#booking hotel rooms
A guide to booking hotel rooms online
By Andrew Sherry, USATODAY.com
The Internet has rocked the hotel business as hard as it has the airlines, exposing opaque pricing practices to the harsh light of comparison shopping. While the airlines are starting to reclaim their place on the Web, technology-challenged hoteliers are still trying to figure out how to sell rooms online without cutthroat discounting.
They’re making progress. Five of the country’s biggest hotel groups (Hilton Hotels, Hyatt Corp. Marriott International, Six Continents Hotels and Starwood Hotels) joined Pegasus Solutions in developing a discount site, Travelweb. that has been described as “the Orbitz of hotels.” Most hotels in these groups also offer best-rate guarantees for guests who book directly with them, online or or by phone.
These steps are aimed to break the grip of Expedia, Hotels.com, Travelocity and Orbitz on online hotel bookings. For the moment, though, the result is more competition — and a buyer’s market for travelers who are willing to take the time to comparison shop for hotel rooms.
USAToday.com Travel is a small player in this game. Our site combines exclusive hotel recommendations with a comprehensive hotel directory powered by World Choice Travel, a Travelocity subsidiary, and advertiser’s listings of hotel specials and deals.
Another good starting point for hotel booking is Tripadvisor ; it combines hotel reviews from guidebooks with hotel deals listings from all the major online travel agents. Particularly useful is a feature that lets travelers write their own hotel reviews.
The big e-travel sites still dominate online hotel booking, though. They allow Web users to not only make real-time reservations, but also to purchase discounted, or “net-rate” rooms that the agencies have earlier bought in bulk from hotels. Keep in mind that the net rate rooms, which afford the biggest margins, are usually the ones the turn up at the top of your search results. If you require the flexibility to cancel up to the last moment, look farther down the list to the non net-rate hotels, or consider booking directly on a hotel’s Web site.
Several of these e-travel agents sell rooms not only on their own sites, but also under other brands on affiliate sites, so a comparison shopper could actually end up searching the same database of rooms on different Web sites. To ensure variety, we’ve listed the core players below, along with a few niche sites.
Expedia. an online travel agent, offers thousands of negotiated-rate hotels to supplement those supplied by Worldspan, the global distribution system (GDS) that links it to hotel, air and car suppliers worldwide. And by combining these hotels with airfares, it can provide some competitively priced packages that are suitable for business travelers with relatively fixed itineraries. Expedia was founded by Microsoft but is now majority-owned by Barry Diller’s USA Interactive.
Hotels.com. also owned by USA Interactive, specializes in net-rate hotels, but it has reduced its cancellation fee to $10 to make the site more appealing to business travelers. In addition to its own site, HRN distributes its rooms through subsidiary TravelNow.com, and hundreds of affiliate sites. It’s ostensibly a competitor of Expedia, but given their shared ownership, more and more overlap looks inevitable.
Travelocity. Expedia’s leading competitor, pulls most of its hotel rooms through the GDS operated by parent company Sabre. However, it has signed up close to 8,000 negotiated-rate properties in the past year, as it tries to wean itself from dependency on rooms supplied by Hotels.com.
Orbitz. best known for air booking, pulls in hotel rooms from both Travelweb and the Worldspan GDS. Like its competitors, though, it is striving to develop its own negotiated-rate hotel business.
Placestostay.com. the Web site of WorldRes, provides thousands of independent hotels with a channel to offer their rooms online. The company also offers one of the Web’s best collections of bed breakfast listings.
CheapTickets.com. is powered by the Galileo GDS. It is owned by travel and real estate conglomerate Cendant Corp. which also owns hotel brands such as Ramada, Days Inn and Travelodge. Another player to watch is OneTravel.com, which is partly owned by European GDS Amadeus.
Quikbook is a niche site that focuses on providing good prices for mid- to upper-range hotels in major urban centers, helping to make it a popular site with business travelers. Advance payment is required only for reservations at Las Vegas hotels.
More concerned about your budget than the name of your hotel? Consider using an auction or discount site. Priceline.com and Hotwire.com offer rooms that are usually deeply discounted from published rates. There is one catch you can pick your price and location, but you won’t know what hotel you’re staying at until after you’ve purchased your room.
These sites do allow you to pick what part of town you want to stay in and, in most cases, allow you to pick the minimum rating you’ll accept for your room on the 5-star scale. Here’s how they work:
Hotwire.com asks you to enter your destination and travel dates. You have the option of searching for rooms in a particular part of town or throughout the whole area. Hotwire then returns the best rates it finds for your dates, breaking down each rate by location and the five-star rating of the hotel. If you find a price that suits your criteria for location and five-star rating, you can purchase a room at that rate. But you won’t know the name of the hotel until the purchase is complete. Hotwire’s network of hotels includes major chains and local, independent establishments.
Priceline.com works a bit differently. On this site, you bid for a room. You tell Priceline when and where you want a room, and what price you are willing to pay. In addition, you select the part of town and the minimum rating you are willing to consider for a hotel economy, moderate, moderate-plus or upscale. Usually within 15 minutes, Priceline will tell you whether a hotel has agreed to your price. But beware if your price is accepted, your credit card will be charged for the rooms, whether or not you ultimately use them.
The name of your hotel will not be revealed until after you have purchased a room. However, consumer site Biddingfortravel.com provides tips to help you guess.
Take note reservations purchased on Priceline and Hotwire are not changeable or refundable. If your travel plans change, your reservations cannot be amended not even for a fee. You will not earn frequent flyer milers or other frequent guest perks for stays booked through either of these sites.
Hotel discounts can also come at a price in service. Hotels are less likely to accommodate your request for an upgrade or other special service if you arrive with a deeply discounted voucher from an e-travel agent. If you want full service, maximum flexibility, and loyalty program points, book directly on a hotel chain’s site, some of which serve several brands.
Leading sites where you can search for hotels in multiple cities include:
Despite all of these online choices, experienced travelers have not abandoned the telephone as a booking tool. They use the Web to get an idea of prices, then call the hotel directly to negotiate.