Hotwire and Priceline For Families, Yay or Nay?

Dec 12, 2011

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I am going to take a big leap and say that pretty much everyone reading this blog loves scoring a great travel deal.  Up until a couple years ago one of the main ways that I scored great hotel deals was by using Priceline and Hotwire.  I would book four star hotels sometimes for $60-$70 a night or less.  For those who have not used these sites, both of them involve booking a hotel before knowing exactly which hotel you have booked.  It is a way for hotels to fill rooms that otherwise might have gone unsold at a discounted rate.  With Priceline you know the rating of the hotel (2-star, 3-star, etc…) and the part of the city it is located in,  but you don’t know the exact amenities the hotel has.  With Hotwire, you know the star rating, the area of town, and the amenities.  In both cases the reservations are non-refundable nor changeable, and you typically do not earn points for these types of stays.

I used to have so much fun trying to “decode” which hotels I was likely bidding on by looking at the amenities, location, and by using websites that would list recent hotels that were booked using Hotwire or Priceline.  Once I thought I had figured out what hotel I was booking, I would take a deep breath and hit “reserve/bid/etc…”  Booking a hotel in this manner gave me a rush similar to the one I would get when gambling in Vegas!  Fortunately, I usually ended up with a pretty good hotel (and often it was the hotel I hoped it would be), but I have not used either of those sites more than once in almost two years.  I’ll talk more in a minute about why I don’t use these sites frequently these days, but even though I don’t often use them they are still good options in certain situations.  They are also pretty bad options in some situations – more on that in a minute, too.

A couple of weeks ago I was emailing back and forth with Randy Greencorn who runs the site HotelDealsRevealed.com.  During our email conversation it dawned on me that I have never posted about Hotwire or Priceline.  Instead of just sharing my somewhat limited knowledge of those two sites, I asked Randy to share some of his expert info on both of those sites, and the pros and cons of using them for families.  Luckily, he agreed, so here is some of the information that he shared with me.

Tell me a little bit about yourself and how you got involved with running a website that is devoted to Hotwire and Priceline?

I am a big travel enthusiast and the creator of HotelDealsRevealed.com, an online community forum dedicated to Priceline and Hotwire travel products.  Prior to having kids, my wife and I used to travel quite extensively.  We now have three kids, and while we still love to travel, it means stretching our travel dollars as far as possible.  I’m the type of person that likes to spend a lot of time surfing the internet for the best deals, and more often than not, I found Priceline and Hotwire had the best prices on hotel accommodations.
Around the same time I discovered Hotwire and Priceline, I was looking for a hobby that I could do from my home in the evenings after my kids were in bed.  I also had a computer science degree that I wasn’t using extensively in my day job.  Digging a little deeper into Priceline and Hotwire, I realized that there were a lot of people using these sites and that the internet could help us share information with each other.  This lead me to the idea of creating an online community dedicated to Hotwire and Priceline.
 What are some ways in which Hotwire and Priceline can really help families traveling on a budget?
In most cases, Hotwire or Priceline can really help families save on accommodations.  There are cheaper options such as camping and hostels, but for a typical family wanting a hotel room, Hotwire or Priceline are tough to beat. As a general rule, hotels are usually at least 20 to 30% cheaper on Hotwire and Priceline than other travel sites, and in many cases the discount is over 50%.  The biggest discounts tend to be around popular travel destinations where lots of hotels compete with one another, such as Orlando, Anaheim, Las Vegas, and most major airports.  For example, I’ve seen the 4-star Westin Diplomat hotel on the beach in Fort Lauderdale go for just $33 per night.
Hotwire and Priceline offer other travel products such as car rentals and flights.  I generally don’t see a lot of savings on car rentals, but there are some great airfare bargains from time to time.  For instance, in March of 2011, I was able to find a flight from Las Vegas to Long Beach, CA for just $19 per person.  Despite the occasional deal, families should be aware that if you book a flight on Priceline, you could get stuck with late evening departure time.
 What are some downsides for families who use Hotwire or Priceline?
Probably the biggest downside of using Hotwire or Priceline is the fact that hotel reservations are non-refundable.   There are lots of reasons you may have to cancel or change your travel plans — particularly if you are traveling with kids.  Their policies are fairly straight forward — no cancellations, no changes, and very rarely do they make exceptions.  Depending on the certainty of travel plans, some families who use Hotwire or Priceline purchase additional trip cancellation insurance.
Another downside is that fact that you don’t know which hotel you’re going to get until after you purchase.  If you want a particular hotel or exact location, it’s better to avoid Priceline or Hotwire.
Is either Priceline or Hotwire better than the other?  In which situations should you choose one over the other?
For families, Hotwire is usually better than Priceline for a few reasons.  First, when using Priceline for hotel reservations, you don’t know the hotel amenities until after you reserve your non-refundable room.  This is quite a risk.  When traveling with my family, we almost always want to have a swimming pool, and preferably, complimentary breakfast.  There is no way of knowing this in advance on Priceline, and since reservations are non-refundable, you could be in for a big disappointment.  If a particular amenity is a must-have, go with Hotwire.
Another disadvantage of Priceline is that they only guarantee a maximum occupancy of 2 people.  Many people take a chance and reserve on Priceline even though they have 3 or 4 people in their party.  In most cases, this isn’t a problem and the hotel will gladly accommodate the larger party.  However, if you check in late and the hotel is running near full capacity, you could be out of luck.
Both of these happened to me during Spring Break 2011.  My family booked the Westgate Hotel in San Diego for an irresistible $63 per night.  When we arrived, we learned that the hotel didn’t have a swimming pool and they only had a room with a single king bed.  My daughters (aged 4, 4 and 7 at the time) made the most of it by sleeping in a fort made of blankets on the floor (we were there for 3 nights).  We also snuck into the pool at the hotel next to ours a couple of times.
 What are some tips related to using Priceline and Hotwire?
Families can really save a lot of money on travel by using Priceline or Hotwire, but they really need to educate themselves around how these sites work and their policies.  It’s worth checking out some ‘helper’ websites such as the one I created — HotelDealsRevealed.com — to figure out how they work.  It is also important to know when to avoid using Priceline or Hotwire.  Generally, if you have a bit of flexibility with your hotel location, Hotwire and Priceline are worth trying.  Use Priceline for the deepest discounts.  Use Hotwire if you want the guarantee of certain hotel amenities and a room that will accommodate more than two people.
Mommy Points Analysis:
I haven’t used Priceline or Hotwire much in the last two years because now that I am traveling with a young family, I need to know exactly where I am going.  I don’t want to leave anything to chance (well, any more to chance that it already is with a toddler!)  in our travel right now.  I also like to earn miles and points for my travel, and Priceline or Hotwire stays typically don’t earn points.  Since I have points to use, I often use points in situations where hotel costs are high, so I don’t often have the need to use Priceline or Hotwire these days.  However, if I were traveling without my toddler, rates were really high where I was going, and I was either low on points, or rooms on points aren’t available, then I would again turn to Priceline or Hotwire.  My last Hotwire use landed me in the Hard Rock Hotel in Chicago for about half of what the going rate was for that night.  I had a bunch of fun at that hotel and it was exactly the hotel I hoped I would get.  I don’t want to paint a bad picture of Hotwire or Priceline, because I have had some great successes from using them, they just don’t usually meet my traveling needs currently.
If you are going to book using one of those sites, make sure to check out Randy’s site, and other similar ones, so that you can have a full understanding of how the process works, and you can have a better chance at knowing on which hotel you are actually bidding.
Do you use Hotwire or Priceline when traveling with your family?  What tips do you have to help ensure a successful booking?
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