Nearly 75 percent of travellers book their hotel rooms online today, compared to just 20 percent in 2005.  With the popularity of online travel agencies like Expedia and Travelocity, booking hotel rooms online has never been easier, or more confusing.

Your hotel can make all the difference between a great travel experience and a vacation nightmare.  But with so many websites to choose from, how can travellers ensure they’ll get a great hotel experience without breaking their budget?

TripAdvisor

If you aren’t familiar with your travel destination then TripAdvisor should be your first stop.  TripAdvisor is the largest travel community in the world and their website features reviews and advice on hotels, resorts, flight and much more.

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The hotel industry used to control how its rooms and property were displayed online and in brochures with careful staging and photography.  TripAdvisor revolutionized the travel industry through user generated reviews and photos that gave honest feedback about actual customer experiences in hotels.

It highlights the best and worst of hotel experiences with comments like:

“Immediately noticed the filth and smell.  Room was a good size but apparently too big to be cleaned…EVER!”

or;

“A near perfect blend of warm service, sumptuous dining, breathtaking hilltop sea views and home style charm.”

TripAdvisor Tips

TripAdvisor is not a booking site, although it can direct you to other booking channels to compare rates and make reservations.

Hotels are rated from 0 to 5 stars.  Be sure the hotel you’re considering has a large number of customer reviews.  Hotels with fewer reviews can be easily skewed with one really awful (or really good) customer experience.

Check the most recent customer reviews.  A large number of positive reviews on a hotel could have been received in the first year or two after opening (or after a major renovation).  The condition of the hotel or its customer service could have changed considerably since then.  You want to know what the hotel experience will be like now.

Online Travel Agencies

Online travel agencies like Expedia, Travelocity, and Priceline became popular channels for hotels to sell unused inventory back in the late 90’s and early 2000’s when the hospitality industry was in decline – particularly after 9/11.

Today, most hotels have dedicated employees managing these channels on a day-to-day basis, updating rates, opening and closing out inventory, and checking up on their competitors.

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Customers can be assured that hotels must offer “rate parity” across all of these channels (including their own website) or they risk being dropped from the programs.

One simple way to check rates across all of the different online travel agencies is to visit Kayak.com.  Kayak’s website and mobile app allow you to check hundreds of travel sites at once and will even give choices of where to book your airline, hotel, car rental and online travel agency site.

Google has also got in on the act with Google Hotel Finder.  Like its Google Flights counterpart, Hotel Finder scours all the booking channels to find the best matches in terms of date availability, price, and location.

Priceline

Travellers who want to save money but aren’t very picky about the hotel they stay at can try their hand at Priceline.com.  Priceline allows you to “name your price” with its online auction style bidding format.

With the name your price format on Priceline, travellers can select the destination, area of city and star rating of the hotel they prefer to stay at, as well as the price they are willing to pay.

From there, customers enter a booking window where they must agree to the term and conditions of Priceline which states that if the customer bid is accepted, it will be booked and charged to their credit card.  If the bid is rejected, customers can begin the process all over again.

Some notes about Priceline:

  • If Priceline accepts your price, it will book your reservation in a property with an equal or higher star level than you requested.
  • Purchasing Trip Cancellation/Interruption Insurance for $5 per room (per night) allows customers to make changes or cancel their reservations due to unforeseen circumstances and get their non-refundable payment reimbursed.
  • Hotel rooms purchased through Priceline are not eligible for frequent traveler points, upgrades, vouchers, or other discounts and incentives.

Hotel Direct

Hotels make their inventory available across a wide variety of booking channels in order to maximize their opportunities to sell rooms.  But booking through online travel agencies takes a big bite out of hotel operators’ pockets, as they pay upwards of 25% of the price of the room to the 3rd party websites.

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Savvy hotel operators will try to drive customers to book through their own website, where the cost is substantially lower (around 5%).

Customers who understand how hotel profits work can take advantage of this information by negotiating with the hotel directly. Using the example below you can see how booking directly through the hotel can be a win-win scenario for both the traveller and the hotel:

Mike wants to stay two nights in Vancouver and finds the lowest rate for his preferred hotel on Expedia is listed at $150 per night.

If Mike books through the online travel agency his credit card will be charged $300, the hotel will net $225 and the online travel agency will net $75.

Knowing this scenario, the Mike calls the hotel directly, explains the rate he found on Expedia, and asks if the hotel can beat that rate by $20 per night.  Let’s look at the math:

  • $130 rate x 2 nights = $260
  • Cost to hotel for booking through its own reservations system is 5% = $13
  • Net profit for hotel = $247
  • Net savings for customer for booking through the hotel direct = $40

Hotel Rewards Program

Another benefit to booking through the hotel directly is to take advantage of its traveller rewards program.  Most hotels do not allow travellers to accumulate rewards points if they’ve booked through a 3rd party website.  The morning front desk routine often includes identifying rewards program members who are arriving that night and assigning them to the hotel’s best available rooms.

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Hotel rewards programs have become very lucrative over the years and often include perks like free upgrades, free nights, dining room credits, early check-in and late check-out.  By joining the rewards program you will also receive special email offers that are otherwise unadvertised on other channels.

Shop Online, but Call Direct

Excellent deals and useful information on hotels can be found by searching online.  Websites like TripAdvisor, Kayak, Google, Priceline and individual hotel brand websites can play a key role in identifying a great place to stay.

But the problem with shopping online is that you can’t negotiate rates or communicate and confirm special requirements with a website.

Related: Have loyalty programs gone too far in pursuit of your data?

Taking the steps listed above will allow you to determine the hotel that best suits your specific needs.  And by understanding how hotel bookings work, and by calling the hotel directly to negotiate and communicate your needs, you can save money and enjoy your next hotel stay.

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