Illustration by Erin McLaughlin
If you book hotels online, it's time to face facts: Your favorite travel website probably isn't cutting it. In the past decade, some of the best-known travel sites have lost their fastball. They're not as smart and nimble as the new kids on the Web that now have tools for smarter comparison shopping, searches for smaller B&Bs and niche neighborhoods, and access to blocks of rooms reserved for its members.
Before you try these, one word of caution: No single site is the be-all-and-end-of-all of hotel booking. We recommend using at least two search tools, such as your current favorite online travel agency and one of the hotel shopping engines we've named here, to max out your chances of nabbing the perfect room or upgrade. Happy shopping!
Best for: Travelers who like the idea of hotel owners competing for their business.
What it does: Hoteliers often hold back a handful of rooms to sell to last-minute guests, but they don't always fill them. You can book one of these rooms as they're released by logging on to BackBid, which enables hotels to sell rooms to travelers who already have confirmed bookings at rival properties.
How it works: Book a refundable reservation at a hotel through your favorite website, and then create a free account at BackBid. Forward the email with your confirmed hotel reservation to the site, and it will shoot your reservation details — minus your credit card information — to dozens of hotels at your destination. BackBid will then share with you any counter-offers rival hotels may make, such as a comparable room at a lower rate.
Recent steal: In a test, an editor forwarded to BackBid a confirmation email for his $199 a night reservation at the Courtyard by Marriott in downtown Seattle. A day later, bids poured in from 17 Seattle hotels, which included a pitch from the Hilton Seattle, only 1.5 miles away and with better amenities, for a comparable room with a king size bed for $179 a night rate. All things considered, it's a reasonable inconvenience for a 10 percent or better savings.
Snags: Launched in November 2011, the site remains limited to a few hundred properties in 20 major U.S. cities.
Best for: Travelers who want an independent source to vouch for the honesty of vacation package prices.
What it does: Many hotels tout packages that include perks, such as valet parking and a spa treatment, claiming that the package prices represent deep discounts over buying the components separately. DealBase vets each package for its true value.
How it works: Use DealBase to pick a hotel package at your destination, then click on the listing for a breakdown of the estimated costs of the package's components. (The site even publishes a list of the "worst" hotel deals.)
Recent steal: In California, the Ventura Beach Marriott recently showcased a "Ventura Shopping Package" that came with a $50 Visa gift card, breakfast for two at the property's restaurant, valet parking and a welcome gift, bookable any day of the week through 2012. DealBase highlighted the package, which it discovered on the hotel's site, and calculated that travelers could save a third off by booking the package instead of its parts one by one. DealBase showed how it did its math, noting the costs of the valet parking ($15), the breakfast ($60), and the welcome gift (containing a city map, some gourmet candy, and bottles of water) at $30. The site said the overall package represented a 36 percent discount off it's à la carte value.
Snags: DealBase includes sponsored listings and identifies them as such. Readers have to take on faith that the site reviews all packages impartially, including ones it has been paid to mention.
Best for: Travelers who prefer staying at independently owned properties.
What it does: Founded this year, HotelSweep lists more than 50,000 U.S. hotels, motels, B&Bs and guesthouses, scraping listings off countless websites. (A British version, hotelsweep.co.uk, does the same thing for lodging in the United Kingdom.) One of the perks of the site is that it lists mom-and-pop properties — places that generally aim to attract budget-conscious travelers, but are too small to afford the costs of being listed with multinational travel agencies.
How it works: Punch your destination into HotelSweep's "direct hotel search" tool, and the site will fetch a quick list of properties, which you can sort by nightly rate or distance from a particular location. A Google Street View image of the property is provided, but it's up to you to take the next step and contact the managers and book a room. If that is too much work, HotelSweep also has a "live price comparison" tool, which is a standard booking engine powered by HotelsCombined.com, an Australian rival to Kayak, though it doesn't include all of the mom-and-pop listings that turn up in the "direct hotel search" tool.
Recent steal: In a hunt for New York City lodging, HotelSweep's "direct hotel search" tool dug up more than a thousand properties. The cheapest listing was Hostelling International, a property with rates from $29 a night per person. Surprisingly, the hostel has earned decent user ratings and reviews with TripAdvisor and a review from Lonely Planet, even though Expedia hadn't heard of it.
Snags: HotelSweep isn't vetting properties. It simply lists any place that has a Web presence. So, it puts you in hardcore "buyer beware" territory. Also, the live comparison tool doesn't include all the properties in the hotel search tool, so you might have to work harder to make a booking.
Best for: Culture vultures and nightlife fans who want to stay in the buzziest neighborhoods.
What it does: Previously a metasearch site for airfare, Hipmunk last year added hotels to its repertoire. One of its signature tricks is to allow a traveler to name his or her favorite interest, such as nightlife, shopping and museum-hopping, and the site will filter its listings to only display hotels in neighborhoods with an especially high number of relevant venues, such as bars, boutiques and museums.
How it works: Run a search for a hotel like you would on any travel site, and Hipmunk retrieves real-time rates from booking sites, such as Orbitz, Getaroom, Hotels.com, HotelsCombined and vacation rental platform Airbnb. Hipmunk also assigns an "ecstasy" rating to each hotel, based on an evaluation of the property's rates, amenities and user reviews on TripAdvisor.
Recent steal: A recent search for hotels in L.A. turned up dozens of hotels that Hipmunk gave high "ecstasy" scores. A click on a button labeled "nightlife" revealed a map with a downtown district near Pershing Square that has a dense concentration of clubs and bars. Clicking on the neighborhood on the map revealed a few properties with a high "ecstasy" rating, including the Miyako Hotel for $116 a night.
Snags: The site is primarily map-driven, and people who find maps confusing might find Hipmunk equally off-putting.
Best for: Travelers booking hotels overseas who have been disappointed by the selection on U.S.-based travel agencies.
What it does: In 2010, Momondo, moved beyond being a flight metasearch engine and now lists hotels from major overseas hotel booking sites, such as Escapio and Hotelopia, which tend to be overlooked by U.S.-based travel sites like Expedia. It also includes an option to search for hostels.
How it works: Like Kayak, you enter your search query, and the site draws up a list of rates from various online travel agencies and hotel sites.
Recent steal: In a search this winter for hotels in Zurich, Momondo uncovered 185 hotels (and about 330 other types of lodging, such as hostels), compared with 133 hotels on Booking.com and 125 on Orbitz. Momondo put at the top of its search results properties with the most central locations, highest star ratings, lowest prices and best user reviews. Its top pick: Hotel Rothaus, on Langstrasse in the city's entertainment district, with room rates from $104. Booking.com had the hotel buried in its search results for $140 a night on the same dates, and Orbitz had it for $139.
Snags: Compared with American giants, such as Hotels.com and Priceline.com, Momondo wasn't great at finding hotels in the United States.
Best for: Travelers whose priority is a room with the most amenities.
What it does: Room 77 is unique in researching room-by-room amenities and floor plans for hundreds of three- to five-star hotels in about 30 North American, European and Asian cities. It then facilitates booking a particular type of room.
How it works: Room 77 works like a typical hotel search engine, only it goes into much greater detail about the amenities available in individual rooms at hotels, such as what the view might be from any given window. Guests who book directly through Room 77 can take advantage of its free "room concierge" feature, in which it contacts hotel managers on a guest's behalf to request a room matching his or her preferences, such as "connecting rooms" and "distance from elevators." There are no guarantees, but the site claims that its customers have a high satisfaction rate with its concierge service.
Recent steal: A recent search on Room 77 for a hotel stay in Seattle turned up a list of properties, matched with their rates. One listing was for Courtyard Seattle Downtown Pioneer Square, and Room 77 included specific booking tips, such as the fact that rooms with numbers ending in 3 (i.e., 1003) above the tenth floor are among the most spacious and have some of the prettiest views. Room 77 also reveals blueprints of rooms, overlaid on a Google map. Clicking on the silhouette of room 1105 at the Courtyard Seattle Downtown Pioneer Square, for instance, reveals that it is 28 feet from the elevator, has 300 square feet of space and a view of Puget Sound. Room 77 lists current rates through multiple websites, such as Expedia and Booking.com, including taxes and fees.
Snags: The site only lists specific details for about 5,000 properties, most of which are from major U.S. chains. Room 77's room descriptions are also fairly generic and positive. For truly warts-and-all insights like "room smells of blow dryer and dead mouse," turn to TripAdvisor user-reviews.
Best for: Travelers who prefer the consistency and quality control of U.S.-owned chain hotels, and don't want to be distracted with information about other places.
What it does: Seven hotel chains — Best Western, Choice Hotels (Comfort Inn, Quality Inn), Hilton, Hyatt, InterContinental (Holiday Inn, Crowne Plaza, Hotel Indigo), Marriott and Wyndham (Howard Johnson, Ramada, Days Inn, Super 8) — are listing their rooms together in a new search engine. Unlike major online travel agencies like Expedia and Priceline, Room Key limits its selection to chains, eliminating most of the uncertainty about what kind of hotel you might end up with.
How it works: Punch in your destination and travel dates and the site brings up a list of relevant hotels, which you can winnow using the standard tools, such as distance, price and star rating. When you decide to book, you're sent directly to a hotel-owned website, where you'll need to enter your credit card number to book the room. Booking directly with the hotel cuts out the middleman and earns you customer loyalty points.
Recent steal: In a recent search, the Hilton Atlanta turned up for $179 a night on Room Key, compared with $219 on Expedia, for the same dates and type of room.
Snags: Only about 27,000 hotels — with limited international choices — are currently listed, compared with the more than 100,000 posted on the major online travel agencies.
Best for: Travelers looking mostly for American business-type hotels.
What it does: Finds the cheapest rooms at major-brand hotels located at America's largest airports and financial districts — and nearly nowhere else.
How it works: This consolidator has access to rooms at a volume discount with major brands like Hyatt and Marriott at most major U.S. airports (especially Chicago, Denver, L.A., Philadelphia, San Francisco and Washington, D.C.). By only allowing members to see deals, the site is able to offer rates much lower than major chains and websites with lowest-price guarantees offered to the general public.
Recent steal: A recent search on YourRoomKey for a room near Chicago's O'Hare Airport on less than a week's notice turned up a room at the Holiday Inn with a queen-size bed, free Internet and a free airport shuttle ride, for $52 a night. A comparable room at the same hotel on the same date went for $97 on Kayak and $109 on Travelocity.
Snags: You have to create an account with the site to be able to see any of its listings. Membership is free, but it can take a day or so to activate.
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