The woman behind the checkout desk at Honolulu's Hilton Hawaiian Village leaned forward and asked in amazement, "How did you get that price?"
My secret: Booking with Priceline (http://www.priceline.com), I'd paid just $75 per night, plus tax and the $5.95 Priceline fee, for a room Hilton listed at $179.
Granted, that spring bargain carried limitations. I could specify the quality I wanted (one to four stars), but I had to name a price without knowing where in Honolulu I'd wind up. Once a Priceline bid is accepted, your credit card is charged for the entire stay--no refunds.
But as a faltering economy crimps travelers' plans, more hoteliers are turning to Priceline to fill their rooms. As a result, travelers with a high tolerance for surprises (and a willingness to do some homework) can shave 40% off the lowest published rates at 6,000 North American hotels.
Complaints of shoddy customer service have sparked improvements at the financially struggling enterprise. Priceline appointed a former state attorney general as consumer advisor, revamped its Web site and promises faster response times: Bids now get a "yes" or "no" within 15 minutes, and 80% of e-mail queries are answered within half an hour.
Priceline has also retooled its hotel rating system, adding a "2.5"-star category and a new resort designation. The company now offers rooms at about 40 resorts in Arizona, California, Florida, Hawaii, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, and plans to add Cancun and the Bahamas this summer.
Some strategies for scoring a bargain stay though Priceline:
* Be a shrewd shopper. For current rates, check hotel sites, online travel agencies and a travel search engine such as Qixo (http://www.qixo.com), SideStep (http://www.sidestep.com) or FareChase (http://www.farechase.com).
* Get some expert advice. Sheryl Mexic's detailed Priceline discussion board (http://pub4.ezboard.com/bpricelineandexpediabidding) offers bidding tips.
* Read the fine print. Larger cities are divided by zones, so if location is important, you should study the maps closely before you bid.
* Don't overbid. "Start by selecting a hotel quality category higher than what you would normally book, and name a very low price--perhaps 25% of Priceline's suggested rates," advises Jens Jurgen, a frequent Priceline customer and editor of the Travel Companion Exchange newsletter.
* Check rival Hotwire (http://www.hotwire.com). Like Priceline, this popular site doesn't reveal the hotel name or exact location until you fork over a credit card number. But Hotwire lists a price up front, giving you 30 minutes to decide. Since Priceline promises an answer within 15 minutes, you could research rates first, try Hotwire, bid less on Priceline and still go back to Hotwire if you strike out.
Electronic Explorer appears monthly. Bly welcomes readers' comments; her e-mail address is http://LSBly@aol.com.