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When planning a recent trip to San Francisco, I suffered a mild case of sticker shock when I realized that even typically budget-friendly hotels like Holiday Inn Express cost upwards of $150 per night. Any place worth booking was either booked full or asking for much more than I would ever willingly pay for a room.

I quickly e-mailed a few friends who’ve visited the city often in the past, and one highly recommended using Hotwire. I was pretty skeptical at first, since there’s no guarantee that the hotel you end up with is one that you would actually want to stay at. Nevertheless, since I trust this friend, I decided to give it a go.

What sets Hotwire “Hot Rates” apart from Priceline‘s bids, it turns out, is that with Hotwire, it’s actually pretty easy to find out exactly what you’re booking before you enter your credit card information. First, narrow down your search criteria to exactly what geographic area you want to be at. Then, further narrow down the options by the type of hotel you want (3*+, 4*+) or any other specifications you might be interested in. Next, open up GoogleMaps and search for “hotels near _insert_location_.” Now you know exactly which hotels you are comparing. At this point, what I usually do is right-click / open-in-new-tab any of the hotels that fall into the parameters set thus far. This means I ignore ultra-luxury hotels and ultra-budget ones with low reviews, focusing instead on the ones that fit the Hotwire Hot Rates hotel description. While the remaining options may seem like a lot, it’s really easy to narrow it down from here. Go back to Hotwire, click “continue” on the deal, scroll to the bottom of the page, and check out the TripAdvisor rating at the bottom of the page. Personally, I won’t risk booking any place with less than a 4.5* average TripAdvisor reviewer rating, so this usually narrows it down to just 1 or 2 hotels left for me. This doesn’t mean that the hotel is a 4*, ultra-luxury hotel; it just means that of the guests who have left reviews highly recommend it. If you’re less risk-averse, you might end up with more hotels, but it should still be down to a reasonable number by this point. Finally, double check Hotwire’s list of “Amenities” associated with the hotel. The few times I’ve tried, I’ve managed to narrow it down to exactly the hotel that I will be getting before I book. Even if you’ve narrowed it down to 3 or 4, you still have a pretty good sense of what you’re rolling the die between, especially if you skim the reviews for your remaining options.

I know this method takes time, but it’s completely worth it for me since I love all things travel, especially the planning and review-reading and anticipation part of it. If your time is more valuable to you or you’re less interested in the tedious comparisons (which I admittedly love), Hotwire also has a “if you absolutely have to know the name of your hotel” search function as well, but I’ve never tried that…

This weekend, I will gladly be staying at an Intercontinental for the price of a Holiday Inn Express — $50 less than the hotel website’s AAA rate and $60 less than their rack rate ^_^ While I’ve heard reports that hotels sometimes bump guests who buy tickets at discount rates in favor of those who pay full price, I don’t anticipate this happening (but will update this post accordingly if it does).