Travelers treat searching for hotel rates online like a game of roulette: try enough combinations (dates, locations, travel agencies), and you’ll score the perfect one. But it’s easy to forget that booking a room through an online travel agency means that if you need to change your travel dates or find a better deal, you may pay a penalty, often upward of $25. Add to this the fact that hotels don’t reward loyalty points for stays reserved through discount booking sites, and that bargain-basement price doesn’t look so appealing. Avoid pitfalls by following these approaches:
Step 1. Try new search engines Farecast.com, which started predicting the rise and fall of airfares last year, more recently launched a similar system for hotels. Instead of calculating the direction room rates will go, however, it analyzes whether the price is a "deal" or "not a deal" by combining historical data with current rates from three other sites—Orbitz, CheapTickets, and Reserve Travel—with prices from hotels themselves to come. The problem: users don’t know why prices rise or fall (a wedding party or just unusually high occupancy), so holding out for a rate to go down could be a mistake. To be fair, the tool was still in beta testing at press time. Still, the site has invaluable services. It eliminates sold-out hotels from your search results, so you won’t find a great rate that disappears when you try to book it (a problem that plagues many online travel agencies), and it maps results using Microsoft Virtual Earth. Other sites such as Hotels.com now have calendars that reveal the lowest room rates on each day for which information is available. Both Travelocity and Expedia have installed similar tools.
Step 2. Check hotel calendars A growing number of hotel Web sites are using booking systems with long-term day- by-day room rates. Four Seasons, for instance, lets you check prices up to nine months in advance. The Las Vegas Bellagio listed a rate of $799 on January 7; when we checked the cost of the same room on January 10, it was $199.
Step 3. Look for a guarantee Many hotels and online agencies promise to match any rate presented to them. Marriott hotels give you the lower price, plus a 25 percent discount. Starwood does the same but discounts you 10 percent, or hands over 2,000 Starpoints. Swissotel offers half off the first night’s lower rate and matches the cost the following night. The catch: most guarantees require you to file a claim within 24 hours of booking your room.
Step 4. Pick up the phone Call the hotel directly (not the central toll-free number). Often, properties offer last-minute specials that they don’t submit through reservations. Plus, agents are typically not authorized to negotiate (as we did, in the test case at right). Since hotels often allot only a certain number of rooms to the booking service, you may be told that it’s sold out, which is not always the case. Finally, if you’re seeking a top-notch hotel experience, phone a travel agent. Ours (see T+L Test Case) swung a better rate than I could find online, plus breakfast and an upgrade.