Priceline's Ek suggests a general strategy of bidding one to four weeks before your stay for the best deals, but "there's no guaranteed sweet spot," adds View From the Wing's Leff. In cities like New York where demand is strong, hotels often hold back discounted inventory, but "if you wait too long, you could find yourself priced out."
In general, "the higher the (hotel) star category, the greater percentage off the listed price you should bid," says Don Nadeau of BidonTravel.com, a site that offers general tips for Priceline users. His suggestion: Even if you're willing to stay at a lower category hotel, it makes sense to bid on a four-star hotel first because "a place charging a retail rate of $450 a night has a lot more room to play with than a $59 Days Inn."
Take advantage of 'free re-bids.'
Novices, take note: "You could write a whole guidebook about re-bidding," warns veteran user Fields. There's even a new website, Re-Bidding.com, devoted to helping streamline the process.
The basics: Normally, you'll have to wait 24 hours to re-bid if your initial price is rejected, unless you're willing to loosen your requirements by changing your dates, dropping your hotel star level or adding an additional zone in which you'd be willing to stay. But if you're trying for a hotel in a specific area and your city has multiple zones on Priceline, you can re-bid immediately by adding a zone that contains only lower-rated hotels.
For example, if you're interested in a four-star Priceline hotel in Midtown Manhattan, you can use both the Upper West Side and Upper East Side as free re-bid zones, since neither contains any four-star properties. Similarly, if you want to stay at a four-star in downtown Washington, D.C., you could use the Springfield and Crystal City zones, which contain only three-star or lower, as free rebids.
Follow through with the hotel.
Message boards are peppered with complaints from Priceline customers who say they've been stuck in a proverbial broom closet, and "there is a definite hierarchy out there … not booking direct could affect you," says McGee.
Still, "the front desk has a lot of say in how you'll be treated, and being nice goes a long way," says Steve Nassau of BetterBidding.com.
Call or fax ahead with special requests, and join the hotel's frequent-stay program if you are not already a member. You won't earn points on the room itself, but you may get extra perks or upgrades.
Hilton's HHonors program, for example, does not extend to "opaque" customers. But Hyatt's Gold Passport members can earn points on meals and other hotel charges even on Priceline stays, and program benefits — from Web check-in for basic membership to private lounge access at the top tier — still apply.
Hyatt.com rates for Feb. 5, 6 and 7 at the Grand Hyatt were $399, $399 and $299, plus taxes, for total of $1,174.91. Winning Priceline bid for four-star hotel in Midtown East zone of Manhattan: $170 a night, total $606.90, including taxes and service fees.