Not surprisingly, Ken Marshall, president of HotelShark, believes that online sites like his are the best places to check. "Not only do they give reports from people who have stayed in the hotels," he said, "but the information is usually much more up-to-date than that in the print guidebooks."
The Problem: After booking, customers sometimes find they could have snagged a cheaper room at the same property from another Web site or directly from the hotel.
Example: Hotels.com is offering queen suites at the Fitzpatrick Chicago Hotel in early November for $179 a night. But when I called the hotel's toll-free number last week, an operator offered a rate of $159 for the same room.
Such discrepancies are common. On Bizrate.com, six out of 22 reviewers of Hotels.com gave the firm a negative rating, mostly because they found cheaper rates by contacting the hotels or other Web sites. Readers have voiced similar complaints about other online agencies.
"We try to negotiate the lowest possible rate with hotels," said Hotels.com's Diener. "But hotel room prices change constantly, sometimes several times in the course of a day. We cannot keep up with all of them."
The Solution: A number of online reservations services offer guarantees that they have the lowest rate available -- and will pay the difference if you can prove them wrong. "Usually the hotel rates offered by the different agencies don't differ that much," says Jones of OneTravel. "But if you find a better one, let your agency know and get them to match it."
According to Hotel.com's "lowest guaranteed-rate policy," for example, if patrons find a cheaper rate on the Web for the same property within 24 hours of making a reservation, they'll be refunded the difference. Expedia, Travelocity and Orbitz offer a similar deal. Unfortunately, if you find a better rate outside the 24-hour window or through another source such as the hotel's 800 number, you're stuck with the original rate.
Always comparison shop before booking. Check directly with the hotel and ask for specials or the cheapest available room. If the hotel is a chain, use both its toll-free number and Web site.
Got chutzpah? Connect with a hotel manager or other person of authority and bargain. The site www.biddingfortravel.com, in which travelers say how much they paid for rooms on Priceline, offers a rough guide of how low a hotel might go.
Details: Where to Turn When Booking Online
Sometimes simply finding the customer service numbers, e-mail addresses and snail-mail addresses for the major online hotel discounters is half the battle. We've ferreted out the information for many of the industry's biggest players and included the hours of operation for each service desk.
(Note: Many sites offer a spot on their home pages where you can click to e-mail the customer service department. The agencies without street addresses told us that, as Web-based businesses, they have no mail contact for customer service.)
Service desk: 800-219-4606 (8 a.m.-1 a.m. daily),
800-364-0291 (1 a.m.-8 a.m. daily)
Mailing address: 10440 N. Central Expressway
Suite 400, Dallas, Tex. 75231
Service desk: 800-397-3342 (24/7)
E-mail: email@example.com (you'll get a response with a link to the site's feedback form)
Mailing address: N/A
Service desk: 888-709-5983 (24/7)
Mailing address: 8750 Tesoro Dr., Suite 100