Using Opaque Travel Web Sites Effectively
"Is Priceline a scam?" A reader recently asked that question in all seriousness. I assured this reader that neither Priceline nor the several other "opaque" travel sites are scams in any sense of the word. Both Hotwire's "know a price but not the name of the supplier" and Priceline's "name your own price" systems work well for hotel rooms and rental cars; I use them frequently. But if you don't know what you're doing -- and how the systems work -- you can be very disappointed.
Basically, opaque buying can cut your hotel costs whenever you don't care which specific hotel you use as long as you can specify the quality range and, in a large destination city, the general neighborhood. Similarly, if you can specify the car class you want, you probably don't care which rental agency actually supplies the car.
As far as I can tell, most of the opaque action these days is with hotels. And although many travelers are very happy with the results, a few report dissatisfaction. This dissatisfaction generally stems from travelers' failure to understand the inherent limitations of opaque hotel buying:
-- There's no turning back once you buy; you "own" what you bought, with no cancellations and no refunds. Period.
-- Opaque sites guarantee a room for two, but it's almost always just one bed -- queen, regular double, or king. If you need two beds, you have to negotiate separately with the hotel after you arrive, and you may or may not be successful.
-- You can't count on special needs such as pet-friendly or free parking. Forget opaque buying in those cases.
-- Typically, you can't extend your stay at the same rate that you got through an opaque site -- you can ask the hotel for the same rate, but you may have to pay more. Similarly, you get nothing back if you leave early.
-- Despite ample pre-buying warnings, some travelers seem to think that if they have a good enough reason to cancel -- medical emergency, missed a flight, and such -- they can get refunds. Not so: If you aren't 100 percent sure you'll use the service, you should either buy cancellation insurance -- available through the site at extra cost -- or not use the system.
-- Some travelers have no idea of what to bid on Priceline, but they can find out about other successful (and unsuccessful) bids through postings on www.betterbidding.com and www.biddingfortravel.com.
-- You may face an unexpected mandatory "resort" or "housekeeping" fee added after you arrive. That really is a scam, but it's the hotel's scam, not Hotwire's or Priceline's. Sadly, you can find that scam on hotels you arrange through most other online sites, too. I can't understand why those big sites don't demand that hotels include such fees in their posted prices, but they don't. That's a problem the sites have yet to solve.
-- Some readers report unrealistic and inflated "star" hotel ratings. That, too, is a real problem, but one you can encounter through any site. And I know that the sites re-rate some of their hotels on the basis of unfavorable customer comments.
-- Hotel stays arranged through opaque sites generally do not earn frequent-stay benefits.
-- Some travelers report that after buying through an opaque site they saw lower rates through other sources. I have no sympathy here -- you should always check other discount sources before committing to an opaque buy.
There's no "free lunch" in opaque buying -- in exchange for a great price, you have to accept limitations and restrictions that you don't when you buy some other way. But the price advantage is enough to attract lots of business. Although Priceline's "bidding" system remains unique, several other online agencies are adopting Hotwire's "blind buy" system as a limited option.
All in all, if you can accept the limitations, opaque sites can cut your bill substantially. But use them only if you're willing to take what the site gives you. If your needs are more specific, find your discounts some other way.
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