How to Decode "Opaque" Hotel Sites to Get the Deepest Discounts

by  Christine Wei | May 15, 2014
Portsmouth, NH
Portsmouth, NH / Sean Pavone/iStock

Remember We recently got a pleasant blast from the past from this site when we spontaneously turned a day trip to the lovely harbor town of Portsmouth, NH into an overnight – and saved about 50 percent on a very nice and centrally located hotel just hours before our stay. Here's how you can do the same with this, and other "opaque" hotel booking sites, which don't reveal property names so that hotels can sell at the lowest rates possible. These aren't to be confused with "blind" booking sites like Priceline's Name Your Price, where you have no real sense of where you'll stay. Opaque sites give you a few extra details and filters. Here's how to decipher their offerings and deduce where you'll likely stay, so you can be picky and thrifty all at once.

Who’s Who
Expedia’s Unpublished Rate Hotels actually pulls from Hotwire's hotel inventory, so it’s not necessary to search both. And while Travelocity’s Top Secret Hotels was popular when it first launched, and offered some sneaky loopholes to reveal the hotels in question, it’s now become much more difficult to ID the properties. Coupled with a smaller inventory and a less precise way to see what you're booking, it's no longer the go-to. These days, Hotwire and Priceline's Express Deals, which launched two years ago, are the sites of choice.

So what’s the difference between the two? Express Deals and Hotwire work off the same concept, but the booking experiences do vary in a few ways. Hotwire allows you to book more than two guests into each room, filters for accessibility, and provides a map that helps you better visualize the general location of the property. Priceline offers different bed types for many (but not all) hotels.

Which brings us to our next point: Where to find clues about what you’re booking.

1. Location
The location of your hotel can make or break your vacation. Of course, opaque booking sites won’t reveal this, so you’ll have to do a bit of research beforehand. Priceline and Hotwire filters are granular enough that you can target your search to specific neighborhoods, especially in bigger cities. But if you're traveling to a smaller town, you may only be able to choose the town itself as your location.

Our example: Portsmouth is quite small, so we didn't have an overwhelming number of properties to choose from. After filtering out nearby towns like Kittery, ME, we were only left with a few hotels. Had we been in a city like New York, where you can find more than one hotel on a single block, our results would have looked very different.

2. Ratings
The next step is to take a look at hotel ratings, again with a grain of salt. This is one area where Hotwire is especially helpful. Clicking into an individual listing will turn up not only Hotwire's star ratings but also Tripadvisor's user ratings. Savvy travelers can compare Hotwire's star ratings with OTA sites like Expedia and Kayak and cross-reference Tripadvisor listings, which provide the name of the property.

Hotel inventory lists on various online forums can provide a more complete picture of the pool you're selecting from. Sites like Better Bidding, Bidding on Travel, and Hotel Deals Revealed aim to help travelers with opaque booking sites, and often contain posts that share previous booking results.

Our example: In booking our Portsmouth stay, we found a 3.5-star hotel on Hotwire with 4/5 user rating on Tripadvisor. We ran a quick search that found that the Sheraton Harborside was the only 3.5-star hotel in the area on Expedia, but it had a 4-star rating on Kayak. (Because there is no single standard for hotel star ratings, they can vary slightly from site to site.) It also had a 4/5 user rating on Tripadvisor. There was only one other 4-star property in the area listed on Kayak, for the Hotel Portsmouth. We were short on time and didn’t check the forums, but we didn’t really feel the need to. Both hotels went on our shortlist.

3. Rates & Fees
Because rates for the same room can vary from site to site, trying to guess the identity of a hotel by its price isn't really possible. Hotwire even states that it sets pricing based on average rates on the market from the past 24-48 hours. Prices can also vary depending on dates and length of stay. That said, you can always use price to sanity-check an educated guess. A room at the Four Reasons, for example, probably wouldn’t ever go for $99 , especially if you're seeing it for $300 on Expedia. If you're booking a resort, and an opaque site mentions resort fees, you can double check those fees on the hotel's actual sites, once you've narrowed it down.

Our example: Sheraton Harborside’s crossed out price on Hotwire, $279, matched the price listed on Kayak.

4. Amenities & Hotel Collections
Not all of a hotel’s amenities are listed on opaque booking sites because they give too much away. Still, you can look for less common features like pools, pet-friendliness, and free wifi in all rooms (versus lobbies and shared spaces). With Priceline’s Express Deals, don’t forget to click through the Book button to see what bed options are on offer. Once in a while, the choices might allude to room categories or provide additional details pertaining to mattress programs, kitchen spaces, and balconies that not all hotels offer.

Then there are hotel "collections" – essentially groups of brands that have been categorized as being of similar quality. On Hotwire, brand logos are displayed in a box in individual hotel listings; on Priceline, hover over the "What hotel is this?" below or next to the star rating. Treat these the same way you treat amenities lists. Just because a brand is listed doesn't mean that you'll get one of their properties, but just because a brand isn't listed doesn't mean that it's not in the mix.

Our example: Hotwire listed “pool” as an amenity for the listing we were looking at. It only took a minute to confirm that Sheraton Harborside has one and that Hotel Portsmouth doesn’t. Is Sheraton listed in Hotwire's 3.5-star collection for the area? Yep. We went ahead and booked the hotel – and, like we guessed, snagged a room at the Sheraton.

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