Dealing with hotel booking sites is one of the conundrums of modern travel. These websites have given us a powerful tool for booking our trips: we can view a wide selection of hotels, see the rooms, compare prices, and book the whole trip without ever leaving the couch. But at the same time, hotel booking sites can be a challenge in themselves, as I found out this weekend.
The task was simple: book six nights for two people in New Orleans early next month – a long-awaited trip with my nephew, and one I’m looking forward to. Generally, I tend to use Hotels.com for most of my trips, since it’s easy to use and I get a free night for every 10 nights I book. But New Orleans is a tough nut to crack – it’s hard to find a hotel in or near the French Quarter for a price that doesn’t give you heart palpitations.
So for this search I started with Hotels.com but cast a wider net by also using Trivago, an aggregator site that surveys a multitude of hotel booking sites to find the best rates. The results were eye-opening, and at times a little frustrating. Here’s a few things I discovered.
The sites list different hotels
Looking at the hotels listed on Trivago, I found that most had quotes from three or four different booking sites, but not all. In several instances, I found hotels on other sites that weren’t offered by Hotels.com, my go-to site. And I found hotels offered at better rates than I could find on Hotels.com. The moral: stick to one site and you’ll miss some opportunities, and some deals.
The price range can be big
The same room tends to go for about the same price on most of the hotel booking sites. But there are exceptions: in some cases I found one site offering a price that was startlingly below the others. As an example, the base rate for the DoubleTree by Hilton New Orleans was $398 on the hotel’s website, $399 on Priceline and $425 on Booking.com (all figures Canadian dollars). But Amoma offered it for $271 — a big difference. So it’s well worth hopping around, even if you know which hotel you want. (For a full list of hotel booking sites, see the post in my resources section.)
Prices can fluctuate – and quickly
I looked for hotels over the course of three or four days, and found a number of very good deals. But when we got the all-clear to go ahead with our trip, I went back to book our hotels and found some of the best deals were gone. In some cases, the rooms were no longer available; in others, the price had gone up. And sometimes, mysteriously, the deal reappeared a day later, or even if I refreshed the page. The moral: if you see a deal that you know is good value, book it while it’s available.
Splitting your dates can pay off
I was looking for a hotel near the French Quarter for six nights, and there were many hotels on offer. But the costs were high, mostly because prices went up steeply on the weekend – a common trend in the hotel world. So I tried a different tactic: I did two searches for three nights each, one for Tuesday to Thursday and a second for Friday to Sunday. That gave me a larger playing field, since some hotels had rooms available for the weekdays but not for the weekend. I don’t mind changing hotels during the week, as long as it’s not every day.
You can save by bundling — but
I also tried the flight-and-hotel “bundle” option on Expedia to see if I could indeed save money. And there were good deals available: for example, two round-trip flights from Toronto plus a suite at the Country Inn & Suites, New Orleans French Quarter, for a total of $2,724. That would have worked – except. A quick check revealed that the bundle was not cancellable. If we had to ditch our trip, we’d have been stuck eating most of the price. We could have taken cancellation insurance, sure, but collecting on it can be a challenge unless someone is actually dying – and you have a doctor’s note to prove it.
Cancellation is the wild card
After looking at dozens of hotel offers, I found that cancellation policies can be a big factor, for the reasons mentioned above. It pays to look closely: there are some rooms that feature free cancellation, others that are strictly non-cancellable, and others that are somewhere in between. Typically, the latter will charge you for one night, including taxes, if you cancel before a certain date. After that, you lose your money. A non-cancellable room is not necessarily a deal-breaker if you get a really good price, but make sure your travelling dates are firm.
Don’t forget the taxes
Don’t assume the price you see is the price you’ll actually pay. Hotel booking sites quote the price of the cheapest room; the one you choose may cost more. Then there’s the taxes: New Orleans imposes a 15.75-percent sales tax, a 1-percent city tax and a $1-a-night property service charge on each room. In some cities — particularly Las Vegas — there’s also a hefty “resort fee” which can really boost your bill. But in most cases these charges are only disclosed in a little paragraph at the left of the page. You have to click right through to the “purchase” page to see how much they add to the final price. How about a site that shows you the real, tax-in price right up front?
Good disclosure, bad disclosure
Most hotel booking sites provide some real information about the room you’re booking — whether there’s in-room wi-fi, a safety deposit box, free breakfast and such. But the amount of info you get varies from site to site. Booking.com is the best, with a prominently placed description of the hotel and the neighbourhood. Hotels.com, Expedia and Priceline do a good job, too. Then there’s otel.com, which offers a title for each room, and a few often cryptic words under “additional info”. Does “1x DOUBLE” mean one bed or two?
Read the reviews
Most of us know enough not to rely solely on advertising copy when we’re looking for a hotel. The property that the booking site describes as “quaint” can sometimes be better described as “old and shabby”. The only way to find this out is by user reviews. Most of the booking sites offered reviews; however, most use their own customer surveys, which ma or may not be impartial. For more candid reviews, I always use Tripadvisor; I’ve heard stories about fake reviews, but if you read a number of reviews for the same property, you can usually gt a good picture.
After spending several days trying to get the best value on a slew of hotel booking sites, I’m a bit older, and a bit wiser. I think in future, I’ll at least look at an aggregator site before booking my hotels when I’m planning my trips — there are great values out there. In fact, I could have found even more deals on this trip by adding a site like Hipmunk, which also looks at Airbnb listings. But I’ll also be prepared to do a lot of digging: finding the room you want at a good price can be hard work.