Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Trying Priceline’s "Name Your Own Price" Feature in Bangkok

Phuket Island, Thailand

I recently tried, for the first time, the Priceline "Name Your Own Price" feature and found it moderately useful.

I was travelling to Bangkok for a few days and figured that, with images of troops and rioters fresh in tourists’ minds, the hotels would be offering bottom-tranche prices. They were – in a Ryanair sort of way.

Name Your Own Price is a “black label” service. You key in your parameters (dates, location, price, quality of hotel as measured in stars), pay for the entire stay and then find out the name and address of the hotel afterward, with only a limited ability to change or cancel the reservation. If you’re willing to live with a little risk, the feature can be economical.

So I punched in a five-star hotel in the Siam Square neighborhood, which is the high-end shopping district, and bid the $55 a night that was the minimum for that class of lodging. Accepted, Priceline said. I would be staying at the Amari Watergate Hotel.

The reason for the fire sale was immediately obvious. The more desirable hotels in Bangkok are directly on the Skytrain, preferably in front of a station. The Watergate was a block away from the Skytrain's Chit Lom station. A massive block. A block that, in another city, would have been bisected by at least five streets. And sitting on that block was the charred husk of the CentralWorld mall, which had been torched in the rioting.

Which means that, if you stay at the Watergate, you either catch cabs (which add up, although most rides are only $3 to $6) or you catch the Skytrain by trudging down the long block, in the heat, around the swarms of Thais congregating for various reasons (protest, police, demolition, construction) near the CentralWorld site. That $55 a night starts to look less a bargain.

The Watergate room was international luxury class; it was not on the pricier executive floor (pictured), but no complaints. In particular, it had the longest, most spacious desk I’ve ever seen in a hotel, semi-circling perhaps one-third of the wall space, with plenty of desktop on which to work or study. The desk was a digital nomad’s dream.

The internet rates were not. While free wifi was available in the lobby – and it was fun to see the impromptu UN that would congregate in the lobby after hours to Skype Geneva or Seattle or Salvador – the in-room wifi cost $25 a night. That $55 a night starts to look like a bait and switch.

Everything else at the Watergate was typically fancy-hotel expensive. A room service sandwich was $11. The breakfast buffet – which was substantial and varied but not inspired in its offerings (American, British, Indian, Chinese, etc.) – cost $27.

I forgive hotels the markups on food. A traveler doesn’t have to eat in the hotel, particularly in the heart of Bangkok where any cuisine is available for moderate to inexpensive prices.

But the internet charge rankles. There’s no choice if you’re a digital nomad, and an assignment comes in. Internet cafes are sub-optimal places to work -- particularly Asian internet cafes which traffic in teenagers playing first-person shooter games and screaming into their VOIP connections. So you pay the obscene in-room internet rate and fume.

I’ll try the "Name Your Own Price" feature again. But I doubt I’ll stay at the Watergate again. Unless Priceline makes me.

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