If you would like to try traveling a bit above your usual level, take a look at the emerging new "private sale" marketplace. Here, up-market hotels, resorts and occasional cruise lines quietly advertise special deals that never find exposure on either their own sites or the mainline search sites. You aren't likely to find a special deal if you've already decided where and when you want to travel. Instead, the idea is to offer something good enough -- at a good enough price -- to entice you into a trip you hadn't previously planned.
Although this niche market has only a few current players, giant hotel-review site TripAdvisor recently announced entry, and you can expect others to follow. As I've examined offerings, some of the deals are quite good and not generally available elsewhere.
*JetSetter (www.jetsetter.com): Probably the current market leader -- focuses on hotels, resorts, and rental "villas," but with only a handful of listings at any one time. Typically, the purchase "window" is as short as a few days, but sale prices can be valid for travel over a period of several months. Generally, prices range from good to great. As I'm writing this, the two offers are the Shorebreak, Huntington Beach, at $135 per night, compared with an Expedia rate of $199 per night, and Resort at Squaw Creek, Lake Tahoe, starting at $110 per night, compared with an Expedia price of $309 per night.
*RueLaLa (www.ruelala.com) typically offers a very few travel offers among its regular listings for high-end clothing and "fashion" merchandise. RueLaLa's current bulletin shows two travel packages: a deluxe room and spa package at the Four Seasons Hotel in Westlake Village, Calif., at $395 (regular price $506) and an "upgraded" room at the Chatwal Hotel in New York at $556 per night (regular rate $756).
*Vacationist (www.vacationist.com), a partnership of American Express and Luxury Link, offers discounts of 25 percent to 40 percent at high-end hotels and resorts -- typically those that have been featured in AmEx's Travel Leisure magazine.
*SniqueAway (www.sniqueaway.com) is the latest entry from TripAdvisor by way of its SmarterTravel subsidiary. It began posting deals last week.
These private sale sites operate on a "membership" basis; they charge no fees, but you have to "register" to get access. Don't ask me why -- the inscrutable marketing mavens decide these things. In some cases, you can join immediately; others accept your "application" and notify you later. And most urge existing members to invite others into the system. Although SniqueAway also operates as a membership, you can get immediate access through my invitation by logging onto www.sniqueaway.com/invite/EdPerkins.
Tablet Hotels (www.tablethotels.com/) is similar but a bit different. It maintains a larger inventory of accommodations than the private sale sites, but not all of its listings are really good deals. It requires no "membership."
Kayak (www.kayak.com), one of the leading travel search sites, offers a few "private sale" deals through its usual search system. It also plans to incorporate other sites' private sale deals into its searches, so that you find those deals along with whatever else might be available when you check a destination. Keep watching this interesting evolution.
Private sale sites are certainly not the only places you can find some really good deals on hotel accommodations. Hotwire and Priceline, the big opaque sites, can do at least as well and often better, especially in the budget and midprice ranges.
Overall, JetSetter, RueLaLa, SniqueAway and Vacationist post too few listings at any given time to offer any reasonable chance of finding an accommodation where and when you want it. Instead, they're places to check for deals good enough to entice you to take an unplanned quick trip.
Disclosure: SmarterTravel, operator of SniqueAway, posts my columns and other contributions. However, I have no financial or other business interest in SniqueAway.