Mystery Hotels – How to Cheat and Maybe Get a Bargain
We have spent some time looking at lastminute.com’s ‘Mystery Hotel’ range and the new mystery offers from wotif.com. In some cases, LastMinute’s descriptions of its mystery hotels make it pretty easy to pinpoint the actual hotel. Wotif’s mystery hotels are a little harder to fathom but there are some clues, for instance they might be selling ‘Comfort’ and ‘Grand Comfort’ rooms at a mystery hotel so you just go through the list of other Wotif Hotels In the same city and see which hotel uses that description for its rooms. The US company Priceline was the originator of the mystery hotel deal and we have always had serious misgivings about using them.
The main objection is that instead of seeing a discounted price (20% off the usual agent’s price is fairly normal for both LastMinute and Wotif) at a specific hotel, Priceline gives you no clue as to the actual hotel and you have to bid the price you are prepared to pay. Priceline does give a little help – it breaks cities down into areas and shows the normal retail price of Hotels In different star categories and suggests a likely discount you should apply when bidding. Nonetheless, there is a huge danger that you will end up paying more than you need to. Priceline might have set a secret minimum bid of $80 a night but if someone bids $95 the company will happily accept the bid. Also, in recent years, business has been very good for the hotel industry and we suspect that Priceline was selling rooms at some hotels that would otherwise have difficulty in attracting guests. In other words, you could end up paying over the odds for an inferior hotel.
However, now the game has changed a little. Quite a few hotels have empty rooms and are willing to sell them at low rates through Priceline, on condition of anonymity to avoid destroying their normal rating. And, we have found a rather handy guide that should help you avoid some of the Priceline pitfalls.
One community forum for users of Priceline (and HotWire, a division of Expedia, which is designed more for US customers) is http://www.betterbidding.com. The front page is a bit messy, but all you need do is scroll down to find the forum dedicated to the area you want to visit. Pick Boston and the first post will be a list of hotels that forum members have purchased through Priceline. There is no guarantee that this list is completely accurate – hotels will come and go, depending on season and occupancy – but at least you have an idea of the sort of hotel you will get in each star category. Then you go through the most recent posts where members have listed deals they have actually obtained from Priceline. You may see that someone was able to bid $80 for a room at the Omni Parker two days ago and a bid of $85 got a room at the Hyatt Regency a week earlier. You need to take careful note of when the reservations were for (weekdays or weekends) and how far in advance the reservations were made because this is bound to have an effect on the price.
This site works best with Priceline’s US hotels. Postings for international reservations are far sparser. If you want to Stay In Venice in May, it is of little use to know that someone was able to bid $90 for a room at the Hilton Molino in February.
All prices on Priceline are before the dreaded ‘taxes and charges’, which can add a sizeable sum to the total and clearly include a generous service charge. We could not see how they came up with charges of £28 on a basic hotel cost of £92. At least you see this figure before your bid is submitted.
Once you are ready to go ahead, you have to submit your payment details. If the bid is accepted, your money is taken immediately and there is no possibility of cancellation or alteration. If the bid is not accepted, no money is taken and you are only allowed to rebid if you alter some of the terms of the original bid. Betterbidding suggests a way around this. Let’s say you want to stay in a five-star hotel in one area of Paris. Your initial bid is turned down so you alter your bid to include another area of Paris but an area which you can see from Betterbidding does not have a Priceline five-star hotel. Assuming Priceline has not suddenly added a new hotel (which is a very real possibility) then your increased bid on the hotel you want should be accepted.
Betterbidding also gives the same range of information for HotWire. This is part of the same group that owns Expedia and Hotels.com but it is designed principally for US customers and payment is taken in dollars – effectively adding to the cost for UK customers.
HotWire’s system is similar to Priceline with the bidding aspect removed. You know the star rating in advance, the area of the city involved and the full cost (plus taxes and charges). A quick look at Betterbidding should give you an idea of which hotels it is selling in the various categories and cities. The site is not as strong on hotels outside North America as Priceline.
With both these sites, we recommend you attempt to cross-check prices with the hotels direct or Hotels Of a similar category. Neither Booking.com, nor Expedia/Hotels.com (the companies behind these mystery sites) is noted for selling hotels cheaply. In some cases, a 20% discount off their rates will only equate to a 10% discount off rates available elsewhere. If you think you can get a room at the Luxor in Las Vegas for $65, you might find it better to take away the guesswork and book direct with the hotel for $72.
We certainly cannot recommend Priceline and the Betterbidding site to everyone. It can be very time-consuming and dangerous. There is a huge potential for error: you can easily pay quite a lot of money for a hotel you do not want. Another significant danger is that you can get carried away with the whole game and concentrate too much on trying to ‘win’ rather than on finding a hotel that is suitable for you! However, there are some genuine bargains around, particularly in the US, where Priceline is stronger, and there is plenty of information on Betterbidding. If you are looking for a couple of nights in a hotel in New York, and you have the time and patience, you might just get a good deal.
Will I get the worst room in the hotel if I have booked a mystery deal at a special price?
There is a possibility that a few hotels will use these mystery deals to sell a handful of less desirable rooms they would not normally sell unless the hotel was full. Most hotels will give you a standard room but, as is common for rooms booked at special rates through agents, it is likely to be the lowest-category room available. The better rooms may be on higher floors, have more modern furnishings or better views and these are likely to be allocated to clients who have booked direct with the hotel.
If you have booked a standard room through an agent (whether it be Priceline or not), there is no reason why you cannot upgrade the room when you arrive. Many hotels are more than happy to upgrade agency customers to executive-floor rooms (maybe for an extra £30 a night) or give them a larger room or one with a better view. Hotels are looking for extra revenue at every opportunity and if someone offers them money, and they have a better room available, they are unlikely to turn them down. Interestingly, this method can quite often lead to a free u
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Venice, Italy: Hotel Santa Marina