Does anyone ever pay full price for a hotel room? • If you do, you shouldn't. • Savvy travelers have been using priceline.com for years to bid for rooms that hotels would rather heavily discount than leave unfilled. • Backbid.com, a Canadian startup, put the process in reverse, letting hotels bid for your business once you've already booked with a competitor, assuming you're up for canceling your reservation and starting over.
One thing is certain: You'll always find the best deals closer to the time of travel as hotels look for any way possible to put heads in beds.
For those willing to wait until the last minute, there's HotelTonight, a free app for the iPhone, iPad and Android market. Think of it as the digital equivalent of walking up to the front desk at noon and seeing what kind of a deal you can strike.
The app displays discounts for same-day stays at a rotating selection of hotels in 37 locations, from Seattle and Portland to San Francisco, Las Vegas, New York and Boston.
HotelTonight names the hotels, labels them as "hip," "solid" or "basic" and shows the price next to a crossed-out rate offered by hotels for comparable rooms. The discounted rate is available at noon or after for that night and sometimes longer.
Priceline, which lets you name your own price for hotels but doesn't disclose the hotel name until after your bid is accepted and credit card charged, also offers same-day deals as well as alerts on winning bids accepted within seven days of departure.
It's a crapshoot if you do it old school and phone hotels directly to ask if they offer last-minute bargains.
The Maxwell Hotel, near the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation offices in Seattle, quoted a best-available rate of $139 on its website and on the phone for a same-day reservation. HotelTonight had rooms for $99, a rate the reservation agent said the hotel could not match.
The Wynn Hotel in Las Vegas quoted $199 on its website and by phone. No luck there, either, getting a reservation agent to match HotelTonight's rate of $159. Instead, she offered me a room for $151 at the Encore, its sister hotel next door.
But some will
I did better calling the Villa Florence hotel near Union Square in San Francisco. The agent offered me a best-available rate of $129 versus $135 on the website. When I mentioned that HotelTonight had rooms for $119, he agreed to match it.
Room Mate Grace, a boutique hotel in Midtown Manhattan, agreed not only to match HotelTonight's rate of $159 (versus $229 on its website and $189 quoted on the phone), but also offered an upgrade to a deluxe room that normally sells for $259.
Bottom line: There are lots of ways to score a better-than-expected rate on a hotel room. Prepaying too far in advance probably isn't one of them.
And a caveat: Hotel websites usually don't include taxes and fees in their initial price displays. Be prepared for the small print when you go to book.
Carol Pucci, Seattle Times