"They are utterly inflexible in this respect. Barring an act of God (in my case a trip to New Orleans right after Hurricane Katrina), if you can't use the reservation, you will simply be out of luck," says San Francisco-based Larry Fields, who has stayed at Priceline hotels an average of 20 times a year since the company's inception.
Be a shrewd shopper.
Don't rely on Priceline's "median retail price" or its newer "recent winning bids" feature as guidelines, which veteran bidders dismiss as too high. Instead, on the day you want to bid, check the lowest published rates at hotel websites or an aggregator site such as Kayak.com for properties with the same quality range, dates and general neighborhood where you plan to stay. Keep in mind that you?ll have to pay separately for hotel-imposed extras such as resort and parking fees.
Check out rival Hotwire.com.
Like Priceline, Hotwire doesn't reveal a hotel name and specific address until you've forked over a credit card number. But Hotwire reduces the mystery by listing its discounted rate up front, as well as the amenities associated with the hotel, such as a pool, free breakfast or kitchenette.
Another difference: Priceline only guarantees double occupancy a room and lets you bid for up to nine rooms at once, while Hotwire lets you search for up to quad occupancy a room and up to four rooms a purchase.
You may not be comparing apples to apples, since Hotwire and Priceline can use different geographic zones, hotels and definitions of star quality (Hotwire also posts TripAdvisor.com ratings for its properties). But a good rule of thumb is to check Hotwire after you've researched retail sites to get a benchmark rate, then bid up to 20% less on Priceline, suggests Gary Leff, author of the travel blog View From the Wing and a frequent contributor to Flyertalk.com's helpful "Online Travel Booking and Bidding Agencies" forum.
If your bid isn't accepted, you can go back to Hotwire — or keep trying on Priceline.
Get some expert advice.
The message boards Betterbidding.com and its older competitor, BiddingforTravel.com, post overall bidding strategies, lists of Priceline hotels by zone and quality level, and thousands of specific winning and losing bids. (Betterbidding.com also covers Hotwire.) European cities can yield good bargains despite a muscular euro: A Valentine's Day win on BiddingforTravel.com listed the three-star Holiday Inn at London's Heathrow Airport for $78.04, including taxes and fees, vs. the hotel website's lowest rate of 89 pounds, or about $175.
Both forums will help you come up with a customized bidding plan, and often throw in free tourist suggestions to boot. Thanks to Better bidding.com, for example, I found out about a local breakfast favorite, Ess-A-Bagel, close to my winning Priceline bid in Midtown Manhattan.
A major caveat: Since Priceline's hotel inventory, pricing and zone structure can fluctuate widely, the forums are most useful for major cities with multiple recent bids.
And have a refundable, cancellable backup. You can place a bid as late as 11 p.m. for a same-day reservation, but starting the process as soon as you firm up your plans "lets you be much more aggressive in your bidding," notes San Antonio attorney Chris Lotz, who books about 10 Priceline hotels a year.