These sites require travelers to prepay for rooms before finding out the name and/or exact location of the hotel.
Priceline.com. This site auctions hotel rooms throughout North America, Europe, the Caribbean and in some Asian cities. Customers indicate the location, number of stars of desired property, part of town and how much they are willing to pay. After providing credit card details, a hotel willing to meet the requirements responds. The advantage is that some of the sharpest discounts are available here; the drawback is that, after giving credit card details, the user is locked into a reservation. Go to www.biddingfortravel.com for useful tips on how to negotiate the Priceline process and how much to bid.
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).
Hotwire.com. Users of this site are given details of the hotel, including the level of property and price, during the search process. The site usually features high-quality properties at significant discounts. Still, not learning the name of the hotel until agreeing to purchase the room with a credit card can be too risky for some travelers.
Contacting Hotel Directly
Contrary to conventional wisdom, calling the hotel directly sometimes yields the best rate. One reason is that the hotel would rather sell a room directly to a consumer than through a third-party agency that will charge the hotel an additional fee for the transaction. Another is that hotels are aware that some bargain-conscious travelers prefer dealing with a live operator. The catch is that the caller must be willing to haggle.
In a July survey published by Consumer Reports, hotels offered better rates than third-party sites three out of four times. The third-party brokers included in the report were Expedia, Travelocity and Orbitz. The best approach, according to the magazine, is to first check the price of rooms offered by online agencies and then call the hotel to see if they are willing to beat it.
We tested the method in a search for a room at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York for late October. The rates for a double room on a number of Web sites varied: Hotels.com, $379; Travelweb, $348; the hotel's Web site, $309. In a call to the hotel, we mentioned the rates we found on the Web. After some searching, the operator offered a double for $295.
Individual Hotel Web Sites
Bargain hunters should also check out individual hotel Web sites. Irked at having to pay transaction fees to third-party brokers, many chains and independent hotels feature special deals on their home pages that are competitive with the rates offered by other online booking agencies.
Last month, in a bid to forge a more direct relationship with travelers, InterContinental Hotels withdrew its brand properties -- including Crowne Plaza, Holiday Inn, Staybridge and Candlewood -- from Expedia and Hotels.com. Instead, the chain is luring Internet bookers to its own sites by offering discounts, upgrades and other perks only available by booking directly with them. Hotel Web sites also often feature special rates available to members of AAA, AARP and other groups, discounts not available on other sites.
Not long ago, looking for a discounted room in the New York City area, we found a rate of $89 on www.doubletree.com for a suite in the Doubletree hotel in Jersey City. The rate was 20 percent cheaper than the price found on other sites. The Best Western chain is currently shaving up to 30 percent off some of its European properties to travelers who book on their site. And, borrowing a page from the airlines, Radisson and some other chains are offering deeply discounted rooms on the Internet to last-minute bookers on their sites.
In the search for the best hotel rate, don't overlook travel agents. They can be particularly helpful in finding discounts on suites, family-friendly rooms or other options for travelers with special needs. Some agencies also broker discounts with Ritz-Carlton and other luxury chains not usually featured on third-party sites. When asked to find the best hotel deal, for a fee, agents can also do online hunting for travelers lacking time or facility with the Internet. (See story, Page P2.)