Hotwire and Priceline have become the first stops for millions of vacationers and business travelers planning a trip. The two widely used travel booking sites have a lot in common, including how much they claim they can save you. But they also have some key differences.
The older of the two sites, Priceline (NASDAQ: PCLN) was established in 1997, making it something of a venerable institution by Internet standards. It is probably best known for its Name Your Own Price feature and second-best known for its goofy TV ads with the actor and Star Trek icon William Shatner.
Priceline’s Name Your Own Price allows consumers to indicate how much they’re willing to pay for a hotel room, flight or rental car and see if any travel providers will take the deal.
To assist in the bidding, the site provides some useful clues, including a “Not Sure What to Bid? Click here” link that will take you to a list of local hotels and tell you what their rooms normally go for. If the first bid you type in appears too low, the site will warn you that, “Based on recent data, your price has almost no chance of being accepted,” before you go any further.
Until you’ve accepted an offer, the company you’re doing business with is “opaque.” That is, you won’t know the exact provider, such as a particular hotel, although you can specify some parameters, such as an approximate location and a star rating in the case of hotels. (For more, see Why do Priceline & Hotwire Hide Hotel Names?)
If bidding isn’t your thing, Priceline has other ways to shop. You can search its listings of hotels, flights, rental cars, vacation packages and cruises to find the best price; with that type of search, the providers are named, rather than opaque, so you know exactly what you’re getting.
For hotels, it also offers a third option, called Express Deals, which lists hotels by price. Once again, you’ll see a general location and star rating, but the actual hotel name is withheld until you’ve agreed to the deal.
Although one of the major motivations for travel providers to partner with sites like Priceline is to move their hotel rooms, plane seats, rental cars and other perishable inventory that would otherwise go unsold, Priceline generally has a large selection to choose from even months ahead. For example, a recent search of Chicago-area hotels for a three-day weekend two months in the future came up with 188 choices, starting at $48 a night (and going all the way up to $730). As to getting there, a traveler flying from LaGuardia Airport in New York City to Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, for example, had a choice of 63 nonstop flights, starting at $140 a ticket.
Overall, Priceline promises savings of up to 60% on hotels and 40% on flights and rental cars.
Launched in 2000, Hotwire is part of a portfolio of travel sites that also includes Expedia.com (NASDAQ: EXPE) and Hotels.com. In contrast to Priceline, it doesn’t have a bidding option. In fact, it makes a virtue of that difference, stating on its website, “Unlike other discount travel sites, our posted price model makes it easy for our customers to find a great deal. No bidding. No hassle. No games.”
Like Priceline, Hotwire allows consumers to price-shop for named hotels, flights, rental cars and vacation packages. However, it doesn’t list cruises.
Hotwire also has a second way to shop for a hotel room: Secret Hot Rate Hotels, with provides a general location and star rating, but the actual hotel names are opaque until later.
As with Priceline, Hotwire has no shortage of offerings. For the same Chicago-area weekend that we searched on Priceline, Hotwire came up with 198 hotels to choose from, starting at $47 a night and going up to $445. For flights from LaGuardia to O’Hare, it offered a selection of 47 nonstops, starting at $141.
Also similar to Priceline, Hotwire recently promised savings of up to 60% on hotels, 40% on flights and 40% or more on rental cars.
Which Is Better?
Independent ratings services give them close grades but differ as to which one belongs on top. Here’s how they have stacked up lately.
J.D. Power’s 2014 Online Travel Agency Satisfaction Report gave Hotwire 795 points and Priceline 792 points, out of a possible 850. Both were judged “Better Than Most.” The highest scorer was Travelocity, with 804 points.
Reviews.com’s 2015 travel website ratings gave Priceline five stars and Hotwire four stars, out of a possible five.
Top Ten Reviews gave Priceline 8.88 points and Hotwire 7.53 points, out of a possible 10, putting them both in the “Good” category. In this case, the highest scorer was Orbitz, with 9.50.
The Bottom Line
Hotwire and Priceline offer similar services and are judged by outside reviewers to provide comparable levels of quality. So try them both and see which you are most comfortable with. That’s likely to be a matter of personal preference, including whether you’re much of a William Shatner fan.