When searching for the best hotel bargains, your best bet is:
A) Surfing Web discounters.
Searching for the lowest rate at New York's Waldorf-Astoria, we found a range of prices, from $379 (via Hotels.com) to $295 (calling the hotel directly).
B) Bidding on a "hidden-provider" site.
C) Contacting a travel agent.
D) Calling the hotel directly.
E) Checking individual hotel Web sites.
Okay, trick question. As die-hard deal hounds know, the answer is: All of the above.
"If you want the lowest rate, you've really got to be willing to try every option out there," said Bob Jones, a self-described "frugalist" with OneTravel.com, an online booking agency. "A lot depends on where and when you want to stay and how clever you are at sifting through the options."
Competition among discount hotel sites, which promise up to 60 percent off rack rates, has been made keener in the past year as consumers have become more sophisticated and more brokers have entered the market. And new "aggregator" sites such as SideStep.com, BookingBuddy.com and Travelaxe.com have streamlined the search by combing through many sites to find the best deal. SideStep, a longtime research tool for low-cost airline tickets, added hotel rooms earlier this year; you plug in your dates, destination and specific hotel if you have one in mind, and SideStep searches various sites to find the best deal, then connects you to the site. Payment is required at the time of booking through the hotel site. Web users who download the SideStep Toolbar (it's free) are also offered a comparison of hotel rates at different sites.
We used SideStep to look for a room at the Colonnade hotel in Boston for a Saturday in mid-October. While SideStep offered us a double for $303, Hotels.com's price was $265, Expedia's was $245 and a phone call to the hotel resulted in a quote of $245. Unlike other brokers, however, SideStep promises to match room prices found on other hotel sites. It also sweetens the deal with possible upgrades and late checkouts -- perks also pitched to frequent users of Expedia, Orbitz and some other sites -- when available.