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Originally published July 20, 2013 at 7:04 PM | Page modified July 22, 2013 at 4:19 PM

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Taking some mystery out of ‘blind-booking’ travel sites

GetGoing, Priceline and Hotwire make their booking procedures less opaque for travelers who want to know more about the flights or hotel stays they’re buying.

The New York Times

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For travelers willing to trade certainty for savings, Priceline, Hotwire and a website launched this spring called GetGoing have taken some of the mystery out of the opaque booking process.

GetGoing offers a twist on the blind-booking model popularized by Priceline, where you don’t find out all the details of your itinerary until after you book.

Instead of bidding, you pick two places you would like to visit (say, Miami and Los Angeles), select your travel dates and flights, then enter your credit-card details. GetGoing randomly chooses one of the two trips and books your ticket, which you can’t change or cancel.

The company aims to help airlines fill empty seats, which are scarce on some routes but still average nearly 20 percent of the tickets a carrier could sell. GetGoing promises savings of up to 40 percent off published airfares, but the coin flip reassures the airlines they are giving these discounts to leisure travelers, not business travelers who would pay a higher price because they have to fly.

“What’s really key to the airlines is discounting seats to the right people,” said Alek Vernitsky, GetGoing’s chief executive and one of its founders. “By asking people to select two places they want to go and flipping a coin, we are communicating to the airline we just found a discretionary customer.”

Here is more information about how GetGoing works, and how it compares with Priceline and Hotwire, both of which have added features to make opaque booking less of a gamble.

GetGoing

You can select two destinations in the same or different countries (or states), as long as they are at least 50 miles apart.

Unlike Priceline, GetGoing.com lets you limit the options to nonstop flights, but you will generally save more if you accept a connection.

Savings range from 20 to 40 percent off the lowest published fare, Vernitsky said, depending on the route and how desperate the carrier is to fill seats; you see the full price before you commit.

Although you don’t find out the name of the airline until after you book, GetGoing displays your departure and arrival times as a half-hour window — e.g. “takeoff 5 to 5:30 p.m.”

With Priceline’s name-your-own-price option, all you know before booking is that your flight will depart between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. and might include a connection — too much uncertainty for some travelers.

Cool tools: If you don’t have a destination in mind, you can search for places that fit a particular category, like “beaches and sun” or “adventure and outdoors.” If you log in with your Facebook account, GetGoing will tell you which of your friends have been to the destination you’re considering, making it easy to seek advice.

Priceline

To entice customers who were put off by its name-your-own-price bidding model, Priceline.com created a hotel-booking option called Express Deals last summer (and has just added it to its newly-streamlined iPad app). You still don’t find out the hotel’s name until after you book, but Priceline displays the room rate so you don’t have to bid.

With Express Deals, you will see a list of amenities the hotel offers (like a pool, fitness center, free Internet access or free breakfast), and some hotels let you select a bed type (for instance, one king or two doubles).

Priceline spokesman Brian Ek said Express Deals have discounts up to 40 percent off the hotel’s published rates, versus up to 60 percent off with the bidding option.

On the airline front, Priceline now sells one-way tickets and displays recent winning bids on a particular route to help guide bidding strategy.

Cool tools: Priceline’s mobile apps have given procrastinators a reason to gloat. “The amount of inventory and the discounts we offer will get a little bit better toward the last minute,” Ek said, noting that customers are increasingly using smartphones and tablets for late bookings.

Hotwire

With the Hotwire.com Hot Rate hotels, you see the price and amenities offered by a property (including whether there is a pool, fitness center, free Internet or parking), but you don’t know the name until after you book.

Clem Bason, president of the Hotwire Group, said the company recently began indicating whether Hot Rate hotels in Las Vegas have a casino (or don’t); for some cities, Hotwire notes whether a hotel is pet-friendly. The site’s maps are also getting more detailed, Bason said, to help travelers choose the right zone.

Cool tools: Like Priceline, Hotwire has been working on its mobile apps, offering better deals to last-minute bookers — up to 40 percent off the hotel’s lowest published rates, versus 20 percent if you book more than two weeks in advance.

“As you get closer and closer to midnight on the day of check-in, the hotelier increasingly has incentive to cut that price,” Bason said. “In some big cities, we see prices changing from 9 a.m. to noon to 3 p.m.”

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About Travel Wise

Travel Wise is aimed at helping people travel smart, especially independent travelers seeking good value. The column covers everything from the best resources to how to tap into the local culture. It runs each Sunday in the Travel section.

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