Get a Great Hotel Rate with Hotwire (and Other 'Opaque' Booking Tools) (2021)
If you don’t care about staying at a specific hotel, the cheapest way to book (non-award) hotel rooms is usually through Hotwire or another “opaque” booking tool. In return for giving up control over the exact hotel you are booking, you get a rate that is considerably lower than normal.
When you search for hotels on Hotwire, you won’t see the name of the hotel, but you will see most of the important information that lets you decide whether you want to stay there—such as its Expedia user rating, bed types, amenities, and general location.
Using Hotwire usually provides a discount of around 25-40%. On many trips, it doesn’t make much difference exactly what hotel you get, as long as it is highly-rated hotel in the right part of town. But if “not knowing” bothers you, it often only takes a little bit of effort to figure out exactly the hotel you will wind up getting, before you book.
Hotwire discounts tend to be highest when demand and pricing are low and smallest when demand and pricing are high. As a result, it is a great complement to using hotel points. When prices are high, it is a great time to use your hotel points for a “free” night. When prices are low, it is a great time to use Hotwire to get an even better deal.
Because Hotwire deals are non-refundable, you may want to hold off making a reservation until you are sure you are going on your trip.
How to use Hotwire—the simple way
If you don't really care about the specific hotel, you just need to check if there are any good deals on a "nice" hotel at your destination.
- Check the regular rates first. For example, if we were booking directly, the option we might choose for a higher-end downtown hotel for a weekend night in Seattle might be the 4-star Hyatt Regency for $169. Independent of price, the Four Seasons and Inn at the Market might be our picks, but they are too expensive at $995 and $409 respectively.
- Then see what is available at Hotwire. A quick check of Hotwire shows a very well reviewed 4.5-star hotel in downtown location for only $129.
- Only book hotels with Expedia ratings of 4.0+. Within each “neighborhood”, Hotwire will show you different offers for hotel with different “star ratings”. The star ratings are indicative of how “fancy” the hotel is, but not how “nice” it is. A 4-star hotel could be awesome or it could be an older business-oriented hotel in need of renovations. A 2.5-star hotel could be shiny new and well run, or it could be a dump.
- When they are important, check the amenities. Sometimes, you need a hotel with a pool, or a business center, or some other amenity. Hotwire shows this on both the hotel listing page and hotel details page:
- Decide whether you want to take the time to try to figure out what hotel you will be getting. This often only takes a few seconds. Other times, you can still usually use the information that you are given on Hotwire to figure out the identity of the mystery hotel ahead-of-time. If you enjoy the sleuthing, or the specific hotel is important to you, you can invest the extra effort to figure out the identity of the hotel. Uncover the Actual Hotel Offered Through Hotwire.
- If everything looks good, and you don’t want to avoid booking a non-refundable rate, book the hotel and save a substantial amount of money. In this case, we were willing to take the “mystery” hotel for $129 per night, rather than the Hyatt for $169. As it turns out, we would get the historic and very nice Fairmont Olympia, at a very significant savings to its best available rate of $215-330 and a substantial savings over the Hyatt.
You need to look at the user rating information to get a better sense of whether the hotel is any good or not. In general, we stick to hotels that get at least a 4.0 rating from Expedia (and preferably at least a 4.2 or 4.3). In our example, you can see that the $129 per night hotel has a rating of 4.6
We can see that our candidate hotel has a pool and allows dogs, which are important to use for this stay.
Hotwire's rates aren’t always that much better
When occupancy is high, hotel companies aren’t willing to offer as significant a discount via Hotwire. You always need to check the regular rates first, and decide whether the potential discount is worth it.
For example, during Christmas break, the regular rates at Maui hotels, such as the Sheraton, are higher:
And the rate at the Hotwire options are higher as well. In this case, you are getting a 30% discount—not too shabby, but not as good as with the earlier example:
You can save even more when you are flexible about locations
For example, perhaps you are heading to San Diego for a weekend in August. You are going to be exploring the area by car, so you don’t really care exactly where you stay, assuming it’s not way out in the boondocks.
The nicest hotels in downtown, and along the beach, are expensive:
However, if you are willing to stay a few miles away, you can save money, and still get a well-reviewed hotel, such as this Courtyard north of downtown.
If you are willing to stay even further from town, normal hotel rates bottom out around $110 per night
The alternative is to head to Hotwire. A very highly recommended 4-star hotel in downtown is considerably cheaper than any of the regular closer-in booking options. For example this hotel is better located and nicer than the Courtyard you could have booked for $269.
Downsides of booking via Hotwire
While you can usually save considerable amounts of money by using Hotwire or other opaque sites, there are some downsides. You need to make sure you are saving enough money to justify these drawbacks.
- Only a small subset of hotels is available through the Secret Hotel program. Even if you take the time to figure out exactly what hotels you might be getting, you won’t be able to pick from a large selection of hotels, and you often can’t book a particular hotel that you had your eye on.
- You can’t cancel or change your reservation. One strategy is to book a cancellable reservation on another website ahead-of-time, and then when you get closer to your departure date, check to see if you can get a better rate on Hotwire. If so, you can cancel the original reservation, and book through Hotwire.
- On some opaque booking sites (other than Hotwire), there is no guarantee that the room will accommodate more than two people (in a single bed). So, if you need space for more or you need separate beds, you might get stuck. This is especially true in places like New York City and Europe, where smaller rooms are the norm. However, Hotwire itself will allow you specify the number of beds—just beware that two-bed rooms might have “Double” beds, rather than “Queen-size” beds.
- Your hotel might not be in the exact location you want. While you will always know the general vicinity, you might not know the exact location of the hotel. Make sure that the savings are worth your lack of control. Sometimes, you may be willing to pay a premium to be at the same hotel as an event, within a block or two of a subway location, or in some other very specific location.
- You usually won’t get points for your stay, and you may not get any of the “perks” that you would normally be entitled to as part of a loyalty program. This is the same as booking through any 3rd party travel site. Some chain hotels may still provide some benefits, but that is at their discretion.
- You’ll be at the back-of-the-line when it comes to the exact room you get. At most modern hotels, with cookie-cutter rooms, that just typically translates to a less-desirable view, or a lower floor. But for some older hotels, that could mean that you are in their smallest or least recently refurbished room.
Checking options beyond Hotwire
Hotwire is the largest opaque booking site in the United States, but they are not the only game in town. You can check several other sites to see if you can find an especially good deal:
- Priceline Express Hotels offers a good hotel selection and the ability to choose bed types (at most hotels). However, they provide less information than Hotwire about the hotel that you are booking. One advantage of using Priceline’s site is that there is a handy Chrome extension called Hotel Canary, that can automatically uncover the name of the specific hotel.
- LastMinute’s Top Secret Hotels is another good option, particularly when you are traveling internationally.
- Expedia’s Unpublished Hotel Rates are pulled from the same inventory as Hotwire, so aren’t worth checking directly.
You don't search Priceline specifically for Express Deals. They show up automatically mixed-in with the regular hotel results:
However, if you want, you can filter the results to just show Express Deals using the bar at the top of the page.
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