You've chosen your destination—now you just need to find a place to stay. We hit the Net to see which booking sites are doing the best job now, based on usability, selection, prices, and more. Lisa Kalis reviews our top picks.
Best Feature Giant selection
And the Verdict Is... This site's first suggestion when we searched for New York "luxury hotels": a two-star motor inn in Queens. You can't search by neighborhood, only by price and name. And compared with other sites, it doesn't give as many details on the properties.
Best Feature Useful hotel descriptions
And the Verdict Is... You can sort results by price, name, class, and neighborhood; the site has great specifics on each property's location and features. The unique Virtual Tours option lets you browse through 360-degree views of guest rooms, restaurants, and lobbies.
Best Feature Long lists of landmarks help you narrow your search
And the Verdict Is... In Dallas alone, you can search for hotels near 49 attractions or neighborhoods. The site has good details on each property and a range of quality hotels. Too bad you have to wade through so many sold-out properties, but at least no-vacancy status is mentioned up front.
Best Feature Very user-friendly
And the Verdict Is... Although properties aren't listed by neighborhood, you can search for hotels near a specific address. We love the Matrix Display, which lets you quickly sort properties by three criteria: price, quality (from one to five stars), and distance from the city center.
Best Feature Only shows hotels with availability
And the Verdict Is... The selection may be small, but we found a decent range of hotels—each inspected and approved by Quikbook's staff. The search results page lists only name, neighborhood, and price. However, there are links to full descriptions, and sometimes photos.
Best Feature Traveler reviews and AAA ratings
And the Verdict Is... The Travelocity descriptions are helpful, but it's the write-ups from individual travelers that really give the site an insider edge. Travelocity also lets you search by any of 15 amenities—from swimming pools to on-site dry cleaning.
Best Feature Some good bargains
And the Verdict Is... Hotels on this site, which is run by a consortium of five big chains, are randomly listed—forget about searching by price. (You can narrow lists by rankings or names.) Its prices are competitive, though. We found a $150 rate for the Millennium in New York City.
Self-check-in kiosks, already ubiquitous at airports, are turning up in hotel lobbies. Hilton and Sheraton recently tested new machines at a handful of properties, with plans to roll out the technology in business-traveler hubs by year's end. To find out whether kiosks are really a worthwhile innovation, Amy Farley gave them a whirl.
HILTON NEW YORK
The Lowdown Helpful graphics take you through the process. After confirming your identity, the kiosk gives room details (floor number, type, and additional amenities). The machine spits out your keys and a welcome document with room information and personal messages.
Additional Options The machine allows you to enter and update your Hilton HHonors and frequent-flier partner information.
Coming Soon Floor maps displaying room location; on-screen room selection and upgrades; airline check-in and boarding-pass printing.
Kvetch Pushing certain buttons more than once may cause the machine to stall and print an error message. Our credit card was swallowed for a few minutes.
Troubleshooting A special kiosk-service agent with a wireless handheld device is on hand to answer questions and, as necessary, change reservations.
Average Check-In Time Less than two minutes.
Best For Low-maintenance guests in a hurry.
SHERATON NEW YORK HOTEL & TOWERS
The Lowdown The kiosk locates your reservation and gives you the option to change rooms (the screen lists all rooms available in your category by floor and view) or upgrade. The machine then ejects your keys, a welcome document, and any messages that have been held for you.
Additional Options You can return anytime during your stay to get extra keys and a reprint of your bill. At press time, kiosk users received 500 extra Starwood Preferred Guest points.
Coming Soon Airline check-in and boarding-pass printing.
Kvetch None—the system worked smoothly.
Troubleshooting Kiosk ambassadors are available to assist guests with technical problems and escort them to the front of the check-in line if all else fails.
Average Check-In Time Less than 60 seconds.
Best For Anyone wary of lines.
In recent years, hotels have streamlined their pricing practices. Using a technique pioneered by the airline industry known as yield management, they've been adjusting rates up and down in a predictable pattern based on demand forecasts and actual bookings. They've simultaneously simplified the search process for travelers by making prices more consistent, from Web sites to 800 numbers. Now, however, industry experts are noticing new volatility, in part because some consumers are returning to their old habit of booking well in advance, rendering the calculations that corporate offices have had in place less effective. According to Bjorn Hanson, an analyst for PricewaterhouseCoopers, "Hotels have been overriding yield management systems," with individuals at properties making more intuitive decisions about rates.
What does this mean for cost-conscious travelers?It's once again a good idea to call the hotel directly and ask for the lowest rate (in addition to checking other sources), since any changes will be made on-site. One more tip: Double-check the rate as your arrival date approaches. If it has dropped, you can often cancel your previous reservation and make a new one without penalty.
In an effort to spur business, many hoteliers have been lowering room rates. But buyer beware: to maximize revenue, these same hotels have begun charging guests for services that were once included gratis. And more often than not, guests don't learn about these add-ons until checkout time. Some common fees and their average amounts include:
• Resort fee (towel service, fitness center access, newspaper delivery, etc.), $20
• Housekeeping, $12
• Early departure fee, $50
• Mini-bar restocking charge, up to 20% of prices
To avoid unpleasant surprises, inquire when you're booking whether the hotel automatically charges anything beyond the room rate and tax. (Be sure to note the reservation agent's name.) Verify this information when you check in. If any fees still sneak their way onto your bill, don't be shy about contesting unexpected charges at checkout. Most hotels would rather avoid a scene in the lobby than adhere strictly to their$20 towel-fee policy.
—Jennifer V. Cole