HOW I BOOKED IT: I clicked on the Packages icon on the home page. The site covers 90-plus destinations, including Atlanta, St. Louis and Tucson, but this city girl's heart was set on line dancing and the Grand Ole Opry.
A "no changes" warning applies, as does a two-hour time limit from initial query to purchase confirmation. I didn't feel the pressure when "practicing" on Hotwire a few days before I made my purchase, but on Tuesday the blood rushed when the clock started.
I asked for a round-trip ticket to Nashville with a Friday departure and Sunday return. Eight options matched these criteria, arranged in order of Top Picks (you can also sort by star rating, hotel name and price). Hotel details were provided, but except for noting that I didn't want a red-eye, there were no flight specifics. For that, I'd have to wait until after purchasing the package.
I scrolled for the cheapest options and liked the sound of $370 at the Sheraton, including all taxes and fees. I called the Sheraton to check on cheap transportation from the airport (Gray Line goes round trip for $17), then entered my billing information.
A few nail-biting minutes later (for all I knew I'd be on a puddle-jumper leaving at a God-forsaken hour) I had an e-ticket on US Airways through Charlotte, leaving Dulles at 10:20 a.m. Friday and departing Nashville at 10:40 a.m. two days later. Phew.
BIGGEST ANNOYANCE: Losing a great hotel deal ($340 at the Sheraton) and my airport of choice (Reagan National) because I waited a day to book. When I plugged in the same itinerary the next day, the same package popped up -- with a big fat "expired" sign. Then this: "The two-hour purchase window for this search result has passed. The same exact search cannot be conducted within 48 hours of the original search." Man! Thankfully, a similar deal was available from Dulles, but what if my home area was only served by one airport? I'd have been out of luck.
NICEST SURPRISE: My hotel (with pool) was in the center of town: I was able to walk everywhere, save the Grand Ole Opry.
LESSONS LEARNED: Next time I'll do advance recon more than two days before I actually want to purchase -- or I'll log on to another computer. I'll type in my preferred airport from the start instead of just "Washington" to save a step. (The "change airport" button lets you alter the request without having to retype it).
THE EXPERIENCE: Nashville welcomed me with a shuttle driver who announced, unprompted, that "Yup, I'm a hillbilly, a thoroughbred. My wife's got papers on me." After easy flights and a 15-minute shuttle ride to the hotel, I checked into my room, with its queen-size bed and view of the Nashville skyline. A trip to the visitors center (Fifth Avenue and Broadway) yielded a courtesy coupon book and help buying a ticket to the Grand Ole Opry. They advised taking a (paid) self-guided tour of the Ryman Auditorium (116 Fifth Ave. N.), where I saw the devout pay to have their picture taken on the stage where Patsy Cline once sang. One woman was so moved, she gave an impromptu performance. Luckily there wasn't much glass around.
On Broadway, the main drag, twangs emanated from the row of neon-lit honkytonks (and this at 2 in the afternoon) as I headed to the Country Music Hall of Fame (222 Fifth Ave. S.). It rocked: Nudie Suits! Loretta Lynn's Crisco commercial! Elvis's diamond dust-covered Caddie!
Sam's Sushi Bar (200 Fourth Ave. N.) provided a respite from my afternoon of tasseled outfits and recorded "God bless yous." It's the kind of no-frills joint where you write down your own order and then the chef argues with you until given free rein, and he comes out with an enormous plate of the best sushi ever, all for $6.25.