Currently, I’m planning a two-week trip to New Zealand. Over the years, I’ve found booking.com to be a reliable and comprehensive site for hotel searches. But for this trip, booking.com missed out on the best deals on three of my stays:
- In one city, it didn’t find an available senior discount.
- In another, it didn’t discover a discounted two-night package.
- And in a third, it didn’t report on a special package rate, including “free” breakfast.
In all three cases, I had to go to the hotel or hotel-chain website to find these deals. This experience is an example of the struggle that’s going on between the big online travel agencies (OTAs) and hotels for control of the online marketplace. It illustrates how the days of the easy, quick, one-stop hotel search are rapidly drawing to a close—and how you have to change your search habits to make sure you get the best deals.
Creatures of the Internet, OTAs quickly established themselves as consumer favorites by providing, for the first time, consistent, real-time, side-by-side hotel rate and airfare comparisons. Originally highly fragmented, the OTA marketplace for hotels has consolidated through mergers and acquisitions. Now, according to a recent report, two big OTA corporations, both with multiple brands, control much of the hotel booking space: Priceline, with its subsidiary Booking.com, controls 62 percent of the European market, and Expedia, which includes Hotwire and Travelocity, controls 70 percent of the U.S. market. Both have also acquired metasearch websites that find prices, but don’t make actual sales and instead link to OTA or hotel websites.
With that sort of dominance, both are in a position to make life difficult for smaller competitors. They can squeeze hotels for bigger commissions and force them to abandon “price parity” arrangements guaranteeing all comers access to the same pricing. In theory, they could “consolidate” hotel rooms and offer rates even lower than a hotel’s advertised rates, although I haven’t observed much of that, yet.
Hotels are fighting back with incentives for you to book through their own channels, including limiting “free” Wi-Fi to travelers who book through their own sites, discounted packages and other promotions. They’re also offering special deals to members of their loyalty programs. And neither metasearch sites nor OTAs pick up on these deals at all.
The result: As a consumer, you’ll find that locating the best deal will become harder. The days when you can see all the relevant options on one page are ending. Instead, finding the best deal will be a multi-step process:
- Start out with a metasearch website that specializes in hotels, such as Google’s Hotelfinder, Kayak, TripAdvisor or Trivago. These sites do not reserve or sell accommodations; they display prices available through dozens of selling agencies, including OTAs and hotel sites. This first search can give you a pretty good idea of what’s available.
- For any hotel that looks interesting, check with the hotel’s own website. You will often see promotions and deals that the metasearch sites don’t show. This is especially important for travel inthe United States and Canada, where AAA, AARP, CAA, CARP, and senior discounts are widely available — and generally not picked up by the metasearchers.
- When prices are equal, metasearch websites owned by OTAs seem to favor links to OTAs over hotel sites. But you are still more likely to find promotional packages on the hotel’s website than through any search system.
- Depending on where you plan to go, consider checking with a “flash sale” agency such as Jetsetter or Vacationist or a coupon agency such as Groupon for an even better deal.
- If you’re willing to gamble, check with Hotwire or Priceline for a possible opaque deal. But if you have special needs such as free Wi-Fi or onsite parking, the opaque OTAs can’t guarantee anything that specific.
Booking.com, Hotels.com, and the others will remain useful for small, independent hotels outside North America. But in North America, and with chain hotels, you have to check directly. In any event, once you’ve decided, book through whichever portal got you the best price.
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Ed Perkins on Travel is copyright (c) 2015 Tribune Media Services, Inc.
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