'Mystery' hotel deals can save guests money but it can be hard to know exactly how much, writes Jane E. Fraser.
Are we hunting for bargains or needing a bit of excitement in our lives?
"Mystery" hotels have become some of the hottest property in travel, with people falling over themselves to book accommodation at unnamed hotels and resorts. The theory goes that by remaining anonymous, hotels are able to discount below normal levels without damaging the brand or alerting competitors.
Hotel booking websites sell the concept by promising champagne rooms at beer prices and travellers are keen to partake, with mystery stays selling so fast they can be hard to secure.
Mystery, or "secret", hotels, which have been around for about five years but have exploded in popularity in the past year, appear on booking websites with only basic information, such as their star rating and general location, such as the Sydney central business district.
You can check the bedding configurations and see what facilities the hotel has but only once you have booked and paid do you find out the name and address.
Customer surveys conducted by Wotif.com found 35 per cent of people booking mystery hotel deals were chasing value for money, while an equal proportion had been attracted by the surprise factor and another 17 per cent thought it would be a bit of fun.
Booking websites tout big savings on mystery hotels, such as "up to 75 per cent", but when you can't compare prices, it can be hard to know what the actual savings are.
Lastminute.com.au, which claims to take a secret-hotel booking every three minutes, says venues must cut at least 25 per cent off their rate of the day to take part in the program.
(The distinction between rate of the day and the full rate, or "rack rate", is important, as many websites use the latter to give the impression of big discounts, despite the fact rack rates have little relevance these days.)
Needitnow.com.au, another site selling mystery accommodation, says hotels are expected to take at least $20 off their last-minute rate being offered elsewhere on the site.
Hotel sources say while they are certainly willing to discount for mystery stays, it is hard to put a number on it.
The premise of mystery stays is to help hotels shift "distressed inventory", or rooms they would not otherwise sell, so the discounts vary enormously by day and season. A hotel chain that asks not to be named says the typical discount offered would be between 40 to 50 per cent but that amount needs to be seen in context.
"For instance, a city hotel [room] that on the Saturday night might sell for $230 could go for as little as $120 to $130 on the Sunday night - same room but completely different level of demand," a spokesman says.
"Mystery hotels will offer a far lower level of discount at peak times."
Australia's largest hotel group, Accor, says it takes part in mystery-hotel schemes but generally only in low-demand periods, such as midweek in resort areas and Sunday nights in cities.
So the lesson is to aim for quieter periods - when you are much more likely to snare a mystery-hotel deal anyway.
Saturday nights sell like hotcakes and Friday-Saturday night combinations are almost impossible to find unless you're super-quick off the mark.
If you do want a mystery-hotel deal for a weekend, Needitnow tends to have the best availability, even in popular places such as the city centres of Sydney and Melbourne.
Or you can work out how far ahead sites release their inventory, by seeing how far ahead they will let you book, and aim to be in first.
Many websites release rooms up to three months in advance; for others, it is only 28 days.
Lastminute spokeswoman Mia Carter says it also pays to keep checking if you are looking for a particular night, as hotels often offer last-minute mystery deals when they receive cancellations on rooms.
Get outta town
While capital cities have traditionally dominated mystery hotel listings, regional and resort areas are increasingly appearing as consumers become more comfortable with the concept.
"Normally the capital cities outperform the regional areas, however secret stays are growing in popularity and are starting to have good take-up across the regional areas," says the director of marketing for Need It Now, Emma Croston.
Need It Now offers secret deals in areas including tropical north Queensland and regional Tasmania, while Lastminute has locations including the Sunshine Coast, Hunter Valley, Blue Mountains, Margaret River and parts of New Zealand.
Mystery hotel deals are typically for one- to two-night bookings, with customers using them as a short break. Croston says some consumers try to find out what the secret stays are, "but that would be giving the game away".