A little over half of consumers who make hotel reservations do so directly at hotel websites such as Hilton.com or Marriott.com, even if they've searched elsewhere. That's because they're loyal to one brand and/or they think they'll find the best prices by booking direct.
Loyalty has its privileges (free rooms, upgrades, and other perks), but it's not always true that hotel websites have the best deals or make the search process easier.
Here are your options the next time you're searching for a hotel stay:
Big online travel agency sites
The concept: Easy comparison shopping is the key here. You just want to get a good price and don't want to spend hours searching individual hotel websites. TripAdvisor, Expedia, Travelocity, Orbitz, Hotels.com, Kayak and dozens more will do the price comparison for you, allowing you to filter by ratings, price, location, and amenities.
Caveats: You will most likely have to pay for the room in advance, although most bookings are fully refundable subject to the individual hotel's policies. And frankly, most of these sites have the same prices, or within a few dollars of each other, with most price differences the result of sudden changes in availability and hotel rate changes (see "money back after you book," below).
The concept: You've shopped around, or maybe you haven't because you're brand loyal, and you're going to book with the hotel's (or hotel group's) website directly. Hotels want you to book direct, and even if the room rate is the same as on Hotels.com or Expedia, there might be a special perk thrown in such as a $100 room credit to spend on room service or parking (I recently found such a deal at Boston's Taj Hotel website and used every penny), a special AARP or AAA rate, a frequent-guest rate, a stay-four-nights-pay-for-three deal, promo code deals, and similar incentives. And the biggest incentive for many is that you usually don't pay for the room in advance.
Caveats: You won't always get the best price, and the hotel site won't automatically rebook you or notify you if the room rate goes down after making a reservation. And room rates do change, all the time, even though most people never bother to look after booking. Which brings us to…
The concept: You book a room (usually paying in advance) and if the room rate goes down you get a refund. Tingo.com does this automatically to your credit card and has already returned almost $1 million to customers. Orbitz.com has a similar perk, but someone else has to book your exact dates and room type to get a refund, which is in the form of an Orbitz credit, not cash.
Caveats: There might be a better deal on the hotel websites, although Tingo and Orbitz usually have the same rates at Hotels.com and other big sites.
Last minute bookings
The concept: You're looking for a room tonight, or for a stay in a few days and are flexible with the location. Priceline.com and its "bidding" function pretty much owns this category, but newcomers worth a look include HotelTonight.com, Lastminutetravvel.com, and Stayful.com, which also lets you bid on rooms, among others.
Caveat: Rates are usually non-refundable and you may not get frequent guest points.
The concept: Not to be confused with "last minute" booking sites, you sign up for free and the website sends you deeply discounted offers, often for stays well into the future, for specific hotels. This category has become increasingly competitive since the debut of sites like Jetsetter.com, Tablethotels.com, SecretEscapes.com and many others (do a search for "hotel flash sales"). But with the economy improving, fewer hotels are willing to play along. Even so, there are some great deals, often at very upscale hotels you might have otherwise overlooked. Jetsetter recently had Boston's VX Beacon (named the best U.S. hotel in Conde Nast Traveler's 2014 Readers' Poll) for about 40% off the hotel's website rate.
Caveat: Rooms are non-refundable after booking, so buy with a credit card that offers trip cancellation insurance.
The concept: This is not just for last-minute stays. You don’t care where you stay as long as you can specify the city, general location, and the "star rating" of the hotel. You only learn the name of the hotel after payment. Priceline.com and Hotwire.com are leaders in this space but others have joined the game.
Caveat: You won't know exactly where you're staying, you may not get frequent stay points, and bookings are usually non-refundable.
Just call the hotel and ask
The concept: After you find your best price, call the hotel directly (not the 800 number for central reservations but the specific hotel's reservation office or manager). Tell them what you've found online. Ask for a better rate that might be buried in the computer system, a $100 credit for room service or spa treatments, free parking, or an upgrade. Hotels pay third-party sites commissions of up to 30% (which is why everyone wants to get in on the game), so maybe they'll reward you for booking direct.
Caveat: There's no reason not to give this a try, unless you don't like being told "no".
George Hobica is a syndicated travel journalist and founder of the low-airfare listing site Airfarewatchdog.com.