SEATTLE - Priceline.com offers one of the most unique ways to buy travel. You name your price for airline tickets, hotel stays or car rentals and if Priceline accepts your bid, that's what you pay.
Priceline decides which flight, hotel or car rental company you'll get, and that scares away a lot of people.
But there is a bidding method for hotels that almost guarantees you'll stay where you want without the fear of having to stay elsewhere.
Customers who name their own price for a hotel room can save up to 50 percent off competitors like Expedia.com or Travelocity.com, if you believe Priceline's advertisements.
In fact, I have saved even more than 50 percent on several of my winning bids.
If you're a frequent user of Priceline like I am, you know there are bidding restrictions. These restrictions can lead to overbidding.
You may still get a pretty good deal, but not the lowest rock-bottom price that Priceline has hidden in its computer system.
You can't simply increase your bid by $1 after each rejection. If you don't want to change your dates of travel or hotel class or add an additional hotel zone, Priceline makes you wait 24 hours before you can bid again.
But there is a way to manipulate your bidding, find the cheapest price offered, get around the 24-hour rule and stay exactly in the area you want.
It's a method Priceline doesn't tell you about on its web site. Experienced bidders call it the "free rebid" or "permutations" method. Here's how it works:
Step One: Do your homework
Once you've picked your destination, do your research. Go to either BiddingForTravel.com or BetterBidding.com. Both web sites are message boards where Priceline users post their winning and losing bids.
Users post dates of travel, bid histories, names of the hotels and star classes they got. It's a great starting point to predict how much you may end up paying and which hotel you may get. It is valuable information that Priceline doesn't offer on its web site.
Step Two: Compare prices
Now compare those prices to the big internet travel web sites like Expedia, Travelocity, Orbitz or Hotels.com. Run the dates you want and see what their prices are in the area where you want to stay.
In our Seattle example, I saw winning bids for a downtown four-star hotel on BiddingForTravel.com ranging from $100 to $120 a night. I checked Expedia and Travelocity on the same dates and found the prices for high-end hotels ranged from $159 to $459 a night. You never want to bid more than what's offered on these web sites.
Keep in mind, the star level on Priceline does not necessarily match up with the star level of these big travel sites. I used the hotels listed by winning bidders on BiddingForTravel.com and BetterBidding.com as a comparison.
Step Three: Choose your "star" class
It may seem simple, but this is the big decision. For most metropolitan areas, Priceline breaks down your destination city into zones and hotel star levels.
The free rebid system works best if you want the highest star rating for your destination city - the higher the rating, the fewer the zones that have the rating, the more free rebids you can generate.
For example, there are ten hotel zones in Seattle. When you click on each zone individually, you'll notice that the star level changes at the bottom of the screen. It's telling you the star levels of hotels offered in each of these zones.
On a piece of paper, write down the name of each zone and its highest star level. Set it aside -- we'll use it later.
In some cities, a four-star hotel may be offered in two or three zones. In other cities, the highest rated hotel may be a three star. If the highest star hotel is offered in every zone, the free rebid system will not work.
In Seattle, there is only one zone out of ten that offers a four star hotel - downtown. This is a perfect example to generate extra rebids.
Step Four: Start bidding
On Priceline, enter your city and enter your dates of travel. Click the area you want to stay in, then click the highest hotel class level.
Check your list of zones and class levels from your piece of paper and find all the areas that offer a hotel class that is lower than what you want.
Enter a price. In our Seattle example, I know that bidders were getting a room for roughly $100 to $120 a night. I started at $80. After entering all the necessary personal data, I clicked 'buy my hotel room.'
I got rejected.
Step Five: Using your free rebid
Here's the secret: Priceline makes you wait 24 hours if you don't want to change anything about your bid except the price. That means if you don't change the hotel class, or the dates or the zone, you must wait 24 hours to bid again.
Here's where that list of zones with the highest class of service comes into play. Add a zone with a class of hotel that's "lower" than your preferred zone.
In our example, I want a four-star hotel in downtown Seattle. The highest hotel class in Bothell is two and half stars.
I add Bothell, knowing that I will never stay in Bothell because there are no four star hotels in Bothell. I add just $1 to my bid. I get rejected, but I just beat the 24-hour rule by adding an area with the guarantee that I won't ever stay there.
Step Five: Multiple free rebids
After you've been rejected, don't use the page Priceline serves up next. Go back a few steps and reconfigure your zone combinations. This is important to maximize your free rebids.
Hit the back button on your browser a few times and get back to your original bid screen and add a zone to your preferred zone.
In my case, I go back to the first time I bid on a four-star hotel in downtown Seattle. Last time I added Bothell. This time, I make sure downtown Seattle is selected and add Lake Union with Bothell removed. Lake Union is another zone that doesn't have a four-star hotel.
Priceline recognizes each combination of city pairings, hotel class and price as a unique bid. As long as you don't duplicate anything, Priceline will accept your new bid.
In my case, I add Lake Union, add another $1 for an $82 bid and get rejected again. I go back a few pages on my browser, click on my preferred area downtown Seattle and select Everett, which is another area without a four-star hotel.
I add $1 to my bid and get rejected again.
Just keep on changing your city combinations with areas that don't have a hotel that's your preferred class or higher. By doing so, you can keep bidding without the fear of staying outside of your preferred zone.
Mathematically, I had up to 86 different bidding combinations for a four-star hotel in downtown Seattle. With each bid, I was guaranteed I wouldn't stay anywhere else.
Step Six: Count the money you saved
After 10 bids, going up a $1 each time, I hit pay dirt. I got the downtown Sheraton for $90 plus tax.
Checking the Sheraton's web site for the same night, the cheapest room was an internet-only special of $139 plus tax. The non-internet rate was $159 plus tax.
I saved roughly $50 and I beat the prices that were posted on the Priceline helper web sites.
If I didn't use the free rebid system, it would have taken me 10 days to complete my bids. Instead, it took me only 10 minutes and I had plenty of free rebids remaining.
Priceline.com is well aware of the rebid method. Spokesman Brian Ek says only a "very small percentage" of its users take the time to bid this way.
Each city offers different situations, but this should be a good start to saving big dollars.
If you would like to have Matt give you a lesson on How to Beat Priceline to your group of 15 or more, just email him at firstname.lastname@example.org