So maybe you’ve heard about how Priceline and Booking.com are now one and the same, and I suppose if you’re not already an avid user of both sites, you might make the mistake of assuming they offer an identical product.
Certainly, Priceline has come a long way from its early splash as a bidding site, but that evolution already began quite some time ago. While you can no longer name your own price on flights or rental cars, what you still can do—as long as you know the do’s, don’ts, and accidental pitfalls—is save more than fifty percent on your hotel stays on a regular basis, and not only on last-minute stays, either.
My job is to travel, and for the better part of the last few years, almost full-time. Keeping housing costs low is an extremely important part of the gig. There are many ways a traveler can slash expenses. Airbnb, with its faults, is great for stays of a few days or more, while studied loyalty to hotel chains can yield a surprising number of rewards and discounts that help you pay yourself back. For longer hotel stays, it is now common—I see a lot of this in the United Kingdom and Europe—to offer rates of nearly fifty percent off rack, to anyone willing to commit.
Much of my work, however, requires short stays in American cities; time and again, Priceline has been my trusted ally. I’ve strayed at times, to other services like Hotels.com, which can also do great things for cash-conscious travelers, but in the end, the predictability of Priceline has always won the day for me. Who wouldn’t, after all, like to save nearly 60 percent on a good hotel, with only a few little tips and tricks to bear in mind?
Sound too good to be true? I’ve got the receipts to prove it. Over the last few months, quick Priceline searches landed me 43 percent off a multi-day stay at an Aloft in Denver, 58 percent off at a recently renovated Marriott in Kansas City, 40 percent off a nearly week-long stay a Sheraton in Houston, just $60 in the middle of the summer, with parking, at a Hilton in downtown Pittsburgh. And that’s just a few of the highlights.
Nearly every time, I used Priceline’s Express Deals tool, something referred to in industry-speak as an opaque booking, meaning that they gave me some details, but didn’t tell me the name of the property before I hit the button and paid. After years of using the site, I’ve probably been surprised by the name of the property maybe 1% of the time—with a little bit of sleuthing, it’s almost impossible not to guess correctly.
Ready to cut the cost of your next trip in half, and twice as long? Here’s everything you need to know.
How to Save Money on Hotels with Priceline's Express Deals
So you’ve logged on, and everything’s confusing. Where to begin?
First of all, it’s 2020, so download the app. Don’t write off the web site, though. Both have their part to play in getting you the best deals. I like to perform a general search first, just to see what the market is doing. Let’s say for New Orleans, a Friday and Saturday stay over what I know will be a relatively busy (read: expensive) upcoming weekend. I dare not hope for a $60 three-star at a time like this, in a city like New Orleans, but let’s see, shall we?
Using the app, I tap Sort & Filter, once the results come in, and then I select Guest Score as my sort option and filter out anything over $150, because there’s almost no scenario in which I’d want to pay that much for a hotel and not get rewards, unless I was somewhere like Paris, which I’m not. No offense to New Orleans. Then I hit Done, and off we go. Side note: One of the worst things that’s happened to Priceline, post-Booking, is the integration of rented rooms and apartments into search; very often, you have to wade through a bunch of awful-looking listings with one 10 out of 10 review. Seriously, if I wanted an apartment, I’d be on another site.
Okay, so in April, my options above an 8.0 score are limited, but not terrible. I like the very highly rated Hampton Inn & Suites Convention Center, and the Hyatt Place New Orleans Convention Center, both around $120. Both, however, are showing me that if I tap Express Deals, I might get a similar hotel (this could mean the same hotel) for almost $20 cheaper per night. Okay, I’ll bite.
There are so many ways to find out which deal you’re actually getting—here are most of them.
You don’t have to be a super sleuth to figure out which hotel is behind that sort-of-secret Express Deal, just a nerd and one with a little bit of patience. Make a note, for starters, of the hotel’s specifics; the rating, how many reviews it has received, and distinguishing characteristics such as Free Breakfast, or Free Parking—anything that you think will set it apart from the others. Continuing with the two properties in New Orleans, the Hampton Inn and the Hyatt Place, I tap the Express Deals for one, and then the other, and, in a minute or so, I know exactly which one is on sale—it’s the Hyatt Place, for $113 per night, down from Priceline’s listed average of $149.
Figuring this out was easy. Not only did they show me that I’d be getting one of three hotels (including the Hyatt Place and the Hampton Inn), a message popped up in the Express Deal listing, telling me that someone who recently booked this got the Hyatt Place. If I wanted to be even more certain, I’d have compared the approximate number of reviews a property has received, another distinguishing mark. In this case, it was more than 500, which the other two properties I was guaranteed did not have.
Not that I needed it, but there was another tell in this case, as well. There was an option to select a room type, which clearly correlated to the Hyatt Place style. A few rounds of this, and you’ll be an old pro.
Surprise! Don’t necessarily assume that Express Deals will always correlate to published rates, even on Priceline.
Most of the best deals I’ve found over the years have been a complete curveball. Marriott and Hilton properties, for example, are very frequently found secretly off-loading rooms this way, and not always last minute, either. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve snagged, say, a Sheraton or a SpringHill Suites for between $50-$70 on the same night (or nights—I’ve even found longer stays at these prices) where the listed rate was at least double that. Patiently searching through Express Deals, again sticking to properties with an 8.0 score or higher, and then doing a bit of sleuthing (as outlined above), very often pays off, big time.
One very effective way to narrow down the options, if you’re finding it difficult to weed out which hotel they’re actually talking about, is to limit your search to the neighborhood the Express Deal is located in, and then go by the number of stars the property has.
Express Deals are not the only way to save big.
Priceline seems to be in adventure mode, trying anything and everything to see what works. Take advantage while you can. Mobile-only deals are often terrific, right out of the gate. There’s also a new feature where you pay a fixed rate—say, $60—and are guaranteed one of four listed hotels. Here, once again, you can narrow down the options by playing junior detective.
Frequent travelers, never fear—the big hotel chains will honor your status, regardless of how you booked.
I’ve gotten used to taking some good-natured ribbing at check-in, and have heard the speech about how my stay does not qualify for rewards points only hundreds of times, but I’m always happy to remind them that saving 50 percent on my stay, even over the hotel’s own member rate, is in itself a reward. Sure, in a perfect world, I’d pay double each time I pulled over by the side of the highway, and then go home with all the points, but if I’m getting treated like a top-tier customer at half the price, why pay more?
Loyalty does actually pay—yes, even at Priceline.
While the site has no traditional rewards program, I cannot tell you how many times I’ve been asked to recommend a hotel to a friend or a colleague, sent them a link to a great rate on Priceline, only to have them report back that they’re being asked to pay considerably more. Say hello to Priceline VIP Deals, which is essentially a non-opaque Express Deals program for frequent users.
You might assume that a program without any real accountability isn’t up to much, but it is. What looks to be tied to Booking’s own Genius program (which unlocks better rates and little giveaways like including breakfast with some stays) rewards frequent users of the site with some pretty incredible bargains—sometimes, good enough that you’ll end up paying as little or even less than a comparable Express Deal, without the question mark hanging over your booking—and, more importantly, without the sort-of-secret booking fee. More on that below.
Record scratch! On many, if not all Express Deals, Priceline will take a cut.
Make sure you don’t wind up with a more expensive, or at least comparable rate than you could have found elsewhere—possibly even on the hotel’s own web site, where you’ll be eligible for rewards.
Priceline is now helping itself to a nice little chunk of change on what seems to be every Express Deal, what appears at times to be well over ten percent. I blame Airbnb, which showed the industry that you could take a giant cut of every booking, and never have one journalist ever question just how much of it you really needed.
Like Airbnb, you’re often saving so much on your stay, it ends up working out for the best. The move also appears to have been closely correlated with a sudden rise in extremely good deals—$45 for a Hilton property, even if it was in Birmingham, Alabama? Absolutely I’m booking that, even though in my mind I know I’m really paying $55, once I factor in Priceline’s cut, plus the hotel tax of about $7. All things considered, that’s still a killer deal.
You are shown clearly, before you commit to the booking, just how high the fee is going to be.
This helps inform your decision whether to go with it or not. Figure that in most American cities, your total hotel tax burden tops out at around 14 percent, and is often much less than that (though it’s going up everywhere). This way, even though Priceline bundles their fee in with the local government’s cut, you can easily get a sense of how much you’re giving them for the privilege of handing over the deal.
Again, I’ve seen $55/night rates at very good chain hotels that are listed—for the same night—at nearly $150. I’m not going to get mad about a $10 fee that unlocks that kind of savings.
You’ll have to go into the fine print, but your receipt will show you exactly how much you were charged in fees.
This way, you’ll quickly get up to speed, and never be surprised by what’s going on, ever again. There are a few hoops to jump through. Get to the receipt, first of all, and then tap the Taxes & Fees hyperlink, and then scroll all the way to the bottom of the longwinded explanation of Taxes & Fees, and there it is. Recently, I paid $60 for what I quickly figured out was a Hilton property in Sacramento, but what I really paid, in the end, was $79.97. This means I paid $19.97 on top of the listed deal, $8.09 of which was taxes, meaning that Priceline took a whopping $11.88—that’s almost 18.5 percent! No, I didn’t want to pay it, but after checking both Priceline and Hilton.com (always check directly!), I knew they were giving me 60 percent off of the listed rate for the night, already very low for Sacramento, which may not be on the ocean, but it’s still California.
Header photo: Courtesy Mariia Boiko / Shutterstock