Nothing turns your dream holiday into a nightmare more than turning up to your hotel to find it's more Fawlty Towers than five star. But it looked so nice on the website! Nabbing an online bargain is all well and good, but how do you know which travel accommodation booking sites are reputable? Is it better to book with the hotel directly? And what if you find a cheaper rate at the same hotel after you've made your booking?

Booking hotel accommodation online vs booking direct

Booking online

Hotel booking sites have been around for a while, and there are lots to choose from. We looked at accommodation options around the world and found that you can often make substantial savings by shopping around.

When CHOICE searched for a room at the swanky Montague on the Gardens in London, prices varied widely. Using hotels.com for 2 November 2013, the only available room was the junior suite for $733, without breakfast. On otel.com, however, the cheapest room available (also without breakfast) was the double classic, for $353.11, and the junior suite was more than $50 a night cheaper. On the hotel's own website, the room-only junior suite, which included a discount for early bookings, was cheaper still at about $649.60 for the night. The cheapest room available for the night was the deluxe king, at $524. So travellers could save hundreds of dollars by shopping around, rather than going with the first price they get.

When CHOICE looked at hotel rooms in The Langham Sydney's hotel for the same date, the results were also varied. The best rate available on hotelsclick.com for a room for two was $376.50, but booking.com and the hotel's own website were offering rates from $555, almost $200 a night dearer than the competition. That was despite a "best price guarantee" from both.

Booking direct

The cheapest rate doesn't always come from a third party – it can pay to check with the hotel itself for better rates. Some hotels offer price-match (or price-beat) services, so if you prefer to book direct, make sure to still check other sites for better rates. The booking conditions may be more favourable if booked direct, with greater flexibility for date changes.

For those who want to take some of the effort out of shopping around, it's possible to compare rates of different booking sites by using an aggregator such as the ones available on Tripadvisor and hotelscombined.com.au.

What else to consider when booking accommodation online

Check the reviews

Before settling on a hotel or apartment, it's a good idea to ensure the reality matches up to the hype. Tripadvisor is a useful resource for accommodation options, but it may also be worthwhile to check some of the more popular booking sites like booking.com for reviews. Tripadvisor may well be host to astroturfers (fake reviewers working on behalf of companies to leave positive reviews) along with plenty of disgruntled naysayers, but booking sites tend to host reviews from people who've used them to book accommodation.

Refunds and cancellations

If booking through a hotel booking site, it pays to read the fine print. Some sites allow refunds or cancellations to certain bookings, while others don't.

Breakfast

Breakfast at your hotel can be an expensive convenience. If you're on a budget, consider a room-only rate and have breakfast on the run.

Don't settle for a dud room

That bargain basement tariff you scored might be because your room's in ... the basement. If you get a bad room, ask to see an alternative. Hotels often have several types of rooms available at the same price, and may be willing to move you to a different one that's more to your taste.

Best price guarantee

If you've already booked a hotel with one site but found a cheaper rate elsewhere, see if your booking was covered by a best price guarantee. If it was, the hotel booking site may refund the difference, or even beat the price.

But the devil, as always, is in the detail, and you'll need to check the hotel's terms and conditions. Matt booked into the Andaz West Hollywood in California, USA, directly with the hotel's website. The website stated that the price was covered under parent company Hyatt's best price guarantee: "If you find a lower, published rate on another site, we'll not only match it, we'll discount it by 20% for your entire stay". Matt later found a cheaper price on jetsetter.com – but an Andaz customer service representative told Matt that the cheaper rate wouldn't be matched because the site offered member-only deals (even though the only criteria for "membership" was providing an email address), which weren't available to the general public.