Today's Best Deals:

Today's Best Deals and Cheats:
1. AirBnB offers one night free until January 17 for travel through March 31 (value up to $300)
2. 10%-30% off HomeAway rentals across the country, like here in Wisconsin; here and here in Seattle; here, here, and here in Colorado; and here and here in Maui.
3. Enter in your three digit credit card code incorrectly to know Priceline's winning bid without being charged.
4. Check out betterbidding and their calendar of wins to see what other Priceline and Hotwire winners paid for their hotels.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Using Priceline Express Booking to Book a *Specific Hotel*

A friend wants to come to our wedding in Maui. They've booked the Hyatt Regency at full price. Choosing the least expensive room gives me this rate for their dates on Priceline:

Under Express Deals, I can see what hotels are offering a good rate for these dates too. Because these rates are low, the hotels do not display their name, but with a little investigation, one can figure it out. These friends don't want any hotel. They want the Hyatt. 

First of all, I select the region - Lahaina/Kaanapali - and the star level - four - to easily eliminate other hotels. I am luckily only left with one hotel: 

To find out which hotel this might be, I need to note a few key hits: the guest rating is 8+ (so it is probably under 9); the hotel has a pool, fitness center, free internet, and business center; the hotel is dog-friendly. These are enough details to successfully figure out what hotel, but I could also note that the hotel is at least 32% more expensive under Priceline's normal booking conditions for these dates. 

So back to "List View" to find out which hotel is on offer… I select dog-friendly four star hotels in Kaanapali or Lahaina with a pool, fitness center, free-internet, and business center. Lucky me, just one hotel remains! 

So, I go back to "Express Booking"to see the total cost of my unnamed hotel (The Hyatt!). Looks like my friend will pay $1409.15 instead of $1959.05, saving $550 dollars, or over $100 night. 

But a few things to keep in mind: 
1. You cannot cancel your hotel. 
2. You cannot select "ocean view" or make other special requests. You may be lucky but since you have a cheap rate you also may get a lower-level room with a worse view. 
3. It is cheaper to bid on a hotel through Priceline, but it is a little more stressful and uncertain. 

Friday, January 17, 2014

Steal the Hotel: Priceline Cheats

So you're ready to dominate the Priceline Negotiator...

Learning this cheat is going to require some serious patience in the pursuit of money saved. If you're budget-conscious AND your time is pricey, stick to Hotwire or Priceline's new "Express Deals." 

Otherwise, here we go...

Learning Priceline's bidding system is complex at first, but easy when you get the hang of it... 

The system in a nutshell: Hotels have extra rooms. They want to sell them, but they don't want customers willing to pay more to see their rock-bottom rates. So Priceline hides the hotels' names. You bid on a star-rating and an area. If you win, you get the room. You can't change your mind because you pay as soon as you win.

Pros for bidding: (1) save $$$ (sometimes 65% or more), (2) beat the system.
Cons: (1) complicated, (2) can't cancel, (3) can't know exact location, (4) sometimes you get a hotel that is older and really should be a half star-level lower or it has poor ratings (hence: they can't sell the room easily).

Here are some real-world wins I've had:
-$46 for the three-star Hilton Garden Inn in Arlington, VA (usually $150+/night)
-$50 for Hyatt Regency in downtown Chicago (usually $150+/night)
-$99 for the four-star B Ocean Front For Lauderdale (usually $300+/night)

Ready to play the game? Here's how: 

1. Set a price limit; know the market. Use kayak to find the cheapest hotel at the lowest star-level you'd accept:

$75 total and 3 stars are the things to beat. In thirty seconds, I know I'd pay $65 for a 3.5 star or up to $75 for a 4 star. 

2. But wait! Hotwire and Priceline's Express Deals might be the way to go (when you buy this way, you know the price and approximate location but not the hotel and you can't cancel). Check these prices out before bidding (add $12-$14/night for taxes and fees):

Express Deals beats my Kayak rate: 3-star for $64, a 3.5-star for $65, and a 4-star for $70. All good deals, you could stop now. But you said you wanted to beat the system. So keep on trucking...

Here's Hotwire's similar deals (add $12-$16 for taxes/fees):

These are the best yet! Keep in mind, they're the same hotels probably as on Kayak and Express Deals, but at better rates. That 4-star is $2 cheaper after taxes. The 3-star is $7 less after taxes.

Because it offers the best prices here, I'll use Hotwire to set my bidding limits: $50 for a 3 star, $60 for a 3.5 star, and $65 for a 4 star. These are after taxes. Really, in pre-tax bids, I'm talking $38 for a 3-star, $47 for a 3.5 star, and $52 for 4-stars.

Let's keep on the mission...

3. The Priceline game is one of permutations and combinations and factorials... or something...

...But you don't need to know any of that. Go to Priceline. Click on the hotel tab. Click on "Name Your Own Price." Enter your information. Start with your IDEAL star-level not your lowest. And your ONE favorite area. Don't click multiple areas to begin with.

(We already know what the secret "Best Deal" is because we've looked at the Express Deals. Hiding there is probably that 4-star for $57 ($70 after taxes).)

 Maybe we're feeling nervous, so we check to see what hotel might be lurking on BetterBidding's calendar of wins, a site where other Priceline users list their wins to help us make a better educated guess:


Someone else won a 4-star in River North; looks like we're bidding on the Allerton Hotel. (We won't go into how that poor sucker overpaid because he bought way too far in advance...) Lets read about his experience by clicking on the link:

Wait! We don't want to stay at the Allerton with its tiny rooms! We want to spread out.

 A quick check of TripAdvisor confirms this. So, to avoid getting this deal (though it is still a really good one), we will actively not bid on "North Michigan Ave - River North" because if we do, we will get this less-than-ideal hotel. Go big or go home. Checking back to our "Express Deals" though, there was a 4-star for Millenium Park that was a guest favorite and had a rating of 9.0. We want to get that.

Key Idea Alert! You can only bid once a day on any particular combination of star-rating and location. That way, Priceline hopes you'll put down your top bid first so you don't have to wait 24-hours to bid again. However, by including areas that don't have your designated star-rating, you can get free bids. Notice how I have selected five areas and the 4-star button is shaded, i.e. not available. These areas, I can add one by one as I slowly increase my bid and still I am only bidding on a 4-star in Millenium Park.

What number should I start at? I have lots of chances, so I want my first bid to be rejected. If I'm going to put in all of this effort, I like to get the best deal possible. So I start at that sweet spot where the red warning changes from "Based on recent data, your offer has almost no chance of being accepted" to "Based on recent data, your offer has only a small chance of being accepted."

In this case, that's $40 ($49 after taxes). Skip the page where they warn you that you should bid higher; you aren't fooled by these tactics!

Because if you don't win, you can just add a location with no 4-star hotels... And keep on bidding in one or two dollar increments...

Math question: You can do any combination of Millenium Park with one, two, three, four, or five of the above areas. How many chances do you have?... I think 31?

In one dollar increments, you can go from $40 to $71! Remember your top limit though: $65 after taxes. That means you can bid up to $53. With so many chances, you will find their rock-bottom price.

But... if the 4-star isn't available at your price limit, start all over at 3.5 stars (and remember to bring your price back down to the lowest amount possible). Don't forget your 3.5 star price limit.

And if that doesn't work... you can start all over at 3 stars too. But keep to the 3-star limit you set.

Bored of the game? Not lucking out?

You can always just bid on the Hotel Allerton with its small rooms at the super low price you know is waiting for you (my guess? $48 or $60 after taxes) or you can go back and book through Hotwire, too.

Got it?


(And for the real cheats: I don't recommend this, but if you enter your three digit credit card code wrong, you will be asked to re-enter it only if your bid is accepted. Then, you can cancel or continue. That's one way to know the price without actually buying the hotel room. This could change though, so I don't use the tactic.)

Key Ideas:

1. Know the market on Kayak.

2. Know the market on Hotwire and Priceline's Express Bids.

3. Set your prices for star limits below market value. Don't forget to factor in the heavy taxes.

4. Start bidding at rock-bottom because you have more chances than you think. Always start at a number which prompts you have no chance or a very small chance.

5. Never take their counter-offers.

6. Check Better Bidding's Calendar of Wins for a history of successful prices.

***7. When bidding, use areas that don't offer your star limit to increase your number of chances.

8. Unless you're bored of bidding or in a hurry, don't raise your price by more than a dollar or maybe two.

9. Don't use Priceline when you might need to cancel, need to know your location specifically, don't have the time to bid, or would be mad if you got a hotel that has lower ratings for its star category.

Happy Bidding! Share any experiences you've had with bidding on Priceline hotels below. 

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Steal the Car: Priceline Cheats

Bidding on Priceline for a hotel is for very patient travelers. Booking a car is fast and easy; however, your plans should be set in stone.

Websites to know:

-Kayak is a conglomerate search engine, good for finding flights, car rentals, and hotels. Kayak usually directs you to the company's website to book, so you always know which company you are using and you usually have easier cancellation options.
-Hotwire is a search engine for cars, flights, and hotels. You do not know what company you are booking with until after you book, so the deals are a bit better than on Kayak. You can't cancel. I don't find the money you save on Hotwire enough to compensate for the inability to cancel plans.
-Priceline offers the same services as Kayak and Hotwire as well as a third service: you can bid on flights, cars, and hotels in order to get the lowest price of all. You need to know the system to get the lowest deal, though. You can't cancel but the prices are often so good that this is a fine trade-off.

Getting a Car Deal:

Always know the cheapest deal out there already. Lets take a real-world example: I'm going to Seattle for three days. On Kayak, I run a search and find an Alamo rental car for $57 total:

While I'm there, I click on the sponsored Hotwire link to see their best offer too. In this case, they don't have anything better than $57 to offer.

Looks like my original car deal is very good and I might want that ability to cancel, so I would probably book the Kayak deal. But maybe I'm on my way to the airport right now, and I know I won't cancel. I'm sitting on the train with a few extra minutes...

Let's see how Priceline pans out. Bidding on Priceline will take 10 minutes and my time is worth $50/hour, so Priceline only needs to save me $8 here (maybe more if I value the ability to cancel).

I go to Priceline, click on the "cars" tab, and then click on "name your own price." I fill in my information and put in whatever number as my bid ($5). On the next page, I can refine that number. I'd suggest choosing "compact" for best deals ("economy" is the same).

Now, I fill in the bidding box with a number so low that a message pops up: "Based on recent data, your price has almost no chance of being accepted." They're lying! I usually win with a price they claim has no chance. I keep filling in numbers until I've entered the highest, or next to highest, number that gets this message. I want to go as low as I can without wasting bids. I only get one bid a day per car type.

In this case, $4 is the sweet spot before I go too high and that message disappears. Ignore the next page when they ask you to up your bid. We're too smart for those tactics. After crazy taxes and fees, the total amount comes to $44.80, saving me about $13 and making this effort worth it. I follow the directions (credit card and all) to see if my bid is accepted. I'd guess it is; however, if it is not, I have a second chance to bid on the same car under a different name -- an "economy" car -- for $5 or $48.90 (saving $9). Do not take any of their counter-offers, though. Those are always a bad idea. ("Your rate of $4 wasn't accepted; would you like to bid $8?") Don't do it!

Now, let's say I really want a nicer or bigger car. I'd underbid on the compact and economy cars, maybe in this case offering $3 and $4 respectively; now, that's probably not accepted (though it might be). I've saved my higher bids for those fancier cars. Mid-sized and Standard are the same car, so I offer $5 on a mid-sized and $6 on a standard. No deal? I look at my Kayak deal and decide I'll keep going (or not) because I'll see my sister's kids and a big car would be nice, or a convertible could be fun with the oldest. Maybe I'd bid $7 on full-sized, $8 on premium, $9 on a luxury, $10 on a convertible, and so forth on up. I save the car I'd pay the most for for last (in this case, it is a full-sized SUV or a convertible).

Key Points: 

1. Know the market first, both Kayak's and Hotwire's, so you know up to what price to bid so that the effort on Priceline is worthwhile.

2. Always remember that you cannot cancel Priceline and Hotwire reservations. Consider making a Kayak reservation in advance and then trying Priceline en route to the airport.

3. Find your starting bid by using the upper dollar amount that earns the warning: "Based on recent data, your price has almost no chance of being accepted." If you hope for a fancy car, lowball even further or you might win too soon.

4. You get one bid per type of car, but note that some cars are roses by another name. (Economy=Compact; Standard=Full-Size=Mid-Sized for the most part; Minivan=Mid-sized SUV=Standard SUV=Full-sized SUV)

5. Always start from cheapest car to most expensive car because you will be raising your bid every round.

6. ...And try not to spend more time than it is worth bidding; know the value of your time.

(If you really want to be a cheat, enter the wrong three digit code from the back of your card. You'll know you've won before you're charged because they'll ask you to re-enter your code only if you propose a winning bid. Then, you can decide whether to enter the code or cancel the bid. Well, they may fix this glitch one day, so be wary.)

Good luck! Check back tomorrow to learn about bidding for hotels on Priceline. And share your experiences, tips, or questions about rental cars below!

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Accommodation Best Bet: For Rent By Owner

Hotels are expensive. They don't offer kitchens or washer/dryers. They are downtown or in a city's outskirts, not in hip neighborhoods. You wouldn't want to share a hotel room with other couples. Renting directly from homeowners gives you all of the comforts and privacy of home without the price tag.

In order of awesomeness, these are the best websites for renting from owners:
Couchsurfing (for brave travelers...)

1. AirBnB:

AirBnB offers shared rooms, private rooms, and private homes or apartments. You can spend as little as $20/night for a couch and up to over $1,000 on a mansion or chateau. Right now, AirBnB has a ridiculous offer if you book by January 17th: one free night, valued up to $300. When looking for a place to stay, always check AirBnB first (unless you are looking for a rural cabin in, say, Wisconsin; then, try HomeAway or VRBO).

But it sounds gross, to stay in someone's house. AirBnB's rating system makes it easy to weed out those places:

AirBnB provides so much more than a hotel. Of course, it is more affordable. Also, owners give you tons of insider information not available in the guide book. The accommodations are always unique, creating truly memorable experiences. Surprisingly important, most places have washing machines -- a nice treat!

My Sig-O and I traveled around Europe with AirBnB at a fraction of the cost, and the accommodations we chose really made our trip. For $67/night, we stayed in our own private studio apartment in the hills of Tuscany. The owner picked us up from the train station and even lent us bikes so we could explore the neighboring towns. We enjoyed doing our laundry, cooking dinner in the kitchen, and drinking wine on the porch with views of the countryside.

We shared an upscale apartment in Nice, France for $67/night with one quiet but friendly roommate. The owner of the apartment directed us to her favorite restaurants in town, and, because of her, we had the best meal of our lives in an underground wine cave. 

We treated ourselves to a tiny, amazing B&B listed on AirBnB in the Loire Valley for $81/night in the middle of vineyards and fields of yellow flowers, where we got engaged. We loved the giant jacuzzi tub, the deluxe breakfast every morning, and the sweet male owner, who lent us tons of kitchenware for our cheese plate picnics. We were the only people staying at the four room B&B for our few days there. 

All in all, we averaged $65/night for two people. Most of our accommodations were private condos in typically expensive areas. Had we stayed in shared dorm rooms in youth hostels, we would have spent the same amount on lodging, but the trip would've been much less private, less clean, and less charming. 

We couldn't find a good AirBnB place in Burgundy, France, so we stayed in a cheap hotel. The awful, dank room that barely fit two people, with a flooding shower, reminded us just how lucky we were that AirBnB existed. 

Here are some other places we've stayed and recommend:

-Oxford, England: This simple third floor room with private bathroom in a shared house boasts the kindest hosts, a great breakfast, and privacy (considering that it is shared). We stayed here for a friend's wedding, and while our friends paid $200/night and up for hotel rooms, we paid $64/night. 
-Amsterdan, Netherlands: We loved this studio apartment in a hip, non-touristic neighborhood in Amsterdam, with an adorable bar (fun Dutch trivia nights!) and a coffee shop right across the street. The owner gave us a good discount after we told him the prices of some other apartments. We paid $80/night, which is well below the cheapest, blandest hotel room's price. 
-Paris, France: We liked this apartment less because it was a room in a shared house, and, while most owners give you run of the house, we felt confined to our room a bit here. We did manage to stick our white wine and salami in the fridge. Still, for a well-located Paris room, it was a good deal at $67/night. 
-Cinque Terre, Italy: This area proves pricey, and I don't think this private one bedroom apartment was the best deal available. For $98, the location couldn't be beat! However, we saw some small b&bs nearby, and they might've been cheaper (though without a kitchen). Cinque Terre isn't yet saturated with AirBnB options, being a bit rural, so you might do well to search google for local B&Bs for the best deal. We booked another place first and that owner cancelled on us, so AirBnB gave us a credit for one night on our next booking as a courtesy; that made this place a steal. 

2. HomeAway/VRBO

Because these comanpies' rental process is less streamlined, these sites are best for longer vacations in one place. I use these in particular when I'm looking for a weekend trip in a cabin in the country or when I can't find what I want with AirBnB. 

In a few weeks, 10 friends will head up to this HomeAway cabin in Wisconsin. The owners are offering "Stay Two Nights, Get One Night." So, we'll pay $200/night, or $20pp/night, for a remote lakefront cabin with a hot tub and sauna that sleeps ten in actual beds: 

Six of us are headed to a busy writing conference in Seattle. By the time we booked our plane tickets, the conference hotels had already been sold out. So, we turned to VRBO to find a downtown condo. We came away with a two bedroom/two bathroom condo with kitchen, free washer/dryer, and gym that sleeps six, located half a mile from the conference (and other downtown attractions, like Pike Place.) The final cost: $200/night or $33pp/night. The local youth hostel charges more per person for a bed in a packed dorm room. 

For my Sig-O's birthday, eight of us went to this amazing cabin in Wisconsin with a hot tub and great, big windows. We asked a guy in a snowplow to make us a hockey rink on the lake in front of the cabin and alternated between ice skating and soaking in the 7-8 person hot tub. The total cost per night was $225/night or $28pp/night for 8 people. 

3. Couchsurfing:

Couchsurfing is for the most flexible travelers on a budget. Basically, it is a pay-it-forward system. You stay for free on someone's "couch" and then one day you host someone (not the same person) for free in your house. You'll find a wide variety of accommodations from couches to guest bedrooms. People have a lot of questions when it comes to couchsurfing. Here are some of the common ones answered:

Is it safe? I found it very safe. I always diligently read people's reviews. Couchsurfing verifies members' names and addresses through their credit card information. Besides writing personalized reviews, members can "vouch" for other members they meet in person. Here's a review from my Greek host (and my review of him): 
CS's website talks exhaustively about their "vouching" system and I believe, with smarts on the traveler's part, this system is safe. In terms of couchsurfing vs. sex-surfing, I never felt it was like dating website, but I almost always stayed with couples or women. 

Is it comfortable? That depends on your luck. "Beggars can't be choosers" is the mantra. It's expected you'll be appreciative of whatever you get; sometimes you'll get a private room in a baller high-rise in Miami with a roof-top hot tub and sometimes a couch that is shorter than you are and a nosy, slightly racist host. 

Do I have to host? Not really; if you use the service, it is just good etiquette to host a traveler or two one day. I have, and while I don't love it, it can be fun. You can screen your guests and pick someone with your shared interests. 

Do I have to hang out with my hosts? Depends. I've found some hosts say, "Here's the keys, washer/dryer, and your bedroom. Have fun. I'll be in my office working," and then you almost never see them. I've also had hosts who join you for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, until you politely say you'd like to explore on your own; that can be annoying. 

Is it really free? Yes. But you might give your host a little gift (wine, food, a souvenir from home) as a show of thanks. 

Sig-O Matt and I used "couchsurfing" in Florida, years ago. Our St. Petersburg host was a riot. She invited us to tapas with her friends and made us breakfast. Our two couches were mediocrely comfortable. A super nice Cuban neurosurgeon hosted us in Miami (in a real queen bed!). No hotel could beat his killer Miami high-rise. He greeted us with wine and great conversation before leaving us to explore on our own. We had free reign of the rooftop hot tub. In Key West, I stayed in my first trailer. And, wow, it was beautiful! The double-wide trailer sat on a canal in Key West. We chose to sleep outside on the screened-in porch, listening to the water. The host, though, wasn't our favorite and invited himself on our excursions. 

Traveling around Eastern Europe on my own, I used couchsurfing to integrate into local culture. In Athens, Greece, I spent one sterile night at a hostel and wandered the streets on my own, feeling pretty lonely. The next night, I found myself a couch at a photographer's home on the outskirts of town. He and his girlfriend took me to a friend's birthday party (where I ran into another couchsurfer!). I had so much fun seeing what young artists do in Athens, away from the tourists. I enjoyed my guest bedroom and queen mattress as well. In Sarajevo, Bosnia, I stayed with a divorced expat who had his house up on couchsurfing out of a sense of duty to help others. He hosted three of us in his children's room on bunk beds (while the kids stayed at their mother's). The owner was friendly but aloof; he expected us to use his house as a free hostel, coming and going as we pleased. I enjoyed meeting other travelers sharing the house with me. In Belgrade, Serbia, I stayed on a couch and was entertained by hilarious, fun-loving Serbians. They took me on a tour of the local fire station (even let me slide down the pole) and brought me to karaoke and house parties. In Budapest, Hungary, I stayed in a hostel, but used the "meet for coffee" option on couchsurfing and met some great friends. 

Because I value privacy more now, and am not as flexible as I was at 24, I haven't used couchsurfing in a few years. 

Share your experiences with, or questions about, AirBnB, HomeAway, VRBO, and Couchsurfing below!