Before I got into the hotel loyalty game, Hotwire was how I booked almost all of my hotels. Hotwire is still a great deal even though I’ve found that the points and free breakfast I get through top-tier elite status are worth the extra cash I may spend by booking directly with the hotel. But many people are not interested in that kind of commitment.
There are two kinds of reservations that Hotwire will help you find. First, you can book transparent reservations, in which you know the name of the hotel and the price. This is the same as booking with any other online travel agency like Orbitz or Expedia. It’s not quite the same as booking with the hotel directly, since a direct booking is often the only way to earn points and stay credit toward elite status. (If you already have status, the benefits of that status generally won’t be affected).
The second kid of reservation is an opaque booking. This is the style in which Hotwire and Priceline specialize even though they do provide transparent bookings, too. Opaque bookings tell you the price and some general information about the hotel, but not the name of the hotel itself.
However, if you know enough about that area and are good and piecing together the clues, you can often figure out which hotel that is with a fair degree of certainty.
Example #1: Booking a Weekend in San Francisco
(More examples to come in the future, but I have to start somewhere.)
In this first example, I’m going to look for a 3- to 5-star hotel in San Francisco for an upcoming shopping weekend in December. I’d like to be relatively close to Union Square. And if I can, I would prefer a Hyatt or Starwood property thanks to my elite status with both programs. (Remember, this won’t count to renewing my status, but I will still benefit from any status I already have.)
Hotwire breaks down any region into smaller geographic zones, and within each zone it only lists ONE hotel at each star category. So that means there is at most one 3-star hotel, one 3.5-star hotel, one 4-star hotel, and so on. But there doesn’t have to be a hotel for every ranking, so it could be zero or one.
The first thing I do is un-check all the boxes below my threshold so that only 3- to 5-star hotels are left. If I’m in Europe, I limit myself to 4- to 5-star hotels. No offense intended, but standards are generally lower outside North America. We’re lucky to have so much space.
Looking at the map, there are lots of geographic zones in San Francisco, too. We’ll get to those later. But first I’m going to un-check all the boxes for zones not near my desired destination. I’m left with Union Square West, Union Square East, and Financial District-Embarcadero.
Finally, since my real goal in using Hotwire is to save money, I rank everything by price. The top results include a 4-star hotel in Union Square East for $134, but the list does go as high as $330 for a 5-star hotel or lower if you head to Union Square West. (I’m just guessing, but this last one is probably the new Four Seasons across from Moscone Center.)
What do we know about this $134 hotel? Well, zoom in on the map and you can see the exact geographic region in which it falls.
Click on the button to see all amenities, and you have some idea of how it differs from other hotels in that same area. Maybe most will have a restaurant, but not all will have an indoor pool, for example.
Cross Reference with Other Sites
Finally, we know that some of this information is provided by TripAdvisor. It used to be you could get both a TripAdvisor rating and read people’s reviews, but that isn’t possible anymore. And for good reason: I once deciphered a hotel on Hotwire when someone mentioned the excellent art collection, something one specific hotel in that neighborhood was known for. Comparing the TripAdvisor rating to ratings on the TripAdvisor website itself is another good screen, but sometimes the rating is available and sometimes it isn’t. In the case of this $134 hotel, the TripAdvisor rating is 4.0/5.0.
So I go over to TripAdvisor.com and run a new hotel search for the same dates in the same city. I refine the search using the buttons on the left so I’m only looking at 4-star hotels rated 4.0 on TripAdvisor. And then I click on the option for a big map so the search results will update as I reposition it. I go to the same area as I was look at on Hotwire, and voila! Not all of these hotels are in Union Square East. I do have to go through it and look for the ones that might be part of Union Square West instead or other neighborhoods, but I have a good starting list.
Sometimes you can filter by amenities, too. TripAdvisor wasn’t letting me do that, so I’ll have to open each page individually and check. Pulling up the screenshots side-by-side, it looks like I need to examine hotels #2, 6, 7, 9, 11, 12, 15, 16, 17, and 18 on the TripAdvisor map above. A few of those are 4.5-star hotels, which fall under the 4-star filter but don’t meet my criteria, so I don’t need to look at those.
Evaluate Individual Properties
On each hotel page on TripAdvisor, I pull up a list of hotel amenities. Now, Hotwire warns that not all amenities may be included on Hotwire. They may choose to leave off some that make it easy to identify a hotel. But you can be sure that almost all will be on TripAdvisor, since it’s a transparent website that is trying to advertise for specific properties. I quickly knock off a few more from my list because they don’t have indoor pools.
I’m left with the San Francisco Marriott Marquis, the Palace Hotel, and the W San Francisco.
Now unfortunately, I have a hard time taking it further than that. Sometimes there are very obvious features that make a property stand out. Not always. At this point you have three options other than calling it quits.
Option #1: You’re happy with any of the choices you have left.
You’ve narrowed down the list quite a bit, and as long as you think they’re all good, then at least you are not shooting arrows in the dark. I think these would all be good hotels. The danger is that you have two good hotels and one real stinker. Maybe the one Hotwire is trying to sell you is the stinker.
Option #2: Estimate by price.
Hotwire told me this is a hotel that normally costs $214 on other sites, but they’ll sell it to me for $134. TripAdvisor will let you pull up quotes from multiple booking sites at once after you navigate to a single hotel page. It looks like the W is normally $229, with a 4.3/5 ranking on Expedia. Also checking out Expedia, the Palace hotel is normally $149 with a 4.5/5 ranking, and the Marriott is $209 with a 4.4/5 ranking.
There are two ways to look at this data. First, the Palace is charging way too little, so it doesn’t match up with the size of the discount Hotwire promises. Second, the Palace charges way too little, so it’s more likely to be selling its rooms through Hotwire at the price Hotwire advertises. Is the glass half full or half empty? 😛
Option #3: Estimate by rating.
In addition to a simplified star rating or TripAdvisor score, you can also see how many people would recommend that hotel and compare it to numbers on other sites. Hotwire says 90% of its customers recommend this hotel. When you click on TripAdvisor to see how much other booking sites are charging, you’ll get a popup window with recommendations for other properties. When I clicked to see the prices for the W, I saw that only 75% of TripAdvisor reviewers recommend the Palace Hotel.
That kind of discrepancy seems too large to make the Palace Hotel a likely contender. However, clicking on the other hotel pages for prices, I learn that the W also gets a 75% recommendation sore. I did not see a recommendation for the Marriott Marquis.
At the end of the day, I would say the combination of a large price discrepancy and a large recommendation discrepancy lead me to rule out the Palace Hotel, but I wouldn’t be too disappointed if I ended up there anyway. It’s possible the W is ruled out also, but I can’t be sure since I don’t have a recommendation score for the Marriott Marquis. We’ve seen that good hotels can still get poor recommendations. The W does have an advertised price on Expedia closer to what Hotwire claims is the “normal” cost.
I was only able to do this in-depth analysis because I used filters and shared data between websites to narrow my results significantly. I was not about to look at 20 individual hotels to see if they matched Hotwire’s description.
I will leave you with one more resource. Web forums like BetterBidding.com accumulate people’s successes and failures betting on opaque travel bookings on Priceline and Hotwire. I sometimes scroll through there to see what other people have been winning, for what dates, and at what price. You can expect to see something comparable. But if they’re looking at June and you’re looking at January, then all bets are off. These forums only succeed when they reach a critical mass with frequent updates. Unfortunately, only the data for the most popular destinations meet that criterion, so I continue to do my own research first.