My best advice for anyone traveling on their own dime and not worried about getting reward points is to use Priceline. With a decade of business travel, especially when it’s your own money, you get smarter about how to save money on every trip. I have been using Priceline for 7+ years and through all my travels I have saved over $50,000 by buying smarter using their “Name Your Own Price” tool. Cash is king and it is more valuable to me than points for free nights.
My best success with Priceline is on hotels and rental cars where your area is fixed, unlike air travel, which has a lot of different variables such as flight departure/arrival time and the city you take off/land in. Here is a quick breakdown of how I have used Priceline to save money.
Say you are going to Manhattan and you know you want to stay in mid-town. Go to Hotels.com and look at what the average price is for your desired hotel based on a star rating. If the average 3 star hotel is $200 night, then go to Priceline in the “Name Your Own Price” section and select 3 star hotels in mid-town, then bid approx. $100-125 a night. You will generally have a pretty high chance of landing a great deal. The nice thing about Priceline is that they break out the big cities by districts so you can select the exact area you want to be in. If you don’t score a deal, there are generally three ways to get around this. Select your next closest district that you are ok staying in, login to Priceline with another email account, or wait a couple days and try again. Over the years, I have had a 90% success rate getting an awesome deal. Priceline claims you can save 50% on hotels, I have gotten as high as 65% and as low as 25%, on average I get about a 40% savings.
Cars like hotels, generally have a fixed area. You are landing at LAX and want to get a car and will return it back to LAX when you fly out. Following the same procedure, I will look up the rates for cars on Orbitz, Expedia, or direct at the car rental sites. Then I go into Priceline, select my airport, car size, cut my price by 50% and bid away. I have gotten some awesome deals on cars knocking off 80% of the cost. My lowest savings are around 25%. Either way it is still a great deal.
Depending on the time of the year, I have found that renting a car is actually cheaper if you go direct to the rental company such as Thrifty.com, Budget.com, etc. They have great deals that beat many of the aggregators.
When renting a car, regardless of using Priceline, I recommend everyone getting the membership rewards card from whomever you rent from. More than the points, it enables you to get in the fast line and check out quickly. If you travel a lot, this saves you a ton of time, costs nothing, and you feel good grabbing the keys and zooming out of the rental lot. Just make sure you have the rewards card before you get your rental, otherwise the long line awaits you.