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Best room rate? Don't ask the hotel

The low price guarantee has become a cornerstone of airline and hotel marketing, typically displayed prominently on travel suppliers' websites.

Here's United's: "At united.com, you will always find the lowest United fare available, plus there's never a booking fee for your united.com flight purchase."

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And what Marriott calls its Look No Further Best Rate Guarantee assures visitors to the Marriott website that they "won't find a qualifying lower publicly available room rate on the Marriott room of your choice—anywhere. When you contact Marriott directly to plan your travel, rest assured there's no need to hunt for a better deal."

So pervasive have such reassurances become that many consumers have been lulled into believing that better prices can't be found elsewhere.

But at least when it comes to hotel rooms, such guarantees are at odds with reality.

In his latest survey of hotel booking sites, Bob Cowen, author of "Do It Yourself Travel Guidebook" and publisher of the "Internet Travel Tips" website, found the following: "[I]t pays to shop around because the hotel's website provided the lowest price in only 60% of the inquiries."

So, notwithstanding a hotel's guarantee to the contrary, Cowen was able to find better room rates on non-hotel websites fully 40 percent of the time. (By contrast, Cowen's research indicates that airlines do a satisfactory—if imperfect—job of delivering on the best-price promise.)

Cowen acknowledges that his results were based on a small sample of test bookings. But he insisted that the sample was a representative one, and that his findings should be broadly applicable. And even if a more thorough study found the hotels delivering on their price guarantees twice as often, the disconnect between the promise and the reality would still be significant.

One is left wondering whether the hotel chains that tout their price guarantees believe their own hype, or if the guarantees are simply cynical attempts to influence consumer behavior.

Whether or not the hotels believe their own promises, consumers should proceed with caution.

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