Personally, there are few things that make me happier than scoring a “good deal” on travel necessities such as hotel rooms. Anyone who has travelled in the US can tell you that hotels are going to take a serious chunk out of a travel budget. In the US hostels are much more difficult to come by, and they don’t usually have the same safe/hospitable feel as their Euro counterparts, leaving many travelers with few other choices than paying for rather pricey hotel rooms.

I fall into that category when I travel in the US, at the mercy of a few major hotel chains that you can actually trust being clean. Unless I am staying with friends, I don’t really go for hostels or couchsurfing in my homeland. Well, I haven’t yet, but I will be trying CS when I go to Puerto Rico in February (coming soon). Anyhow, I frequently find myself paying more for the hotel room than for the airfare/parking/food combined—ouch!

Priceline has been around for a years, and those Will Shatner commercials while memorable, seem like more of a liability than a marketing strategy. However, a few weeks ago, I decided to take the plunge and step out on a limb. Tampa is the largest city in this particular part of Florida, so I decided to spend a weekend up there. My goal was to drive up Friday after work, go to Busch Gardens on Saturday, and then head back home Sunday afternoon. The only real expense should have been my hotel considering I have an annual pass to Busch Gardens. I also prefer to cook my own food, so I brought a cooler stuffed with my favorite grub.

With the goal of getting a hotel room on the cheap, I took the advice of some friends and experimented with Priceline’s Name Your Own Price feature. Purchasing through the Name Your Own Price system is actually pretty easy. You choose “the star level” hotel you want, and the price you are willing to pay per night. Before Priceline will tell you which hotel will take the offer… if any… you have to pay for the room. If you bid too low and there are no takers, you won’t be charged.

I’ve used the service twice and have had two wildly different experiences. Below I will describe The Good and The Bad of Priceline.

Name Your Own Price- The Good

my hotel room at the marriott. A result of the first time I used Name Your Own Price.

The first time I used Priceline’s Name Your Own Price feature this is the hotel room I received. Overall, it was a very nice experience.

Price: You really can get the best prices utilizing this feature. The first time I used Name Your Own Price was my trip to Tampa. I bid $55/night for a 3-star hotel and was awarded a room at the Marriott Courtyard Tampa at $61/night including the taxes and fees. That’s a good price considering the same room on any other site was $85/night at the lowest.

Ease of Use: Using the service for the first time, I didn’t have any issues intuitively working through the process. After I was informed of the hotel I would be staying at, I researched the hotel. According to some of the ratings, the third floor rooms came with balconies. I’m a sucker for a balcony, so I called the hotel on the morning of check-in and requested/received a third floor room—it did indeed have a balcony to my delight.

Price: Did I mention I got the room for 35% less than the next cheapest option (Travelocity)??

Name Your Own Price- The Bad

Deceptive Ratings: The second time I used the Name Your Own Price service was for a room in Punta Gorda, FL. I needed to do some business back in my hometown and didn’t want to impose on my family, so I thought I would grab a cheap room on Priceline. Fresh off of my high from getting a steal at the Marriott one week earlier, I hopped online. I bid $45 for a 3-star room in Punta Gorda, FL, and once again I was awarded one. For a total of $57 thanks to taxes and fees I was to be a guest at the Punta Gorda Waterfront Hotel & Suites.

I didn’t have time to check individual reviews before my trip, but a criteria of a 3-star hotel on Priceline is an average guest rating of 7.0. That, coupled with my wonderful experience in Tampa the week before, left me feeling relatively confident I’d be having another nice stay on the cheap.

When I arrived I was shocked to the core. The place was just a total mess. It was hot and moist inside and smelled rancid. It needed a lot of work. There were like 5 signs in the parking lot stating, “Park at your own risk”.

I kept thinking… who would rate this a 7/10? So I went to Priceline to check the individual ratings… they were almost all negative. I went through every page of the reviews and put the overall guest rating for each review in a spreadsheet then I averaged them. The hotel, it turns out, actually has an average guest rating of 5.3/10. That’s an F anywhere.

Customer Service: After finishing my number crunching I felt compelled to call Priceline and let them know that they put me in a hotel that was supposed to be rated 7.0 or higher, but it was actually rated 5.3—oh and that smell!

That call was the most obnoxious part of the whole mess. The operators have about five different scripted responses that cover every question you could possibly ask. They are long, generic, monotone statements about striving to provide excellence and a commitment to quality, but they don’t really address anything in particular or add substance to the conversation. No matter what you say, they just reread a handful of canned responses. Even when you get “escalated” the new operator just sticks to the same five responses. That’s basically the epitome of poor customer service. Anyhow, I had my credit card reverse the charge due to merchant fraud, and I don’t think I got lice or bed bugs from the hotel so nothing lost.

Conclusion:

Buyer beware. Since the ratings are unreliable, I doubt I’ll be using this service again. That’s basically the bottom line.

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