MidwestWeekends.com — Your Travel Guide to the Upper Midwest

Happy deals

For rock-bottom hotel rates, learn how to use Priceline.

Chicago's skyline at night.

© Torsten Muller

Chicago has a lot of hotels — and a lot of great deals in the slow season.

When reserving a hotel room, there are deals, and then there’s Priceline.

Five years ago, I tried the on-line bidding service, which has a big catch: You don’t know what hotel you’ve reserved until you’ve paid for the room. We got a hotel in Miami’s South Beach that had a decent location but was noisy, had an unfriendly staff and charged an extra "resort fee.''

After that, I’d had it with Priceline – until friends made me reconsider.

In December, we both booked hotel rooms in Chicago on the same weekend, two blocks apart. I used Expedia and paid $129. They used Priceline and paid $55.

Mary and John once owned a resort hotel in northern Minnesota, and they have a killer instinct for deals that serves them well. They use Priceline wherever they go and often come to the Twin Cities on weekends, paying about $45 per night. Here’s how they do it.

“Ask for a four-star hotel and make a lowball offer, say $40,’’ Mary says. “If they don’t accept it, add another area, say Fridley, where there isn’t a four-star hotel. Then you can rebid right away (without waiting 24 hours).''

But aren't people who get dirt-cheap rooms given the worst rooms?

“We work as a team,'' Mary say. "I do the on-line stuff, and John schmoozes the clerks to see if we can get a better room and not just a ‘Priceline room.’ At one time, hotels might be pooh-pooh about it, but in this economy, any business they get, they appreciate.’’

And if their $45 room isn't fabulous, it doesn't ruin their trip: “We don’t stay in the room,’’ Mary says.

In a report on Priceline in its summer 2009 issue, the non-profit Twin Cities Consumers’ Checkbook used the service to find “extraordinarily low rates’’ at hotels around the nation.

“After several months of shopping hotel rates, we consistently found that we were able to secure rock-bottom hotel rates at four-and five-star hotels by simply spending some time patiently plugging away on Priceline’s site,’’ it wrote.

The authors recommend bidding only on four- and five-star hotels. They always started at $50, rebidding by adding another area or another hotel category to their search. Usually, they paid no more than $70.

First, they say, check prices on such booking sites as Orbitz or Expedia and see how many stars each hotel has, “to make sure you’re willing to stay in the hotel with the lowest rates for the star rating you select . . . we found that these were often the hotels where Priceline booked us.’’

Timing does affect deals; even Priceline can't find you one when there’s a big festival or convention in town. In Chicago, check the convention calendar before you book a flight.

The Hot Rooms service (which often offers better rates than the booking sites but more than Priceline), also notes big events.

Consumers' Checkbook found little difference in prices quoted by Expedia, Orbitz, Travelocity, Cheaptickets.com, Hotels.com and the hotels themselves. (Hotwire, which also keeps the identity of hotels hidden until purchase, charged less but significantly more than Priceline.)

But I've often found some differences. For example, the rate Orbitz quoted for one Valentine's weekend at the Grand Hotel in Minneapolis was $90, as opposed to $167 on Travelocity. Travelocity quoted $84 for the Hyatt Regency, as opposed to $92 on Orbitz.

So first, do your homework. Then, if you like deals, go to Priceline.

For more about budget travel, see Cheap Trips stories.

Last updated on April 16, 2012