Hotwire Helps You Score a Cool Deal

Continuing my tour of travel-planning Web sites for the E-Commerce Times, I moseyed over to Hotwire this week.

Hotwire is a discount site that sells off unsold inventory by masking the identity of the hotel or rental car service or airline until the purchase is complete. I have to confess the concept never appealed to me that much — it conjured up visions of middle-row airline seats and secluded hotels that could serve as sets for the movie “Psycho” — and thus, I dismissed it. I was wrong.

As I found out, Hotwire provided enough details about masked hotel rooms or flights — say, the hotel’s amenities and its neighborhood on a map — that I felt comfortable enough to go through with a purchase.

Furthermore Hotwire said it only worked with major brand names such as Delta Airlines and the Hilton chain of hotels. (Norman Bates, be gone!)

At first glance, the site seemed unassuming — it was only on my second pass, that I noticed the modest self-advertisement at the bottom proclaiming Hotwire the recipient of the JD Power & Associates Independent Travel Web Site Satisfaction award. By that point, I was ready to believe it.

Back to my starting point, though. I began with the same exercise I tried on Bookit.com last week: a trip to New Orleans on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving through the following Sunday. Unfortunately for me — still ticketless and on-a-budget me — I was in a lot of trouble, according to Hotwire, as flights were averaging US$443 — more than $100 more than last week’s average fares.

Thanksgiving Cornucopia

Even so, Hotwire had something that — based on my survey thus far — set it apart: a virtual cornucopia of options for getting that price down as much as possible. Plus, it offered those choices in a user-friendly format.

For instance, the ominously priced flights from Baltimore to New Orleans were laid out in typical top-to-bottom fashion on the right hand side of the screen. To the left, however, were alternatives I could consider.

Most cities can be easily reached by nearby — and possibly cheaper — airports. As I recently learned, pricing is determined, in part, by which airport is selected. Hotwire assumed that I might not know about my options, or that I might not have kept up with all the week-by-week price changes.

If I wanted to, I could leave from Philadelphia and fly to Gulfport, Miss., during that coveted travel window of Nov. 26-30 for $391. If I wanted to leave from Ronald Reagan Airport in the District and fly to Gulfport (a 45-minute drive to New Orleans), it would be $415.

Okay, granted those savings were not much, and no doubt would be eaten up by the additional travel expenses of getting from Washington to Philadelphia or from Gulfport to New Orleans on the other end. At least, though, I got a sense of what was possible and what was not. Indeed, the rest of my choices were downright unpalatable. Departing from Ronald Reagan to Baton Rouge would cost $576; from Dulles International to New Orleans would be $477.

If I had planned my trip a little earlier, I could have taken advantage of Hotwire’s Trip Watcher feature. Most online travel sites offer some form of fare watching — give them your destination and a rough schedule and they’ll email you relevant, often discounted, fares. Trip Watcher, though, promised to notify me if there were a way to get there for less by moving my trip by a day or by using another airport. That was one marketing promise I was inclined to believe as I tinkered around with the site a bit mroe.

The feature also seemed to work in reverse: While I was on the site, I was alerted that pricing for Thanksgiving weekend had plunged into a death spiral. A $463 flight I had been looking at half an hour earlier, from BWI to New Orleans, suddenly climbed to $477.

Other Things to Like

I didn’t have to hunt down Hotwire’s customer service number — in fact, Hotwire literally beseeched me to call with any questions I might have — even going so far as to ask for feedback on my search results at the end of an Opinionlab survey.

By then, I was so hooked on the site I was willing to brave the (okay, theoretical) terror of booking an anonymous hotel room. I went through the site’s planning tool, which ranked the top 50 most popular U.S. destinations by car, hotel, airfare and entertainment prices based on discounts.

Orlando, Fla., was at the top of the list and, I have to admit, the deals looked good. If, instead of visiting family for Thanksgiving, I decided to chuck it all for Disneyland — then I could get a hotel room close to the main gate for $29 per night. If that didn’t suit me, I could upgrade to a four-star hotel near SeaWorld for $59 per night.

There was some value-add information missing from Hotwire: no details on airports, no offer to send flight info to my mobile phone. It was essentially all about the discount — so, not the place to plan your dream vacation to the Mayan ruins.

Bottom line: It’s a great site. Use it.

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