Finding a reasonably priced hotel room is not necessarily a slam dunk in the Internet age. Can you get the best deal if you use websites that specialize in discounted room rates, or are there similar – perhaps even better – deals on hotel companies’ sites?

The answers are "yes" and "yes," depending on your needs. As Henry Harteveldt, travel analyst for Atmosphere Research, explains, “Sometimes discounts come at a very dear price. You have to be careful.”

For example, although Priceline’s “name your own price” policy can provide discounts of up to 60%, the company doesn’t tell you the name of your hotel until after you book it, which might place you somewhere you don't want to be. If getting points in your hotel loyalty program is important to you, you might not get them if you book on some discount sites. And discount sites’ rates can have other strings attached: Rates can be nonrefundable, or you might not be able to change the specifics of your reservation, which can be a problem if your travel plans change at the last minute.

According to Harteveldt, hotel sites frequently offer more – and sometimes even more lavish – discounts than hotel-discount websites. Hotels' own discounts can include weekend promotional packages with discounted rooms, special discounts for loyalty-program members and discounts available only to members of AAA or AARP.

If you choose to deal with a hotel directly rather than with a discount hotel-room site, try calling its reservations department when you are planning your trip and request the lowest rate that can be canceled with no penalty, suggests Bjorn Hanson, divisional dean of the Preston Robert Tisch Center for Hospitality, Tourism and Sports Management at New York University. He advises calling again right before you arrive to check for a cheaper rate, also cancellable with no penalty. If you then end up finding a lower rate online, you can cancel the reservation made directly with the hotel at no cost to you.

Best Sites for Discounted Hotel Rates

In addition to hotel companies’ websites, here are some sites offering discounted hotel rates that are worth exploring:

Priceline.com, established in 1998, today connects you to rooms in more than 300,000 hotels in 170 countries. Its largest discounts, up to 60% off retail rates, are through its “name your own price” policy. However, you can only specify the destination and neighborhood where you want to stay and your travel dates. If you want a hotel that’s identified, you have to choose the “express deals” feature, which provides discounts up to 55% off retail rates. For both types of bookings, reservations cannot be canceled, changed or transferred, and refunds are not permitted.

Trivago.com, a German company now controlled by Expedia, an online travel agency, lets users compare rates at more than 700,000 hotels worldwide featured on over 200 booking sites. Trivago claims its users save an average of 35% on room rates; users make reservations directly on the booking site.Trivago also provides hotel reviews from booking sites.

Booking.com is based in Amsterdam and owned by Priceline. It offers accommodations at more than 500,000 properties in 205 countries – everything from small, family-run bed-and-breakfasts to executive apartments and five-star luxury hotels. Many rates found on this site do not impose cancellation penalties; in addition, payment is often not required before travel.

Agoda.com, based in Singapore and also owned by Priceline, offers rates at hundreds of thousands of hotels, exclusive promotions and hotel reviews by its customers. Another plus: The company gives customers points for every booking made, worth 4% to 7% of the reservation’s price; points can be redeemed to reduce the cost of a future booking or saved to pay for an entire stay. One reason to check out Agoda, according to Harteveldt: Sometimes hotels give non-U.S. booking sites different, even lower rates to sell than they give to U.S. booking sites.

Stayful.com, established last year, lets users bid on rooms at independent boutique hotels in U.S. destinations including New York; New Orleans; San Francisco; Chicago; Los Angeles; Boston; San Diego; Seattle; Miami; Phoenix; Anaheim, Calif.; Orlando, Fla.; Telluride, Colo.; and Portland, Ore. The site’s bidding system collects unique pricing data at the time of the user’s search – information that can help the user obtain the rate desired.

Hotel Tonight offers an app that lets travelers book hotel stays of up to five nights at the last minute. Starting at 9 a.m. daily, hotels represented by Hotel Tonight release whichever rooms are not booked at rates that have been significantly discounted. Hotel Tonight currently works with hotels in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Costa Rica and 12 European countries. Properties range from what Hotel Tonight describes as “crashpad” to “luxe.” Bookings are nonrefundable.

The Bottom Line

Regardless of how or where you book your hotel room, Hanson advises defining your mission before you search sites: Looking for the very cheapest rate dictates one type of research. Having flexibility as a factor dictates another. Also important, according to Harteveldt, is carefully reading all the terms of whichever rates you are considering so there are no surprises once you book.

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