Find Great Hotel Deals with an Opaque Travel Site: How to Beat Hotwire and Priceline’s Buyer Blindfold

This photo shows a hotel room with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the mountains

Would you book a hotel deal if you saw a fantastic per-night price, but you didn’t know the property name?

In a nutshell, that’s the concept of opaque travel sites, such as Hotwire and Priceline. Big hotel companies use these sites to unload excess inventory (e.g., unbooked rooms) at really low prices. But because they don’t want to devalue their brand, the name of the hotel itself isn’t revealed until after you’ve booked – and even then, in a private message, emailed directly to you, the customer. (Unadvertised prices, the premise implies, keeps the deal rare – not to be taken for granted.)

Done right, it can be a win-win: Customers aren’t flying totally blind and they get great hotel deals; hotel properties get to remain anonymous (on a grand scale) with that super-low rate.

Sounds risky, you may be thinking. I need to know everything about the hotel in advance, even if the price does seem like a steal.

If you’re willing to do a little online sleuthing, I’m pleased to report that with new updates on both Hotwire and Priceline, you can often eliminate the guesswork considerably – and maybe even entirely. For two recent trips, I was able to use opaque booking sites, cross-referenced against travel review sites and the big online travel agencies’ neighborhood maps and product descriptions, to determine the exact hotel in advance – and I saved hundreds of dollars by doing so.

Let me show you how!

Getting Started

On Hotwire, go to the Hotels tab, and type in your destination and dates for your hotel stay. On the subsequent screen, narrow your properties by neighborhood. For example, for a recent search in Chicago, I limited my hotel options to the Magnificent Mile area.

On Priceline, start at the Hotels tab as well, also typing in your destination and dates. On the following screen, choose the Express Deals tab. Use the right-hand Refine My Results tool to filter your hotel listings further.

Start browsing the property listings. You’ll see lots of identifiers that you can use to help guide you in determining which hotels you’re actually seeing. The areas you’ll want to zero in on are star rating, user reviews, potential hotel brand names, non-sale price, and list of property amenities.

Cross Reference Your Hotels Across Sites

Keeping the Hotwire or Priceline tab open on your screen, open up two new tabs in your browser: one for TripAdvisor, one for your online travel agency of choice (Expedia, Orbitz, or Travelocity). Type in the exact same parameters and apply similar filters as you did in either Hotwire or Priceline.

Then, narrow down to the neighborhood you chose, and start cross-referencing the info you have from Hotwire to the listings on both the travel review and agency sites. You will want to do apples-to-apples comparisons across sites (hotels with free Internet to hotels with free Wi-Fi, five-star hotels with five-star hotels, etc.) to ensure you’re on the right track.

Across each subsequent hotel listing page, compare the details within the listings to see how well they match up. After checking across several categories, your search should start to narrow so you have a ballpark sense of a handful of properties (in a city, for example), or down to even just one or two hotels (in a more small town/rural area setting). Once you feel comfortable that you’ve got a good sense of which properties you could be booking, that’s when it’s time to make your reservation.

After you book, you’ll be routed to a confirmation page that tells you the name of your hotel. (You’ll also get an email reservation confirmation.) If you’ve matched your descriptions across properties during your side-by-side comparisons, chances are you’ll have narrowed down your chosen property accurately.

Tricks of the Trade

Note to travel deal hunters: This strategy is easier in smaller destinations (e.g., small towns, rural areas) that have fewer hotel properties to compare. If you’re going to a major city with hundreds of hotel properties, be sure to budget extra time to do your research.

In my case, I tend to give myself about an hour to do some digging – within that amount of time, you can typically narrow down your properties, as well as tell whether the opaque prices are really great, or not worth the extra sleuthing. This is also subjective to the traveler – you may find that your time spent researching may be more valuable than the dollars saved, given your search results.

But if you’re like me, you may find this hotel treasure hunt of sorts to be an interesting and fun way to find a travel bargain. If you don’t mind putting in some time, this can be a great strategy to save on hotels.

ImageAymaan Ahmed via Flickr Creative Commons

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