San Diego via Priceline

Sunday, July 20, 2003

WHAT: Two nights at the Wyndham U.S. Grant Hotel in downtown San Diego and round-trip airfare on US Airways, booked through three days before departure.

HOW I BOOKED IT: Bidding on Priceline was a simple, if nerve-wracking, three-step process:

1. I typed in my departure city, dates and destination of choice -- for me, San Diego, but if I had a hankering for, say, steak and insurance (Omaha) or gators and sweating (Jacksonville), I could easily have done so, as Priceline lists about 100 locales.

2. Seventeen detailed hotel options (with pictures) popped up for San Diego, so I did some quick research before continuing, checking guidebooks and Web sites and calling the hotels -- is there a pool, free airport shuttle, nearby commerce area? -- to be sure I was making the right choice.

3. I entered my bid: $340, which veered closer to $400 when taxes and a $9.95 service fee were tacked on.

Then the clock ticked. And ticked some more. After about 15 minutes, I checked my status (a quick press of a button) and found that my bid had been, gasp, rejected. Oh, well, back to Step 1.

The only difference this time, though, was that I had to alter my request -- and raising it by a dollar didn't qualify. Instead, I expanded my airport departure choices, adding Dulles to the already-selected Reagan National. Another time, I changed the date, then the property. Eventually, after seven hours of fruitless bidding, I realized that flying off-peak hours and agreeing to connections were the clinchers. Starting anew, I had one warm-up rejection, which then listed other options in my price range. I clicked on the Wyndham, put in the suggested figure of $349 and, minutes later, heard the angels sing: "Congratulations!" cheered Priceline, my bid was accepted. Wax the surfboard: San Diego, here I come.

BIGGEST ANNOYANCE: The 21 rejected bids before finally nabbing my trip.

NICEST SURPRISE: When you're bidding on packages, Priceline lists the names of the hotels -- unlike the hotel-only option, which reveals only the property's star status and neighborhood -- plus some detailed descriptions of the lodging you're bidding on, so you can do pre-auction research to determine if the property meets all your demands. Plus, this info will make you a more informed bidder (is there a free airport shuttle? If yes, then you can save on transfer costs, hence up your offering), and will help you determine your total budget beforehand. (The flight info, though, remains a mystery until your bid has been accepted.)

LESSONS LEARNED: Before you begin, check the mostly helpful tips on, where Priceline users list winning amounts, a useful starting point for your own vacation. Once well-versed in Priceline-speak, and after you've selected a property, go to one of the other online travel sites, such as Expedia or Travelocity, and plug in the same package. Whatever price they offer, take at least 30 percent off -- then use that figure as your preliminary bid. Confused? Call Priceline (800-658-1496) and they'll do some of the grunt work for you, such as telling you which past bids for similar packages were accepted, recommending a good starting price and even inputting your bid (and delivering the good or bad news). Priceline also lists recently booked vacations, which can really boost your spirits and provide a framework. It also suggests the "best places for the best deals."

As for other tips: When rebidding, be sure to keep your bids straight. It's easy to get frenzied (trust me) and shoot off the same offer, which makes you a loser times two, so make note of what you've submitted. Also, be patient. You will be rejected -- it is part of the initiation (and will make you a stronger, better bidder), but persevere and you will be victorious.

Be flexible -- you have a better shot at a lower price if you are willing to fly off-peak hours, take connecting flights and/or fly smaller aircraft.

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