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How to Use Hotwire: Tips for Booking Hotels

In my post about Arolithos “Traditional Cretan Village”, I described how I reserved my hotel room through Hotwire, and how Hotwire is a bit of a gamble.

(Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. If you make a purchase through one of these links, I will receive a small commission. This will not affect your price.)

A "street" in Arolithos Traditional Cretan Village. The street is stone paved, with tables and chairs in the foreground. It slants downwards straight ahead, with some stairs down. On either side are low buildings painted white or light yellow.
A “street” in Arolithos Traditional Cretan Village

Hotels don’t want too many empty rooms. They’re willing to book rooms at cheaper than their standard rates in order to fill them and at least make something on them.

So how does Hotwire work? Their gimmick is that you can book a room at a deeply discounted rate, but you don’t find out which one you’ve booked until after you pay – and the payment is non-refundable and can only be altered in very limited ways. The reasoning is that hotels don’t want people to know that their rooms are available on Hotwire; if they did, no one would ever pay full price.

Why would you book a room in a hotel, when you don’t even know which hotel it is or where it is?

How Hotwire works

Let’s look at the process I went through to book a couple of nights in Prague. I started on the home page by just typing in the city name, the dates I’m looking for, and the number of people traveling.

A screenshot of Hotwire's homepage. It has a small box to fill in with destination, check-in and check-out and guests. The rest of the screen is a big ad for Hotwire reading: "The Hotwire Effect. We hide hotel names so you can find 4-star hotels at 2-star prices."
Hotwire’s homepage

Once I clicked enter, I landed on this screen. On the right is a map of Prague, with light green areas marked on it. Hotwire divides cities into districts so that you can search for a hotel in a particular district.

A screenshot from Hotwire show, on the right 2/3 of the screen, a map of Prague with some light green blobs on it. On the left 1/3 are three hotel listings, each with one photo. All are "Hot rate" listings, with a price, a rating, and a general location.

On the left are some hotel offers, but I wasn’t ready yet to choose one. I needed to narrow down the list first.

Its default setting is what Hotwire calls the “best match.” I disagree. What they call the “best match” is often not the cheapest. Using the little pull-down menu at the top, I ordered my results by price: lowest to highest, as you can see in the screenshot below.

Most of this screenshot is greyed out. A pull-down menu is in white and shows a list of several ways to display results: Price (low to high), Price (high to low), hotel class (high to low or low to high), savings (high to low) or distance.

I also wanted to sift out the lower-end hotels. A word of advice, if you are going to use Hotwire, always include higher star levels than you normally would consider. Sometimes, for example, you can get a four-star hotel for a three-star price. You can choose your star levels in one of the pull-down menus at the top. In this example, I’ve checked 4 and 5-star hotels:

Most of this screenshot is greyed out. A pull-down menu is in white and shows the different star ratings with check boxes next to each one.

I also like to choose some amenities that I consider non-negotiable: I always want free WiFi and I often choose breakfast included and/or free parking, if I’m arriving by car. Again, you can make these choices in one of the pull-down menus at the top of the screen.

Most of this screenshot is greyed out. A pull-down menu is in white and shows a list of amenities such as breakfast, airport shuttle, fitness center, etc.

All of this sorting and filtering narrowed down my choices, which is fine in a big city like Prague. However, I could also filter it even more.

Clicking on one or more zones on the map turns them darker green. In the screenshot below, you can see how I narrowed my search to one zone: Old Town.

A screenshot from Hotwire show, on the right 2/3 of the screen, a map of Prague with some light green blobs on it, one of which is darker green. On the left 1/3 are three hotel listings, each with one photo, a name (or "Hot rate" , a price, a rating, and a general location.

The left side of the screen now shows only hotels with 4 or 5 stars, with free WiFi, with availability on my chosen dates, and located in Old Town Prague. They’re listed in order from cheapest to most expensive.

Hotwire’s “hot rates”

As you can see in the screenshot above, some hotels are described as “hot rate.” These are the ones that Hotwire keeps secret until you book them. Mixed in with the “hot rate” hotels are others that are listed by name.

Even for the “hot rate” hotels you might not be taking much of a risk. Notice the little question under the “hot rate” listing: “What hotel will I get?” If you click on that, sometimes (not always) it will show you three possible hotels, as in the screenshot below:

A screenshot from Hotwire show, on the right 2/3 of the screen, a map of Prague with some light green blobs on it. On the left 1/3 is a hotel listing: "Hot Rate 4-star hotel" with a rating and a small picture. Below it are smaller pictures with labels showing 3 hotels.

In this screen I’ve expanded the search to two zones rather than one, but otherwise it’s the same as the screenshots above. I’ve clicked on “What hotel will I get?” and it shows me three different ones. If I book this “hot rate” hotel, I’m guaranteed a room in one of these three hotels.

So in this case I’ve found a 4-star hotel for $54 a night in the vicinity of Prague Castle. The one above that is $51 a night in Old Town.

This is a great deal for the center of Prague. I could find something even cheaper if I a) tried other parts of the city or b) went for fewer stars.

Sometimes, when I’m not feeling so sure about the three hotels that Hotwire hints at, I go ahead and look the three hotels up online. If they all seem fine, I go ahead and book by clicking on that hotel.

Here’s another trick I just figured out recently. If you refresh the page in your browser and then click again on “What hotel will I get?”, the list of hotels will change.

So let’s say I choose the $51 hotel. It’s a four-star in Old Town Prague. It has free internet and I can read a whole list of its other amenities: whether there’s a restaurant or a gym or mini-fridges or whatever. It will give me a choice of bed and room types, but it will not tell me what hotel it is until I pay.

Hotwire’s rating system

On the screens I’ve included above, Hotwire gives a general rating for each hotel out of five. I’m very suspicious of any hotel that rates under 4.0, but that’s your call.

It also includes the TripAdvisor rating and how many reviews it is based on. If a hotel has a rating of 5.0, but that’s based on only one review, you’re taking a gamble.

You can find out more about each hotel’s rating once you click on the hotel. Scroll down and you’ll see a chart where Hotwire’s rating is more detailed:

A screenshot from Hotwire's site shows a line chart showing ratings from 0 to 5 on five different standards including location and cleanliness.

The rest of the process works like any hotel booking engine. Make your choice and work through the series of screens asking your information and processing your payment. Once you’ve paid, it’ll let you know which hotel you got.

A warning: if your plans change, you’re out of luck! These reservations are non-refundable and only changeable to the extent that you can add days, but not change the dates.

My experiences

I’ve used Hotwire a number of times, and almost always had good experiences, getting a four-star hotel for a three-star price. Here are some examples:

Seoul, South Korea

I used Airbnb for the most part on my solo travels several years ago in Japan and then Korea, but started having physical symptoms that brought me back to Seoul to see doctors. I’m normally a big fan of Airbnb, but I didn’t want to make small talk with Airbnb hosts when I didn’t feel healthy. I decided to book a room via Hotwire.

I ended up staying at three different 4-star hotels over about two weeks in Seoul because I kept getting new doctor’s appointments I had to wait for. Since Hotwire reservations are non-refundable and non-changeable, each time I learned I had to stay longer, I went back to Hotwire to book a new room.

The large gray Ibis Hotel building is perhaps 15 stories tall and fills the back of the picture. In the foreground are some small, rundown houses, on each side of a narrow street headed toward the hotel. Above the street is a tangle of electric wires. How to use Hotwire
One of the hotels I booked through Hotwire in Seoul overlooked an area of traditional hanok houses. That’s an Ibis in the background.

I chose the section of Seoul that was closest to the hospital I had to visit. I could still end up far from the hospital, but Seoul has an excellent metro system, so it didn’t really matter where I stayed. Each hotel cost me about €40 a night, an excellent price for a four-star hotel.

I also got a glimpse of some areas that tourists would normally not see. For example, one of the hotels was in a neighborhood filled with lighting and hardware stores. That also meant, though, that the local restaurants were more authentic because they catered to Korean businessmen rather than tourists. And the hotel pictured above loomed over a fascinating traditional hanok neighborhood.

Heraklion, Crete

One time I led a workshop on Crete, and my flight home was the day after the conference ended. Since the conference venue was quite a distance from the airport in Heraklion, I decided to book a night’s stay in Heraklion to be closer to the airport. Again, I chose a four-star.

This is the only time that my Hotwire gamble did not pay off.

The problem in this case was that Heraklion isn’t a very big place. The airport is on the east side of the city, but on Hotwire the whole city is just one box; I couldn’t choose a part of the city as I could in Seoul. This made it more of a gamble, and in this case, I lost. The hotel (pictured at the top of this post) was far out on the west side of the city. The hotel was four-star and only cost €25 for the night, but the taxi to the airport the next day (no metro in Heraklion) cost €30.

Stockholm, Sweden

One July, I attended a TBEX conference in Stockholm, a city that is notorious for its high-cost hotels. On Hotwire, I chose the area of the city that contained the conference venue, hoping I’d be walking distance from it. I knew, though, that Stockholm also has a comprehensive and efficient metro system, so it was okay if the hotel was further away.

Elite Hotel Stockholm Plaza is a white building, 5 stories tall, with decorative elements between and framing the windows.
Elite Hotel Stockholm Plaza, booked through Hotwire

I was very pleased to find a four-star single room for €55 a night, including an excellent breakfast. Every other site showed prices well above €100 a night, unless I booked a hostel. I don’t do hostels anymore!

This hotel, the Elite Hotel Stockholm Plaza, was particularly impressive. Except that the room was quite small, I would have rated it as a five-star: it was clean and quiet and thoughtfully appointed. The materials and decor in the room and public spaces were top quality, as was the included breakfast. At about a kilometer from the venue, I only needed to take the metro when I had my luggage with me.

Luxembourg

On the way home from a family trip to Spain with our son and two foster kids, we decided we would stop for a night in Luxembourg City. Looking on Hotwire just the day before meant that we had few choices. My search only listed three hotels: a three-star, a four-star and a five-star. Surprisingly, the five-star, at €76 a night per room, cost less than the other two, so we chose that one. It was a Sofitel, and the rooms were very comfortable and spacious.

Tips for using Hotwire

  1. Use Hotwire if the exact hotel or location isn’t that important to you.
  2. Only use Hotwire if you’re not gambling-averse.
  3. If Hotwire shows the city as divided into different areas, do some research to figure out where you want to be. Is the local transportation good? Is it considered a safe area? If you know someone in the city you’re planning to visit, ask them.
  4. Double check that you’ve entered your information correctly: the dates you want to stay, the number of rooms and the number of people. Remember that Hotwire bookings are non-refundable!
  5. Generally more stars means higher prices, but not always. Check a level higher than you would usually book. I only just learned from my experience in Luxembourg that I should check five-star places as well.
  6. If you can, click on the question “What hotel will I get?” If you don’t like all three hotels, try refreshing the page to see if the choices change.
  7. When you use Hotwire, you’ll get an e-mail after your trip asking you to review the hotel. Hotwire uses these reviews to come up with an overall guest rating out of 5 for each hotel. Be wary of a hotel that has a low rating, no matter how many stars it has. Below Hotwire’s rating is the TripAdvisor rating. In parentheses after the TripAdvisor rating is a number, which is the number of reviews the percentage is based on.
  8. Factor in transportation costs. If you would have to take a taxi every day from a hotel that’s too far away, you’d be better off booking a nearer hotel on another website like booking.com, or through the hotel itself. If there’s a fast and relatively cost-efficient public transportation system, then the area doesn’t matter as much.
  9. You can book quite far in advance on Hotwire. I experimented once with booking a hotel in Berlin: comparing a Thursday night stay in August, September and October. The best deal with my search criteria was €55 a room in a four-star hotel, and that price was the same each month. However, the more last-minute you book, the fewer choices you’ll have, if any.

Have you ever used Hotwire to book a hotel? If you haven’t, but you decide to try it, you can use this link. And please let me know how it works out for you!

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Images: 4 images: 3 are hotels and one is a screenshot of Hotwire's homepage

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39 Comments

  • cindy

    August 17, 2016 at 2:38 pm

    I did try Hotwire when we flew out of Arlanda. The hotel was fine (new, trendy, with an airport shuttle, great food, and REALLY basic), but was not a four star, which is what I supposedly was booking. Nor was it anywhere near the equivalent of the Radisson Blue and other hotels listed as “examples” for this class of hotel. I felt I paid about what it was worth, but it wasn’t a great deal. Just easy.

    I used to use Priceline a lot, but discovered that using it in Europe was a crapshoot and haven’t used it much anywhere since. The two seem pretty comparable, although on Priceline you could first search for deals and see what hotels came up in the search, which gave you a pretty good idea of what you would get by bidding (usually the worst one listed for that star class, although not always).

    Reply
    • Rachel

      August 17, 2016 at 7:42 pm

      I’ve never tried Priceline. On that one do you bid for the rooms? On Hotwire you used to be able to take the description of the hotel and figure out which one it was before you booked, but they’ve reduced how much info they give in order to avoid that from happening. I like the surprise of it; just leaving it to fate.

      Reply
  • Nancie

    August 19, 2016 at 2:33 pm

    Hi Rachel!

    I’ve never tried Hotwire, but one of these days I will. Good tips. I remember one of the hotels that you stayed in when you were in Seoul. The room was very nice. We also had that great meal in the traditional area, which was very good too. Hotel prices in Seoul are often outrageous. I would recommend anyone visiting to book through Hotwire. Thanks for co-hosting this week. #TPThursday

    Reply
  • Jackie Smith

    August 19, 2016 at 3:58 pm

    We’ve used Hotwire a few times and ended up in a hotel that met our expectations. I’d still prefer researching and finding a place in advance that met our expectations, but your example from Stockholm is a good one for why Hotwire is often the best way to go.

    Reply
    • Rachel

      August 19, 2016 at 4:55 pm

      Yes, I’d prefer choosing a particular hotel too, but when I’m on a budget, that’s not always an option, especially in expensive places like Stockholm. And I really like to stay in 4-star hotels!

      Reply
  • Ruth

    August 19, 2016 at 6:46 pm

    I have never given this site a try. Maybe I should. The hotel room you found in Sweden was a super good price. This site may work wonders for cities that are known to be expensive. The only minor thing is that I like to compare ratings of a hotel across sites. In this case, you will need to trust Hotwire’s reviews (which is fine).

    Reply
  • JD

    August 21, 2016 at 9:34 am

    That’s pretty interesting. I’m toying with the idea of a trip to EU with my daughter & a friend, possibly next year (have to see what the uni says). I really wouldn’t care about the location as long as it’s got fairly good reviews (as you say). I’m one of those people whose plan is “no plan”. I like to just happen upon stuff to do, rather than obsess over everything– too stressful!

    I also like the look of Benidorm….so thanks for that, too. I’ll have to remember to come back & use your links. 🙂

    Reply
    • Rachel

      August 21, 2016 at 4:31 pm

      Thanks! The only risk if you’re booking really last minute is that there won’t be any rooms left. In a big city I’d be very surprised if that ever happens, but in a smaller place Hotwire might not show anything available. Of course then you could just try other booking sites or Airbnb.

      Reply
  • budget jan

    August 22, 2016 at 5:50 am

    What an interesting post! I’ve never used hotwire but might consider it in the future if the need arose. We like you are Airbnb devotees but the prices and places you achieved in Seoul and Stockholm were amazing and I would love those experiences.

    Reply
    • Rachel

      August 22, 2016 at 7:00 am

      I often start with Airbnb too, but if I’m traveling solo, as I was in both Seoul and Stockholm, that means booking a room, not a whole apartment. And that means making small talk over breakfast, etc. That’s perfect in some situations, but I wanted to be really alone in these two cities. In Stockholm I knew I’d be really busy every day so I’d want alone time. In Seoul I was dealing with an illness.

      Reply
  • Rebecca Hall (Bex)

    August 22, 2016 at 1:31 pm

    I’d never hear of Hotwire – thanks for introducing me to the concept! For sure I’d heard of AirBNB and use it all the time, but now I think I will look into Hotwire and maybe even give it a go – thanks for this informative article and tips!

    Reply
  • Anita @ No Particular Place To Go

    August 22, 2016 at 1:51 pm

    Thanks for the tips Rachel. We always start our search with AirBnB for longer stays (greater than 2 nights) and then use hotels.com to take advantage of the 10th night free reward but I’m going to add Hotwire to our search list too. I’ll try it in the next few weeks since we’ve just started a 5 week trip in the US and have a few nights open in between visiting family and friends. Scoring a good hotel can make a long trip a lot less tiring!

    Reply
  • Wendy

    August 22, 2016 at 3:55 pm

    I recently used Hotwire for a car. It worked out well except they assumed the driver was me because I signed in even though I used my husband’s credit card – driver and credit card must match, and there was no place to fill in driver’s name. I called Hotwire, first they tried to bait and switch me for a higher price, and I refused; then they called the rental car company and the company changed the driver. It all worked out well; it just took a bit more time.

    Reply
  • Janice Chung

    August 22, 2016 at 7:40 pm

    Thanks for your tips on using Hotwire. I was certainly aware of it but hadn’t considered some of your tips (ie. hotel might be cheap, but you might be paying a lot to get to the airport). I think I always thought it would be in US funds but went on after reading your post, and it’s in Canadian, so I am more open to using the site. Thanks for your advice!

    Reply
  • noel

    August 22, 2016 at 8:44 pm

    I’m not a fan of Hotwire, In fact I will probably write a post and send it to the CEO. My booking came via email and unfortunately the green area where the booking was the extreme fringe area of where I really needed to be. Don’t even try to call customer service since you will be on hold indefinitely while they patch you to customer service in the Philippines. The worst part of this one bad incident happened with the same booking when I arrived at the hotel past 10pm and the manager told me that they had oversold for a big conference and my paid booking was invalid with Hotwire (Let me tell you how extremely upset and tired I was at this point) Needless to say she not Hotwire bent over backwards to call the roster of their reservations, calling each no show and giving me the one booking left. While this was happening, I was trying to call Hotwire and of course was in that cursed hold pattern patching to the Philippines – never again! Let me just say if you do book with them, beware….

    Reply
    • Rachel

      August 23, 2016 at 8:02 am

      Wow, that’s awful! I’ve never had trouble with them. The bad area your hotel was in is just part of the gamble you take, in my opinion, but the hotel not honoring it is ridiculous!

      Reply
  • Irene S. Levine

    August 29, 2016 at 4:47 am

    I’ve never used Hotwire so I was very happy to read this balanced piece pointing out the pros and cons. It also reminded me that even when you know what hotel you are booking, the room can turn out to be smaller than you had hoped for.

    Reply
    • Rachel

      August 29, 2016 at 7:34 pm

      Or bigger than you expected! One of the hotels I stayed in in Seoul gave me an enormous room. It wasn’t very light because it only had one window, but it made up for that in sheer size.

      Reply
  • Akshata BV

    January 8, 2018 at 7:02 pm

    Very useful tips Rachel. Thank you very much! However, when would be the best time to book these rooms? 3, 2 or 1 month ahead of schedule? The closer dates I see, lesser the price. So pretty confused on when to block the dates? Any tips on this?

    Reply
    • Rachel

      January 8, 2018 at 8:15 pm

      You can book right up till the same day, but you’ll have fewer choices which also means the best deals will have been taken. I’d guess a month before is probably best.

      Reply
  • Tours Quepos

    February 8, 2019 at 11:45 am

    As during travelling and booking hotel rooms in countries like Sweden hotwire would be the best option to grab the amazing deals as from my point of view but you can also get the other option too which can be giving clash to hotwire.

    Reply

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