The desk clerk at Honolulu's Hilton Hawaiian Village leaned across the counter, lowering her voice to a conspiratorial whisper.
"How did you get that price?" she asked, noting that the $75-a-night tab for my ocean-view room was about 60% off the best Hilton.com rate and even lower than the kamaaina (locals-only) discount.
My secret: Priceline.com.
Booked back in April 2001, that Waikiki sojourn still ranks as one of my favorite scores on the website whose revolutionary "name your own price" concept of bidding sight-unseen for hotels, airline tickets and rental cars roiled the travel landscape when it launched 10 years ago this spring. Competing "blind" and auction-style sites followed.
But I've landed other noteworthy bargains through Priceline, most recently in budget-busting New York. For a stay earlier this month, I started bidding at $120 for a four-star hotel in Midtown Manhattan, worked up to $170 and wound up at the Grand Hyatt, where the cheapest rate on Hyatt's website averaged $366 a night. Total savings for three nights, including taxes and fees: $568.
The website made famous by longtime pitchman William Shatner has moved far beyond its original niche format over the past decade, peddling fixed-price air, hotels and car rentals plus cruises and vacation packages. Its soaring international business, primarily Europeans buying retail hotel stays on the Continent, accounted for more than half the company's gross travel bookings of $4.8 billion last year.
Still, the core of Priceline's U.S. business remains its "opaque" inventory of chain lodgings whose identities and exact locations aren't revealed to customers until they've committed to a non-refundable purchase that includes taxes and Priceline fee. Hotels set their own "distressed inventory" rates for Priceline, which vary by demand. And with a possible recession encouraging bargain-conscious U.S. travelers to trade choice and flexibility for typical discounts of 30% to 60% — and the prospect of more unsold rooms to fill — the come-ons of "the Negotiator" take on a new resonance.
The catch: Snagging the best deals isn't for the faint of heart, the finicky, or those in a hurry.
Priceline spokesman Brian Ek says most "name your own price" customers shop for retail hotel rates on Priceline or competing sites, then bid 50% less. But "bidding on Priceline is like a science," says frequent Priceline customer Lucas Wiseman of Oak Creek, Wis. "You have to do your homework, seek out previous winning bids, and look at the rates available in that particular market. If you don't, you could wind up paying a lot more than you need to."
A step-by-step guide:
Weigh the downsides.
"If price is your primary driver, there's no question that Priceline beats the alternatives," says online travel expert Bill McGee, who has researched opaque sites for Consumer Reports WebWatch. But for many, he adds, "the trade-offs are considerable," from not being able to guarantee more than two people and one bed a room or an exact location to the potentially cumbersome, time-consuming bidding process and the fact that Priceline stays don't accrue points in hotel loyalty programs.
The biggest risk: No refunds or changes.