Travel service providers often work with travel sites to book unused hotel rooms, airplane seats and rental cars at significant discounts. In exchange for the better pricing, these "blind travel sites" conceal the name of the service provider and certain other details until after the travel is booked. Some sites advertise discounts of more than 50 percent, which can make flights and luxury accommodations much more affordable to those who can tolerate some uncertainty before booking.
In addition to being in the dark about certain aspects of the travel plan, sales are typically final on blind travel. You cannot make changes or cancel and expect a refund. And, you aren't likely to earn frequent-flyer miles for flights. Although blind sites are similar, they don't necessarily work the same way.
Priceline opened for business in 1998, offering leisure airline tickets, hotel rooms, rental cars, vacation packages and cruises. The site still offers traditional booking services, but it's more widely known for its "Name Your Own Price" option. Kiplinger.com and BudgetTravel.com agree that bidding at Priceline.com can yield the best bargains for luxury hotels, especially in large cities.
To bid on a hotel at Priceline.com, you can select from a list of possible areas in that city, select a star rating and then enter the bid amount. You don't know the name of the hotel, its exact location or amenities. For flights, bidders specify the dates and airports, but don't know the airline, departure time, arrival time, number of connections or layover times. For rental cars, you choose the dates and times, location and type of car, and then submit a bid. If Priceline cannot buy travel for the bid amount, it's rejected as too low. You can increase the bid and try again in 24 hours.
At Hotwire.com, you enter the travel dates and location and receive search results that may contain a mix of fixed prices as well as undisclosed Hot Rates from unknown providers. The site advertises Hot Rates discounts of up to 40 percent on flights and 50 percent on hotels as well as low rates for rental cars. One downside noted in one review is that you don't know the taxes and fees until you select one of the hidden providers, so there's no easy way to compare total cost.
For Hot Rates on hotels, users have more information upfront and more search parameters than at Priceline.com. In addition to refining the search results by a star rating, users can request hotels closest to a particular landmark. Users also know what amenities each hotel has to offer before bidding and, in some cases, can specify the type of bed (so you don't end up with a king-sized bed for a family of four). You can then sort the search results by price, star rating, distance or customer rating.
LuxuryLink.com is another bidding site, offering up to 65 percent off luxury travel packages that might include spa packages, resort stays and gourmet meals, although airfares usually need to be booked separately. Although LuxuryLink.com offers some packages at a set price, the big draw to this site appears to be its auction packages. Although bidders know the name and location of the resort, they have to be flexible on dates to get the best deal. Travel and Leisure magazine has launched Vacationist.com, in partnership with LuxuryLink.com, which requires a membership.
To compete with Priceline and Hotwire.com, several major traditional booking sites began offering steeply discounted hotel rates through blind bookings in 2010, according to Travel and Leisure magazine. Expedia.com advertises discounts of up to 50 percent on thousands of hotels through its Unpublished Rate Hotels, and Travelocity.com offers up to 55 percent off rooms through its Top Secret Hotels. Expedia.com provides a link to the Unpublished Rate Hotels from the search results page, while Travelocity.com provides a link directly from the hotel search main page. No changes or cancellations are permitted on Unpublished Rate and Top Secret Hotels.