The so-called "opaque" booking sites are some of the best deals in travel. The cheapest hotel rates on sites such as Priceline and Hotwire come with strings attached: You don't know which property you're paying to book, you just know you're getting the lowest price. The price is right, but there's a strong risk of getting stuck with a dud hotel.
But I've discovered that one of the opaque bookings sites, LastMinuteTravel.com, has a secret loophole that will show you a photo of that dirt-cheap no-name hotel. If you know the trick, you won't be booking blindly any more.
The secret lies in calling up the aerial photograph of the neighborhood on the locator map that comes up with every blind hotel result.
Here's how to see a photo of the hotel you're booking on LastMinuteTravel:
1. Search for a hotel in the city you want.
2. On the resulting Hotel Details page, scroll to the bottom, where there's a Bing-sponsored map showing a very rough area in which this unnamed hotel will be located.
3. On the top menu on that map, click "Bird's eye." This brings up a photo of the area taken from a plane.
Your hotel will be shown. Depending on the area, you may not be able to read the name of the hotel from the distance, but you will be able to see the area, down to the street.
In the case of Orlando, for example, the "4.5-star hotel" that comes up is plainly revealed as the Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress resort.
If you can't identify the hotel on sight, you can at least get a neighborhood for it, and using the "view facilities and price details" link, match up the available amenities with hotels that you know are in the same area. It takes a wee bit more homework, but the location clue from the map will almost always narrow down the choices to only one or two probable targets.
Then you can do price comparisons through a non-opaque bookings source to make sure that hotel is the deal you want.
Opaque booking sights are already a huge bargain in travel, so being able to peek behind the shield is a huge boon. In the case of the Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress, LastMinuteTravel offered me a price of $83.96 before taxes and fees. For the same hotel on the same night, Travelocity and Hotels.com both wanted $160, also before taxes and fees.
Sites such as BetterBidding.com attempt to achieve the same de-cloaking result by collecting clues from past bidders on Priceline and Hotwire, but as far as I know, this is the only way to actually see your prospective hotel in a blind booking bid.
At least, it will be until someone catches wise and closes this money-saving loophole.
The "opaque" selection of hotels at LastMinuteTravel are nowhere as near as extensive as what you'd find in a standard hotel search, but if the savings are that extreme, I'd say it's worth the extra grunt work to check them out, wouldn't you?
Follow WalletPop's Jason Cochran on Facebook.
Secret travel tip to see a photo of that cheap room you're booking online