Vacations are great. You know what makes them more great? You don’t have to answer that. Because I’m only looking for a single answer and I don’t want to tell you you’re wrong if you don’t say, “When they don’t cost a ton of money.” So now that I messed up the first paragraph, let’s just move along to the second.
I love traveling almost as much as I love saving money. So putting those things together is basically the best thing ever. Over the years, I’ve done an alright job learning how to get pretty good deals on vacations — sometimes amazing deals. I’ll dissect my travel deal search process using our most recent trip to Hilton Head and how I snagged a $250/nt, 4* hotel for $65/nt using Priceline Negotiator.
This post is going to be long and it’s going to be dry. But you’re going to be drinking up delicious money-saving-travel knowledge from a fire hose, so open wide!
Step 1: Choose your vacation destination
This was going to be our inaugural “vacation” with Baby Girl, so we decided we’d keep it within a few hours of home. We narrowed our options to the Outer Banks and Hilton Head. After doing a few basic hotel and rental searches in both areas, I found that our dollar would go farther at Hilton Head. And since Joanna had vacationed there growing up, I thought it’d be nice to go somewhere with a little familiarity.
Step 2: Research the area
So we’re going to Hilton Head — awesome! Now it’s time to explore the lay of the land: good areas, not-so-good areas, proximity to nearby attractions (like the beach), range of available hotels, etc. This is a crucial step of the research phase. If you’re planning on a beach vacation, you don’t want to bid on hotels that aren’t near/on the beach. You can obviously do some of this research during the bidding process, but I like to familiarize myself before I put my game face on, which looks sorta like Chuck Norris.
Step 3: Scope out the competition
Having already done a price comparison of Hilton Head vs. Outer Banks, I knew what the general price range was — and it wasn’t very cheap using a normal search. That’s where Hotwire and Priceline’s new Express Deals come in. These sites work off a similar model to Name Your Own Price. Hotels make money when people are in their hotels — even if they’re not paying the standard rate. So to fill these rooms, hotels will offer deeply discounted rates with the caveat being that they don’t disclose the name of their hotel until AFTER the room is booked. Fair enough.
When I pulled up a search on these sites, I noticed a 4* hotel for $90 on Hotwire and $80 on Priceline. Awesome. I was open to anything above 3* for this trip, so a 4* that was cheaper than most 3* definitely looked interesting.
Step 4: Know what you’re bidding on
Time to get sneaky. For this step, I’ve always relied on BetterBidding, but I recently found another site called Bidding for Travel that’s similar. Both of these forums provide valuable information and resources for making more informed bids. Better said, they’ll help you figure out what “secret” hotels you might be bidding on or booking immediately in the case of Hotwire/Express Deals.
Since I had already found a really good deal, I wanted to figure out which hotel it was and if it was available on Name Your Own Price (where I’d be able to snag it even cheaper). On Hotwire and Express Deals, they list some of the hotel’s amenities. These are the key to deducing which hotel you’re looking at. I clicked on over to the South Carolina Hotwire forum and started comparing amenities to the hotels listed. Beachfront, Oceanfront, Spa, etc. Any one of these amenities by itself won’t reveal the hotel. But combined, I realized that the only hotel that listed the combination of amenities shown on Hotwire was the Westin. I spent a little time researching the Westin on TripAdvisor and based on the reviews, it appeared freaking awesome. Right on the beach, recently renovated, family friendly.
Now that I knew the specific hotel, I looked to see if it was a Name Your Own Price hotel. I visited the South Carolina Priceline forum, scrolled down to “Hilton Head Island” and sure enough, the Westin was one of the 4*/Resort hotel options. It’s game time.
Step 5: Bid away
Alright, to recap, we’ve figured out where to vacation, standard rates, secret rates, and figured out that the Westin was offering a great deal and is a Name Your Own Price hotel. Nothing to it, right? Now it’s time to actually make it happen. I’ll preface this to say there’s no perfect formula for bidding. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But it’s always exciting.
Since we had already figured out a budget for this trip (which should always serve as your starting point), I knew we didn’t want to spend more than $80/night. That would typically mean that my bidding would be limited to 2* or 3* hotels. But since I knew the Westin was offering ridiculously cheap rates almost within my budget already, I decided to go for it. I usually try to start my bidding around 20%-25% lower than the cheapest deal I’ve found, in this case $80. Since it was already such a great deal, I entered a “ah, what the heck” bid of $65/night. I entered my info, previewed the final cost with taxes, told Joanna “I’m going to bid on it. Cool?” at least four times (it’s a weird thing I always do to build my courage before clicking submit or something), and finally pressed “Submit.”
Priceline then spins it’s little engine and tells you the Negotiator is negotiating, which really means it’s running the numbers against its algorithm and seeing if your bid fits within formula. Waiting… waiting… sweating… waiting… The page is loading… Something is happening…
BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOMMM!!!!!!!!!! GIVE ME SOME FREAKING SKIN, CAPTAIN KIRK!
Step 6: Celebrate the savings
When I pulled up the hotel this week to analyze the deal, a standard room rate was listed at $262. Yeah, no. So I’d say I got a pretty good deal. And having just gotten back from the resort last week, I can say it lived up to the 4* billing.
And that’s what’s up.
Some final considerations
- Deals are totally random. Remember, these hotels are simply trying to fill beds. If their beds are filled or it’s a holiday/peak-season, they probably don’t need to rely on secret deals. So just because it’s there today doesn’t mean it’ll be there tomorrow.
- This strategy generally works best in vacation locales as there are more participating hotels.
- You’re only allowed one bid for the same search criteria every 24 hours. For an easy way to get an extra bid(s), add another zone that doesn’t have that star quality. So if you’re bidding on a 4* hotel in a single zone, add another zone that only has 1* and 2* hotels, since those won’t be chosen AND it qualifies you for a new bid. You can also downgrade hotel quality, which will still include higher quality hotels. But realize that your bid might win a lower quality hotel instead.
- There’s nothing wrong with staying at 1* and 2* hotels. In this particular instance, we wanted a nice hotel on the beach, but we’ve stayed at many a $25/night hotel during cross-country road trips.
- If you have certain travel needs (i.e. Fido is coming, smoking room, etc.), Negotiator might not be best option as those needs can’t always bet met.
- All sales are FINAL. No take backs, no oops, no nothing. You bid, you win, you pay. That’s that.
Holy long post, Batman! If you’re still awake, I congratulate you. And I wish you the best of luck in snagging some sweet travel deals. If you’re asleep, and your concerned coworker is reading this sentence, you should know that everything is fine, but your unconscious friend told me to tell you to pour cold water down their pants. Thanks.