If you're willing to assume some risks, the two big "opaque" travel Web sites -- Hotwire and Priceline -- can cut your hotel costs substantially below the ordinary senior rates you find through other sources. That's a thumbnail report from my latest trip.
For a visit to the headquarters of the two Web sites with which I work -- smartertravel.com and mybusinesstravel.com -- I wanted a comfortable room in Boston's "financial" or "Quincy Market" district. I didn't particularly care which hotel.
This time, I tested Priceline, where I bid $80 a night for a "four star" hotel in that neighborhood. Almost immediately, Priceline confirmed a room at the Hyatt Regency, a fine property that filled my bill exactly. The regular rate for the room I occupied was $219 a night, while the senior rate (AARP) was $183, all figures plus 12.5 percent tax. Obviously, the Priceline rate -- for travelers of any age -- was well under half of the nominal senior rate.
The risks I faced with Priceline were (1) I didn't know the name of the hotel until after Priceline had my $80 (plus tax) and (2) I could never get that $80 back if I didn't like the hotel or had to change my plans. Since my itinerary was cast in concrete, I didn't mind those risks. But had my flight been cancelled due to bad weather, I would still not have been entitled to any refund.
One caution: Hotels knock more than 50 percent off their regular rates because they can't sell enough rooms at full price, not out of any altruism toward consumers. So hotels that sell a lot of rooms through Hotwire or Priceline usually have a problem. For Hyatt Regency Boston, my guess is that the problem is location -- it's in an area that is very dead in the evenings.
Overall, as long as I'm virtually certain I won't cancel, I've found Priceline and Hotwire to be useful for hotel bookings (but not for air tickets). I first check representative prices on other Web sites, then bid (Priceline) or select (Hotwire) a price well under the advertised prices. I book only 3- or 4-star properties so I know I won't be seriously disappointed.