When searching for the best hotel bargains, your best bet is:
A) Surfing Web discounters.
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.
Earlier this year, Priceline.com obtained majority interest in Travelweb, a site originally launched to give Marriott and other major U.S. hotel chains more control over their inventories. Since the change, the only chain with a financial stake in the site is InterContinental. Now broadening its scope far beyond the major chains, the site offers discounts at properties worldwide, including independents.
In the past few months, the major online brokers have also introduced concierge features designed to help travelers plan their trips. Travelers can book Broadway tickets on Expedia, for instance, and theme park tickets and other excursions on Travelocity. Here's a rundown of the various methods of booking a hotel, and their pluses and minuses.
Discount Hotel Booking Sites
Hotel booking sites negotiate a special rate with hotels, add a fee and then offer rooms to the public. Many sites require consumers to pay for rooms in advance through their secure Web sites. All excluding Orbitz charge a fee -- usually rolled into the total bill -- for booking rooms. The rate at Hotels.com, for example, ranges between 75 cents and $2 a day. The terms for canceling or changing reservations vary depending on the hotel's policy; usually if you cancel less than 24 hours in advance, you're charged for one night's stay.
The major players:
* Hotels.com. This agency offers rooms in 12,500-plus hotels in more than 400 destinations throughout North America, the Caribbean and in several European countries and Hong Kong. Besides New York, Los Angeles and other big cities, it has accommodations in some smaller places (such as Tulsa) not covered elsewhere. But some users complain that making changes or obtaining refunds is difficult and costly.
* Quikbook.com. This site features 1,300 properties in 75 destinations throughout North America, Europe and the Caribbean. One strong feature is that the quality checks of the properties offered is reliable. Another is that most bookers pay the hotel directly at the end of their stay. But for serious budget travelers, the rates offered are not always the lowest.
* Orbitz.com. Offers rooms at 16,500 properties worldwide. A particularly user-friendly site that allows travelers to compare the rates and star levels of hotels. However, it does not include as many independent properties as other sites.
* Expedia.com. Offers rooms in more than 2,000 destinations, the largest selection of any U.S.-based broker. But canceling or changing reservations is more complicated than it should be.
* Travelocity.com. Has some of the best deals, especially if hotels are booked in packages that include airfare. Here, too, canceling or changing reservations can be a hassle.
* PlacesToStay.com. Besides featuring properties in big cities in North America, Europe and other parts of the world, this site has an impressive number of bed-and-breakfasts and smaller properties in resort areas and other regions popular with leisure travelers. But the rates are not always the cheapest.
* Travelweb.com. This site gives high profile to major U.S. hotel chains -- including Hilton, Hyatt, Marriott, InterContinental and Starwood -- and offers discounts at other chains and independent hotels. But its promise to offer the lowest prices at chain properties does not always hold true.
Europe or Asia bound? For travelers looking for rooms abroad, the following brokers are worth checking:
* Venere.com. This Rome agency features 26,000 hotels in more than a dozen countries worldwide, but it's particularly good for deals in Italy. Reservations are with the agency, but the hotel is paid directly.
* MyTravelDream.com. This Austrian company functions like a reverse-auction site. Travelers provide their desired dates and locations and within 24 hours four hotels will come back with offers. It features 55,000 properties worldwide but is particularly strong in Germany and Central Europe.
* France Hotel Reservation.com. This Paris agency offers 5,000 hotels throughout France. In addition to luxury properties, one- and two-star hotels usually not listed elsewhere are included.
* Asia-Hotels.com. This Hong Kong agency has for years offered excellent bargains for rooms in China, Japan and 22 other Asian countries. With a recent expansion into Europe, it lists more than 20,000 properties.
* Laterooms.com. A British site offering 20,000 rooms all over Great Britain and other European countries. Some of the most tempting bargains are in London. Example: A double at the Rembrandt, a four-star hotel in the South Kensington section, is going for $175 a night, down from $382.
* Utell.com. This site includes properties throughout Europe and in some North and South American and Middle East destinations. Although not the most user-friendly site, it can be helpful finding rooms in some smaller European cities, such as Brugge, Belgium, and Seville, Spain.
* All-hotels.com. This Scotland-based site lists 100,000 properties in nearly every country -- more than other site. It includes some good deals but blends them in with rates that are steeper than on other sites.
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.
* 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.)