Opaque websites more useful, less scary

Opaque websites are intentionally mysterious. Hotels, rental car companies and airlines often have “express inventory,” which means bookings aren’t going as quickly as they’d like. But they don’t want to put out a super-cheap price attached to their names to avoid denigrating their brand. This allows travelers to snag cheaper prices than they might otherwise find, but without knowing the supplier’s name until after they’ve made a non-refundable purchase. The best known of these are Hotwire and Priceline; Travelocity and Expedia also sell “secret” hotels. Autoeurope offers a similar service on cars, though unlike other “secret” deals, these are refundable.

For years I’ve used opaque sites for car rentals with superb results. Because I don’t rent that often, I’m not racking up loyalty points with one particular car company. And all of the opaque sites work with major suppliers, so there’s no danger of getting saddled into a car from a local no-name company with no road support.

Hotels and airlines are a different matter. Days off are precious, and when it comes to airlines, I care far more about the airline I’m flying (those FF points have taken me worldwide more times than I can count) and the exact times I’m flying than I care about saving a few dollars.  As for hotels, though I don’t adhere to a strict loyalty program, I’ve  never felt comfortable without knowing the name of the hotel, along with its exact location.

I’ve now changed my mind — at least where hotels come into the picture.

Recently we arranged a trip over a high-season weekend to Amsterdam. It’s one of the glaring holes in my travel resume, despite a number of previous efforts to get there (including one trip that was whited out by a London ‘snowstorm of the century’). In cities I know well — London, Hong Kong, New York — I have strong opinions about my precise location. But in the case of Amsterdam, I only know the neighborhoods I’d find convenient. What I do know is that my credit card screamed every time I looked at the hotel choices. Once I added in taxes, the cost of just about every hotel at any star level was heading close to $300 per night — meaning a tab of $900 for a three-night stay. Ouch.

Following the old adage that looking is still free, I went to Hotwire and found it has improved significantly since the last time I booked a hotel there. On the site, Amsterdam is segmented into tight areas, so you get a pretty decent idea of neighborhood. Information about each of the “secret” hotels offered includes a rating by previous Hotwire customers about whether they would recommend the hotel. Better yet, it also includes the 4-out-of-5 rating from Trip Advisor. (The two companies previously were held by the same ownership group.)

Still, all that might not have been enough to tempt me alone. The price was. Instead of paying $300 per night for a 2- or 3-star hotel, we found a price of $180 per night for a 4-star hotel in a good neighborhood. Even when we threw in a $40 cancellation insurance add-on, the price for our stay came down to just above $600 — a good 33 percent discount.

Click! Now that we had paid, the name was revealed. It turned out to be a chic brand hotel that I’d seen elsewhere online for $325 per night…more than we would even have considered booking out right.

It will be a couple of months before we actually travel; I’ll report back then on the experience. For today, I can say that we’ll be checking out the opaque sites next time we’re heading to a major city. It’s at least worth a look.