Priceline gets an upgrade


Priceline is changing.

This is a big change. No, they are not returning to the days of bidding for groceries and gasoline. They are improving their airline section and expanding from simply “name your own price” to providing the option to purchase from the airlines directly, more hotels and a new “weekender” alternative.

At the recent PhoCusWright travel conference, I had the opportunity to speak with Priceline honchos and see the future (really, right now) of Priceline. Though written off for dead several times by many on Wall Street and in the travel industry and battered by dropping airline ticket prices, Priceline is healthy, regrouping and in position to compete and grow its business.

The new Priceline is the most cheap-traveler friendly site on the Web.

The option to provide sales of normal airline tickets puts Priceline squarely in the middle of the fight for airline ticket sales with the likes of Expedia, Orbitz, Travelocity and CheapTickets. No longer is Priceline only face to face with Hotwire. They are now facing off with more of the online travel world. And they now have far more opportunity.

If anyone familiar with Priceline were to look at the site right now, they will notice that everything looks relatively the same. But just above and to the right of the “Name Your Own Price” box there is now a line that reads, “Not flexible? Click here to see flight times and prices.”

Clicking on that link changes everything and provides an instant look into airline ticket pricing reality. After a bit of computer thinking the screen that follows displays the lowest prices of Northwest, US Airways, Delta, American, Continental and most of the other major and not-so-major airlines scheduled flights.

In the past, a dedicated and informed Priceline customer had to visit at least three or four other sites before knowing about how much to bid for their Priceline-generated ticket. Now, all the honest information bargain shoppers need is on the screen.

I guess I should say, almost all the information bargain shoppers need is on their screen. Every true Priceline aficionado knows that the final price check should be with Hotwire, then they can bid for an even lower price.

It would be nice if Priceline could list the Hotwire price right along with the airline prices. It would be most convenient.

This new initiative by Priceline has major ramifications. Web fares and low advanced-purchase fares have made savings between the offerings of scheduled airlines relatively small in many cases. This has been eroding the use of “Name Your Own Price.”

But now Priceline has developed a system where they can capture the normal airline ticket sale in lieu of “Name Your Own Price” if the traveler makes such a decision. It is a win-win for customers and for Priceline.

Furthermore, the Priceline airline fare listings are purely based on lowest price by airline. There are no games being played with the fare displays such as those now in vogue with Travelocity, Expedia and others where “buyer beware” is the rule. Priceline is now a no-nonsense tool for every bargain traveler sorting through today’s fare maze.

Another change is the addition of thousands of new hotels. Priceline now has relationships with more than 10,000 establishments in the U.S., Europe, Asia, Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean participating in its Name Your Own Price hotel service. This translates more options for bargain hunters.

Priceline is also introducing a “Weekender” alternative. This site-within-a-site provides weekend air and hotel getaways with last-minute flights and hotel rooms. Unlike the rest of Priceline the Weekender allows travelers to choose departure times within a window of time (from 6-11 a.m., 11 a.m.-4 p.m., 4-9 p.m., 9 p.m.-midnight) and choose their hotel.

Weekender packages can be listed by price, star rating, hotel name, hotel location or by popularity. The popularity ranking is not a Priceline Pick – it is based on which packages have been purchased the most. The program easily allows travelers to see how changing the timeframe affects the price of a vacation.

If anyone has used, this Priceline Weekender program offers comparable (and in some cases better) pricing plus far more lodging options.

With the new ability to sell traditional as well as Name Your Own Price airfare and the new Weekender product, Priceline is hitting a sweet spot for both business travelers as well as Cheap Charlie wannabes. It’s hard to imagine a site that provides more clearly presented choices of both air and hotels for consumers.