Travel bargains: Where to find them fast online
Shop around at travel Web sites such as Expedia.com and Orbitz.com and you'll get good deals, and aching fingers. A fast way to find even bigger bargains is to head straight for the clearance racks of the travel industry: Hotwire.com and Priceline.com.
These sites get the flights, rooms, and cars that the airlines, hotels, and car-rental agencies are trying to unload quickly. Markdowns can top 40 percent or more. The trade-off: Unlike other travel sites, Hotwire.com and Priceline.com won't tell you which company you're doing business with until you enter your credit- or debit-card number. For that reason, the two are called "opaque" travel sites. What you don't see is what you get. And everything is final sale; no refunds or exchanges.
We tried both sites to see which turned up the best deals. We also compared them with the leading traditional ("transparent") travel sites, Expedia.com, Orbitz, and Travelocity. We found that the opaque sites were almost always cheaper by a comfortable margin than the big, traditional travel sites. And although Priceline.com dug up lower prices than Hotwire.com in our head-to-head competition, the latter was so much easier to use that you may not mind paying a few extra bucks for the added convenience.
At Hotwire.com, you type in when and where you want to travel and the type of car you're after (for example, compact or midsized), and the site presents you with a big grab bag of travel options. To use Priceline.com, you enter bids based on your itinerary, which can be a tricky process.
We tried the opaque sites by first identifying five itineraries for which we wanted to rent cars. We then went to Hotwire.com for rates on a car in five different cities on different dates. We took the prices at Hotwire.com and chopped 25 percent off to start bidding on identical itineraries at Priceline.com. In four out of five tries, our successful bids required modifying our requests, which added 10 to 20 minutes to our shopping time. You can't rebid for the same itinerary within seven days, so we chose to upgrade or downgrade vehicle types from, say, economy to compact, instead of changing dates or locations.
For all five queries, Priceline offered the lowest rate. Hotwire was usually the runner-up, although in two cases Orbitz matched Priceline's bargain rate. However, both times Priceline offered a car from Hertz; Orbitz vendors were second-tier operators--Ace in Los Angeles and Fox in Las Vegas. Another surprise: We found that Priceline's recently launched transparent site did not find lower prices than Expedia, Orbitz, or Travelocity.
Our results mirror a 2003 study of opaque travel sites by Consumer Reports WebWatch, a grant-funded project of Consumers Union, the publisher of Consumer Reports. WebWatch spent about $38,000 to bid on airline, hotel, and car-rental reservations. Priceline.com led seven travel sites, including Hotwire.com, by providing the lowest rate 47 percent of the time, often saving hundreds of dollars.
Although opaque sites can cut your costs, they're not the best choice for every trip, especially if you have your heart set on a specific hotel or if you must follow a set schedule, since times and even dates could fluctuate. If you're flexible but uncomfortable with not knowing where you'll end up staying or which airline you'll be flying, visit the "partners" sections on Hotwire.com and Priceline.com to get a list of their airlines, hotels, and rental-car agencies. Most of them are big brand names.
Two other considerations: Cancellations are never allowed and changes are generally not an option. And you can forget about earning loyalty mileage or points at opaque sites. Also, as with other major travel sites, you will pay a small booking fee for airline tickets: $5 at Hotwire.com and $2.50 to $9.95 at Priceline.com.
Here are some tips to help you squeeze the best deals from the opaque sites:
Get the inside scoop. Find shopping and bidding tips from other travelers by visiting sites such as BetterBidding ( www.betterbidding.com ).
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