesn’t wet my whistle.

 

22 responses to “Get a Room, Part I: Basics of Using Priceline to Bid on Hotel Rooms”

  1. Interesting post, Jamie! I’m a nervous traveler, so I’ve never been brave enough to try Priceline. Maybe you mentioned it and I just missed it, but how far out can you start bidding and expect to get a decent discount?

    I tend to plan MONTHS, sometimes almost a year, in advance of a trip. I’m always worried I won’t be able to find a place at a decent rate if I wait. And I worry that if I go through a third party to book something, there won’t be an available room when I get there.

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    • Most hardcore Priceliners wait. I often see people criticized for bidding more than a month out from their travel dates. But I’m more like you — I am not happy unless everything is settled! So while I do follow a popular methodology, I don’t adhere to every guideline, and I still get great deals! It’s always worth a try, you know? If you HAVE the time, might as well give Priceline a chance at bat!

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  2. Wow! You are amazing! Do you play in the stock market too? I bet you could make a killing, Jamie!

    I never knew anything about this. You’ve opened up a whole new world for me : )

    Thank you for all the detailed info. I’d definitely need that to try this. And I’m going to for the next trip I have to take.

    : ) Heather

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    • My husband’s the gambler. Not me!

      I love Priceline, and they’ve made it a lot easier over the years. Until *very* recently, you could only make one bid per day. Now it’s one bid every two hours. I think a few years ago, it might have been one bid every TWO days!

      I’ve made my share of goofs, though. I accidentally won a room in Brooklyn for RWA11, but they let me cancel the win as long as I didn’t try again for Brooklyn via Priceline for that travel date. Also, they charged me $25. But lesson learned!

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  3. Tamara Hogan says:

    This is awesome, Jamie! My younger sister is the Priceline ninja in our family, and I’ll definitely be forwarding her this link.

    I tend to err on the side of expedience when it comes to things like booking hotels. My patience doesn’t last much beyond a quick web search and a phone call or two. Like Laurie, I want to nail the logistics down as early as possible, so I’ll trade money for time, and spend a little more simply to know it’s done.

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    • I’ve come to feel similarly as I’ve gotten older — I’d rather just take a taxi straight to the airport than spend an hour crammed in a group shuttle, for example.

      But Priceline is exciting! You save a bundle, and there’s a fun little buzz as you’re sitting there, waiting to see if your bid has been accepted. And then there’s that moment of “Oh! What did I get?” as you’re scrolling down to read the details of which hotel accepted your bid. Then you see the hotel name, and you’re either excited and fist-pumping, or you’re quickly reminding yourself of how much you just saved. And then you get to enter it all in your master spreadsheet, which obviously is an unparalleled joy.

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      • Tamara Hogan says:

        I have to admit – I look forward to seeing this master spreadsheet of yours! But I’m one of those people who doesn’t feel the auction buzz in the slightest. I even “Buy It Now” on eBay instead of bidding. ๐Ÿ˜‰

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  4. Awesome information, Jamie. My husband likes to use Priceline (and others) when we travel. I’m not entirely clueless, but wouldn’t have known what to do with a city as big as NYC. ๐Ÿ˜‰

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    • I’ve done it in London, too. Works really well, and saves so much money!!

      You’ll have to point your husband in the direction of my post next week, which covers advance bidding techniques intended to maximize your bids-per-day. Maybe he’s already doing it? He’d need a spreadsheet!

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  5. Amanda Brice says:

    This is an amazing post. Thanks so much, Jamie!

    I thought I was good at Priceline, but this takes it to a new level. Definitely bookmarking this for later!

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    • The hotel cheat-sheets are everything. Without them, you’re firing blind.

      But there’s ANOTHER level to this that I didn’t even touch upon — using careful permutations of free re-bid zones to maximize your bids-per-day. Stay tuned! This technique works really well in big cities like New York.

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  6. Amanda Brice says:

    My friend Mark tried to add a comment, but he kept getting timed out, so he left it on my Facebook instead. I’m adding it for him.
    ____________________________

    Important tip to bid multiple times in 1 day for a single zone/category.

    For cities with multiple zones like NYC, find the different star levels for each zone.

    Let’s say you want a 4-star in the Theater District and only that level and zone. Priceline only let’s you bid 1 time in each zone per star-level per day. You can bid again if you add a new star level or a new zone.

    You can safely bid multiple times in that zone if you add a zone that does not have a 4-star hotel.
    So, your strategy is as follows:
    1) Bid 4-star in Theater district
    2) Bid rejected
    3) Add Coney Island (no 4 star hotels so no risk of getting a hotel there)
    4) Bid again
    5) Bid rejected
    6) Add another zone that doesn’t have a 4 star or higher zone.
    7) Bid again
    8) Rinse and repeat as necessary

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    • Yes! This is the “free re-bid zones” strategy that I am going to detail next week. I have an easy spreadsheet that makes it a cinch to manage on a large scale. The trick is that you shouldn’t just keep adding zones — it’s better to start a fresh bid every second or third bid. But it’s also really hard to explain without the spreadsheet, so I’m going to wait so I can do it without confusing anyone. ๐Ÿ˜‰ I didn’t want to put even more stuff into this already overloaded post!

      I bet your friend already knows what I’m going to say next week, and was just trying to give us a taste of it. Also, tell him that it appears that Priceline now lets you bid once every two hours, or at least that’s what it told me last night when I was bidding. That doesn’t change much for me — I don’t want to spend all day bidding. But it’s useful info!

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  7. This is amazing. Seriously. I used Priceline ages ago but haven’t done the bidding thing in at least a decade. I just may do this for some hotel fare this year.

    Also, it’s great that people have already done much of that legwork of figuring out the zones and strategizing. I’m frequently amazed what Google turns up when I’m looking for new information.

    Trip Advisor has been really helpful to me. Their forums have “regulars” who post all kinds of insanely helpful travel tips just because they want to be nice. I ended up rebooking a trip last year after Trip Advisor users alerted me that the hotel I booked for my 10 year anniversary was still under construction with broken elevators and rooms that were not upgraded as the website had promised. This was a special trip and that would have been a huge disappointment

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    • Trip Advisor is GREAT! I love the user-uploaded photos especially. Thanks for mentioning that site — also, people often mention in their Trip Advisor reviews how they booked their hotel, and if they say “Priceline,” then that’s a clue as to what hotels are offered in that area.

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  8. […] first Priceline bidding tutorial gave you a couple of key cheats to master the system: how to tell which hotels you’re bidding […]

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  9. Anyone who read this tutorial might be interested in Part II, in which I detail the simple strategy for maximizing your bids. https://www.rubyslipperedsisterhood.com/get-a-room-part-ii-advanced-priceline-bidding-strategy/.

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