Where to find the cheapest hotel rates: Hotel websites vs. hotel-booking sites
There are people out there in the world who simply “book a hotel” and pay whatever is asked, but in the information age it seems increasing numbers of us really want to make sure we are getting the best deal before we commit.
As someone who spends several days each week researching travel prices in cities as well as resort areas, I've discovered that (unsurprisingly) there is no simple answer for how to always get the best deal. However, there are strategies that can help you find the best deal with the fewest number of clicks, which we'll discuss below.
For one specific hotel, try everything
In rare cases like a meeting or wedding or event where you are sure of the exact hotel you want to stay in, you might as well try all the main methods because it shouldn't take long and might save you a lot.
Step 1: Check prices on the hotel's own website
Step 2: Check prices on hotel-booking sites (Expedia, Kayak, Booking.com etc.)
Step 3: Once you've found the lowest online price, including all taxes, contact the hotel by email or phone to ask for a better price. At many hotels, if they know they will have empty rooms they will offer a pretty nice discount just by asking, but if they will eventually sell out then chances are much lower.
If you are flexible, here are your best bets
When starting with certain criteria rather than a specific hotel you can almost always get a better deal. And of course if you are flexible with dates or even destinations you are even better off, but for now let's just discuss when each of the main options is best.
Important to know: Hotel-booking websites take big commissions
Individual hotels have a love/hate relationship with hotel-booking sites like Expedia or Booking.com because they can really help fill rooms, but they also take a commission starting at around 20% for doing it. So if you book a room for US$200 per night for 5 nights, the hotel only gets $800 while the booking site gets the other $200.
Due to these seemingly large commissions, more and more hotels are trying to book rooms on their own websites, often undercutting the online travel agencies (OTAs) or at least guaranteeing parity with the lowest price anywhere else. This works well for some hotels, but not for most of them.
Best simple strategy: Check an aggregator THEN the official website
Step 1: Check your dates and city through an aggregator website or tool.
For hotels Kayak.com is a great one, but many people prefer to use a tool like we have in the right column of this website because it allows you to enter your dates once and check 3 or 4 different major sites, including Kayak, with just a couple more clicks. It's surprising how often you'll find a deal that isn't listed on Kayak, which is true for airfares as well.
Step 2: Check the official hotel website and compare the price to the best deal you have already found.
Step 3: Contact the hotel by phone or email to see if they'll offer an even better deal. This works really well in some places and is a waste of time in others.
Official hotel websites are usually cheapest only for chain hotels
If you are sure you want to stay in a particular Hilton or Marriott or Ibis hotel, there's a very good chance that you'll find the best rate on the official corporate website. Hotel chains have name recognition and loyal customers so they will attract guests organically.
The problem that individual hotels have is that almost no one knows they exist until people discover them on a hotel-booking site. If these hotels undercut the OTAs on their own sites, they risk biting the hand that feeds them, so they rarely do it.
Hotel booking sites usually offer better deals overall
The chain hotels would like us to believe that their own websites usually offer the best deals at any given time, but in reality you can usually do even better on an OTA. Looking at the results of this recent study about European hotel prices, the OTAs offer the best prices at any given hotel the majority of the time (up to 90% of the time in Amsterdam).
Hotel booking sites offer huge discounts in most resort areas
If you are going to a city somewhere there's at least a decent chance you'll find the best deal on an official hotel site, but in many resort areas the official listed prices are mostly there as a trick, so it's important to be aware of this before you book a place that might be using them this way.
The resort rack-rate scam explained
All around the world, still a huge majority of bookings to resorts are made through online travel agents as well as main-street travel agents. A huge portion of these are bundled with airfare to create a package price that is as tempting as possible.
At resorts that offer aggressive deals to travel agents as part of packages, they will often publish an absurd “rack rate” on their website simply to make the package seem like a better deal.
For example, let's say there are two identical neighboring resorts in Cancun. Both offer rooms for US$80 per night to travel agents as part of packages, but one says the standard (rack) rate is US$100 per night, while the other one says the rack rate is US$200 per night. The first one appears to only be 20% off as part of the package, and the second one appears to be 60% off. Who wouldn't book a “$200 room” if they could get it for the same price as a “$100 room”?
The best way to be sure you aren't being tricked in this way is to also check the room rate through a hotel-booking site. If a hotel tries to inflate its prices on booking sites it will either almost never get bookings or get horrible reviews or both.
Trust the regional leaders
When booking an expensive vacation or hotel stay it's normal to be suspicious of typing your credit card information into a website you'd never heard of until moments before, so it's helpful to know about at least two huge ones that you might not be familiar with.
Nearly all the major online travel sites are owned by just a few American parent companies, so in most of the world people are familiar with Expedia, and its competitors have major brands in other parts of the world as well.
- Booking.com is owned by Priceline and dominates the European hotel market, by usually offering the lowest prices.
- Venere.com is based in Italy but owned by Expedia, and competes well with Booking.com
- Agoda.com is owned by Priceline and it dominates the Asian online hotel market (at least outside of China). It's almost always the cheapest option, but you do have to be careful of their prices not adding taxes until you are ready to pay.