Booking hotels online
Five-star advice for finding the best hotel deal, online or direct.
Looking for a bargain rate?
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?
Hotel booking sites have been around for a while and you may get the impression there's lots to choose from but the most prominent online booking sites are owned by two powerful players, Expedia Inc. and Priceline Group.
In 2013 CHOICE mystery shopped for rooms at the swanky Montague on the Gardens in London and The Langham Sydney hotel. We found travellers could save hundreds of dollars by shopping around on booking sites and the hotel's own website, rather than going with the first price they see.
Since then, Expedia and Priceline Group have come to dominate online accommodation bookings. Expedia Inc. swallowed trivago, Wotif Group, Travelocity, Orbitz and HomeAway, while Priceline Group bought Kayak and grew its existing brands booking.com and agoda.
Combine this with the growth of aggregators such as trivago, Google, Tripadvisor and hotelscombined.com.au comparing all the rates in one place and it's no surprise prices have levelled out. The price for a classic double room at Montague on the Gardens in London on 1 May 2017 ranged from $338 to $341 when we shopped around online.
Going directly to booking.com, the cheapest price for a deluxe king room with city view in The Langham Sydney for 1 May 2017 was $425. But Google's price comparison showed $400 across most sites for the same room, including booking.com, and we managed to get a price of $400 by clicking on the booking.com price from Google's price comparison. Beware the booking site algorithms.
- Check our article on holiday accommodation and your rights.
The dominance of the two big players also affects the rates the hotels offer on their own sites. An Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) investigation found Expedia and booking.com had parity clauses in their contracts with Australian hotels. These clauses bind the hotels to offer the best price and availability to the online travel agencies - the hotels can't offer better rates on their own site.
Parity clauses aren't unique to Australian hotels. The booking behemoths have similar clauses in many markets. This explains why in our mystery shop, the prices on the hotel's own sites were the same as on the online booking engines.
Some competition authorities in Europe are fighting back. And the ACCC reached agreement with Expedia and booking.com to allow accommodation providers to "offer lower rates through telephone bookings and walk-ins, offer special rates and deals to customer loyalty groups, in addition to offering deals via Expedia and booking.com".
That's not much use if, like most people, you book online. The contracts still prevent accommodation providers from even marketing or publishing offline rates on their website.
So if you find yourself stonewalled by the same price for a room everywhere online, get on the blower and ask for a price over the phone.
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.
Aside from astroturfing issues, some companies take even more manipulative measures, such as Meriton amending email addresses of guests who may have contributed negative reviews.
- Check our article on hotel review sites for more tips.
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 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 find 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 him 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.