First, it helps to understand the playing field. There are basically three types of websites that people can use to find hotels: OTAs (online travel agencies); the hotels’ own websites, which may offer special member deals OTAs can’t match; and aggregators, or meta-search engines, which don’t actually handle reservations, but trawl both OTAs and hotel sites to return a list of results, then send you to your choice of them for final reservations.
We tested both OTAs and aggregators (and as a general rule, you should always double-check results from both types of sites against rates offered by the hotels’ own websites). Why include OTAs at all when there are aggregators that canvass them? Well, some aggregators don’t comb through booking engines as well as they should. In fact, our champ for total number of hotels found in most cities was actually an OTA, and you’d think it would have been an aggregator that scans lots of websites. We blame algorithms.
A warning about booking: Hotel aggregator sites sometimes display results from booking services that post amazingly low prices but have sketchy track records for customer service. If a hotel booking website directs you to a company you’ve never heard of, before giving it a penny, do a quick search for reviews or scams associated with that business name, and also perform a quick reputation search (based on the website’s hometown) at the Better Business Bureau (bbb.org).
Also keep a close eye on fees, which are unregulated in the U.S. and can stack up fast, and don’t pay much attention to user reviews of hotels—AI has made user reviews easy to rig with fakes.
When you’re making reservations, remember that some OTAs will give you a discount of 4–6% if you sign in for free. Member savings on aggregator sites are less reliable, and usually only around 1–2%.
Finally, a tip for travelers with some technical savvy: To ensure you always get the actual total prices including all taxes and fees, consider using a virtual private network, or VPN, to do your hotel shopping through a server based in Ireland, where EU regulations require all those charges to be announced up front. Any server in continental Europe will actually do, but choosing Ireland has the benefit of automatically showing results in English. Clear your browser’s cookies first so the hotel sites won’t remember any previous visits.