7 dos and don’ts for booking hotels online

The advantages of booking your hotel accommodation online are well known. You can do it any time, from the comfort of your own home or your smartphone. You can take time to research the best options, check hotel locations on Google Maps and ensure you get the best rate. In short, it’s just more convenient; follow our basic tips on what to do – and what not to do – when booking online to ensure you get the best experience. Presidential Suite Hotel Silken Puerta America DON’T book directly through the hotel website Don’t book directly through the hotel website and pay what they call the ‘rack rate’. This is an inflated price that only a small minority pay… because they don’t know better! DO look at third party sites There are many hotel booking sites out there. Find those that suit you, whether it be because of their geographical coverage, their user-friendliness or their ease of searching. Some sites have price guarantees and will refund the difference should you find a better deal elsewhere. Others will do price comparisons for you, may work on a bidding basis or will specialise in late availability. DON’T compare apples with oranges Just because you see a rate cheaper elsewhere doesn’t mean to say it’s a better deal. Check the details of what it is you are booking – is it the same room type, is breakfast included, is parking included, etc. DO use online review sites Sites such as Tripadvisor can be an invaluable resource. Learn from fellow travellers exactly what a hotel is like, whether it’s more suited to couples of families, and so and so forth.  If you use Facebook, you’ll even be able to see what your Facebook friends think of some hotels which can give added credence – depending on how much you value their opinion, of course. TripAdvisor DON’T be misled by fake reviews Recognise that not all reviews will necessary be quite as they seem. The online review system is open to abuse so just be wary of that, apply common sense and use any such sites with a degree of caution. In short, don’t believe everything you read. DO consider contacting the hotel directly It can sometimes be worth telephoning or emailing the hotel directly to see if they can better the rate you’ve found. Booking directly with the hotel will mean they don’t lose a commission on the booking so, if they’re astute to this (and it’ll probably depend on who you get), they may entertain a special rate.

Paul Johnson

Paul Johnson is Editor of A Luxury Travel Blog and has worked in the travel industry for more than 30 years. He is Winner of the Innovations in Travel ‘Best Travel Influencer’ Award from WIRED magazine. In addition to other awards, the blog has also been voted “one of the world’s best travel blogs” and “best for luxury” by The Daily Telegraph.

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  1. There are hotels which guarantees the lowest rate when booked direct with them.The best strategy would be to find the lowest rate on third party websites and contact the hotel direct and ask if they can offer a better deal.Most hotel surely will do.Because they don`t have to pay a commission to those third party websites.And yes there are fake reviews too.So,read them but don`t fully depend on them.Nice article, Paul!

  2. You do need to be careful when booking directly with a hotel or through 3rd party websites as your contract is then with the hotel as they are the principal. This means if you have a problem with your booking you may have to take legal action against a hotel in the country where they are located. Booking with an independent travel agent means that the supplier has checked the property for health & safety and other important factors such as building work nearby etc. The hotel owner may not advise you that his electrical safety certificate has run out, he is not insured, his balconies are too low for kids and he empties the swimming pool on 31 August to save money.

  3. The best way to book hotels online is after reading online reviews. But as said rightly in this post, beware of fake reviews. Do talk to the hotel guys also. Spend some time doing research instead of falling directly into the trap.

  4. If you use a booking site the first time and the accommodation lives up to all you have previously researched, then make sure you book direct with them next time. 2 reasons, 1) is the fact that the booking sites charge for taking the booking and that money will help the accommodation provider and 2) a lot of the accommodation providers look after return guests with incentives.

  5. An small but important add-on to point “DON’T compare apples with oranges”: Also check whether taxes are included.

    In some countries, the taxes added to hotel prices can make a big difference, so make sure to check whether they’re already included in the price that’s shown to you.

  6. According to my experience, it is not uncommon to find extremely bad reviews on a hotel. So bad that they are hard to believe. That is because they are not real.

  7. Yes, it is better to book using third party sites, because you can find some offers there, while the hotels’ sites have fixed prices. Sometimes the difference is huge, even (or especially) for 5 stars hotels

  8. Always book direct with the hotel!
    Safe the AOT
    Use all the small independent hotels, resort & guest houses

  9. Does anyone know what hotel is shown in the pic above? I certainly wouldn’t mind waking up to that view…

  10. You will only get the best by going DIRECT to the people who know their product best and can give you the best service. DO BOOK DIRECT – or you’ll find a future of bland, boring & cheap. And understand value over price. Constant demand for lower prices leads to less jobs & ultimately less in all our pockets. Then where will we all be? Home, twiddling our idle thumbs! Choose to BOOK DIRECT to give us all a future of choice.

  11. When you are looking for a Hotel it is good to have a look at the reviews in Tripadvisor and then book directly through the Hotel website, after shopping around through third parties (OTA – Online Travel Agent): you will find lower rates and special offers always through the Hotel website.

  12. Most major hotel companies ensure that the rates offered by them are identical to those offered by online travel sites. Look no further guarantees offered by the larger hotel names will pay you the difference if you find a lower rate. You also need to be careful as you can not often collect frequent travel points at hotels if you book through an on line agent.

    Review sites like trip advisor and booking.com offer generally honest reviews and are monitored to ensure their are no fakes. They are certainly aware that this does occur but all in all what your reading is submitted by people who visited the hotel or restaurant

  13. People saying you will always find lower rates on the hotel’s own site compared to OTA’s: not true I’m afraid, in MOST cases – the major OTA players all do daily “rate parity” checks, ensuring that no other OTA is offering cheaper prices than what they have. But crucially, many of the OTA’s also now do rate parity checks against the hotel’s own sites – and if they find that the hotel are frequently offering cheaper direct rates than what they are giving the OTA, they will be removed from the OTA… and they DON’T want that!

    Despite the commission they need to pay, many hotels use OTA’s as a late discount option to claw in lastminute business, so you WILL find cheaper deals there than on their own website 9 times out of 10.

    However it is of course worth calling the hotel and seeing if they can match/better the OTA rate directly (but in my experience they generally won’t, despite avoiding commission this way!).

  14. Good article Paul. Not so sure about avoiding the hotels directly, I have found that they in some cases tend to offer incentives such as vouchers etc if you book through them.

    Any idea what hotel that is in the picture above? Looks amazing.

  15. Thanks, Tomas… just to clarify, I am not suggesting to avoid hotels directly. On the contrary, I suggest people do make direct contact to see if a better deal is available.

    The picture is of the Presidential Suite at the Hotel Silken Puerta America.

  16. I trust Trip Advisor with their reviews. BUT, I always book hotel directly. I found by booking through some OTAs, you may get a good rate but the room is the worst of the selection. You can’t complain at the front desk when going through OTA but certainly can get a better room when booking directly with hotel. Is it worth to save a few dollars to get a lousy room/locarion, etc?

  17. Booking direct is the best way to do it to guarantee a room at your choice hotel. If by booking thru a third part booking site- we can and do walk people from our property to another property in the event we can get full price on our rooms. Also, if by booking with a third party we cannot extend your stay at the desk- you must call your booking agent and do so with them. Along with the loss of any loyalty points and rewards. Most hotels and resorts like to keep their commissions and will adjust the rate or throw something in of value.
    Happy Travels!

  18. I contribute to and rely on Tripadvisor reviews to a great extent.

    I have found that the reviews on booking.com are also mostly worthwhile though they frequently show up the inexperience of some travelers. One advantage of booking.com is that generally, but not always, you do not pay until you check out of the hotel; so it is easy to cancel if necessary without cost. This also allows you effectively to HOLD a reservation whilst continuing your research.

    However, in my experience you will get the best deals by going direct to the hotels whether through their own web sites or by phone. It is simply not true that the hotel web sites only show rack rates e.g. Hilton and Marriott show a whole variety of different rate types.

    Also booking hotels in Hawai’i for this October I found 5th night free, senior rates and breakfast included rates by going direct, which are not available through OTA’s. I was also able to negotiate a room upgrade over the phone which you cannot do online.

    Emailing the hotel can also be effective because it allows both sides to to take the heat out of negotiations, although it is easier for the hotel to say NO this way.

    OTA’s rely on the fact that you are using them for speed and convenience but most often do not offer the best deals.

    However, the online comparison sites like Trivago can be very useful. I found a rate on a hotel in Fuengirola last year almost a third cheaper through an online agency called Alpha Rooms that I had never heard of before I was directed there by Trivago.

  19. “it is easy to cancel if necessary without cost”

    With booking.com, I believe this is down to each individual provider’s policy. In most cases, I wouldn’t expect you to be able to cancel without cost, but it may depend on various factors (eg. how long off the booking is).

    The other thing that’s worth mentioning about reviews on Booking.com versus Tripadvisor is that, in the case of the former, I believe the only people who can place a review are those who have actually made a reservation (and presumably stayed) through the Booking.com website. In the case of Tripadvisor, this verification process does not happen and there is seemingly no easy, sure-fire way of checking that the person placing a review has even been a guest.

  20. I work in reservations and I find guests who need to cancel or modify a reservation cannot do so with some 3rd party sites. Most sites don’t guarantee bed type either, I always recommend calling whether you get in house or Central reservations They can help and are full of useful information if you ask the right questions. So unless your plans are concrete. I would probably recommend not going through 3rd party.
    When in doubt call

  21. Do use a hotel comparison site – they compare all the third party booking sites so you don’t have to!

  22. I always use Tripadvisor – rule out 5 best 5 worst reviews – research with agents – always book direct – never let me down travelling worldwide.

  23. Some good tips here. We’ve done it both ways, and often find the hotel site is offering the same rate as the third party site. I like the idea of contacting the hotel directly and asking them to do better. We’ll definitely try it next time. Thanks, Paul.

  24. One tip for weeding out reviews – look at how many reviews the reviewer has made. If the review is glowing or hyper-critical, but it’s the reviewer’s first or second review, ignore it.

  25. A valid point, Nate… also, even if they have a few reviews to their name, look at where else they’ve reviewed. I have seen instances in the past where a ‘reviewer’ (and I use that term loosely) had done multiple hotel reviews, but the hotels all belonged to the same group. Go figure.

  26. Thank you for these precious pieces of advice.
    I’m not a specialist of luxury hotels or major international chains, but I do work in cultural tourism with several exclusive historical accommodation sites. Most of them are family-owned hotels.
    If you are looking for high quality tailored stays, I would absolutely recommend a direct contact with the accommodation. Of course, it is interesting to have a look at what 3d-party sites suggest and what travellers advise. But ultimately, what you want is to be welcomed the way you expect it. No Online Travel Agency (OTA) can offer you this. Call the place (or write an email) and tell what you are looking for.
    The hotel itself is best suited to know exactly the room availability, a.o. for last minute bookings (most OTA only sell a limited amount of rooms). They can adapt to your very needs, especially if the hotel is an old building, with no standard furbishing (view, number of beds, floor level, type of room, accessibility, historic authenticity …).
    Small hotels are very sensitive to direct human contact. You are not a number! The more they know about you before arriving, the more personalized your welcome. Do not hesitate to talk about what you expect to come and visit, the local food you are keen to taste, your interest for the history of the region, the concern you have getting to the hotel from the airport…
    As most commentators wrote it, hotels are more than happy to have direct clients. They save a (big) commission and they get the chance to create a direct relationship with you (what OTA rarely allow). You can discuss about the rates, if you saw some cheeper ones online. But bargaining about the price straight ahead to save a few cents might be a wrong calculation.
    In most places I’ve been, the time the receptionist spent advising me around, the nice bottle of wine the hotel manager suggested, the discount I got on a meal, the upgrading of my room, the complicity of the staff, the promotion tariff they offered me on a second booking … made my stay much more valuable ;-)

  27. Wrong. Do book with the hotel website directly after you have compared the rate with 3rd party website when you can. If the hotel practices rate parity then the rates will all be the same across all channels. But if you book direct with reputable hotels, you will get a better personalised services and request for custom stay, transfer, etc because they will know who you are, and if anything they have direct contact with you. In this day of Internet anonymity, personalised service is something I personally hope for.

    Hotels pays commission to 3rd party websites. If you are tactful, you should be able to ask for either additional discount on room rate (at least 10%) or free upgrade because you book direct. They rather give you, their guests, the benefit, than online channels.

    Hope that helps!

  28. If you read the article in its entirety, Anchalika, I think you will see that we are in agreement.

    What I actually wrote was: “Don’t book directly through the hotel website and pay what they call the ‘rack rate’.”

    And in conclusion I wrote: “Booking directly with the hotel will mean they don’t lose a commission on the booking so, if they’re astute to this (and it’ll probably depend on who you get), they may entertain a special rate.”

  29. Anchalika, is correct.

    The clear implication of the OP “Don’t book directly through the hotel website and pay what they call the ‘rack rate'” was that if you book direct you will pay the rack rate and as I and others have said this is simply not the case.

    Hilton and Marriott both now guarantee “best rates” online and Hilton, at least, offer free wifi (for HHonors members).

    I have just returned from a 20 night/10 hotel trip to Peru and although exceptionally I made all the bookings through a travel agent (for security reasons), I emailed all the hotels directly and was successful in obtaining upgrades or other special attention in about 50% of the cases, albeit I had to remind most of their commitments at reception!

    I also got an upgraded room at a UK countryside hotel in August for the discounted rate offered for a standard room, simply by making a phone call saying I was confused by the web site and asking for the best available room/rate.

    So my advice:

    1) Check third party websites, especially booking.com (although note trend towards best prices being prepaid which obviates the cancellation benefit) and Tripadvisor (who have now introduced price comparisons as well as reviews).
    2) Double check on Trivago or similar sites like Hotelscombined.com which collate the results from other search websites.
    3) Check that the online rate is at least as good as your researched rate and either book direct online or over the phone. If you phone and don’t get any improvement or the rate is not as good, you can always book online but you can’t do it the other way around!

    Hope this is helpful.

  30. Sorry, but I disagree – the implication is that you MIGHT pay the rack rate rather than that you WILL pay the rack rate, and it would be prudent to check and not assume that the price you’re getting is the best available.

    As just stated, if you read the article to the end, it’s even suggested that you contact the hotel directly to check whether you are getting the best rate.

  31. Strange advice. Why would people be better off booking on a 3rd party site than via a hotel directly? Most hotels have rate parity and more and more are offering incentives to book directly (such as an upgrade, resort credit etc). Not sure the author is fully up to speed on these matters… Either that or he works for booking.com!

  32. Plus also, for most hotels these days, there is no such thing anymore as a rack rate. That’s not to be confused with the best available rate which is what will be available on a hotel’s website.

  33. Good article Paul!
    Reviews on TripAdvisor and similar sites are to be read with caution, especially the ones tending to extremes, positive or negative.
    Always good idear to talk to the hotel when booking at a small property, since they cater to individual travelers and repeat guests.
    Experienced travel agents may add value to your research. It is worth while spending a couple hours more in preparing the trip, in order to enjoy a great stay.

  34. Do not use 3rd party sites. Call the hotel directly, as they are the ones you will be dealing with. Take a careful view of online reviews, as they can be fake in either direction. Cheap doesn’t always mean value. Always has bugged me after years in the business on the haggle aspect. We know what we have at ours and quote rates accordingly. If you go to a restaurant do you question the price of your meal, grocery store, gas station, etc etc? Trick to all the newbies in the discussion, if you are working the front, ask how many people and discounts they have BEFORE you quote the rate. Take that second step out of their hands. Bob says he has AAA, then Bob gets told the best available rates happens to be AAA at (whatever rack rate is). Be confident in what you have to offer. Don’t be afraid to let someone walk because 9/10 they more than likely won’t if your rates are in line with your area.

  35. One question to ask, if you were booking an appointment for anything in life would you use a broker or would you go directly to the office/person to chat first? If you book directly with the hotel you can ask about pricing, you can negotiate with the hotel, you can be assured that no 3rd party is gaining a commission (how you can even suggest that commission is not relevant here is staggering to say the least – sometimes in excess of 15 – 30%) if you need to change your booking you can re contact, you most often do not pay in full for accommodation, you can ask questions about the location, area, things to do etc, if hotels don’t have an online agency then it is almost guaranteed that the hotel is run by owners, who care! Rack rates are the basic rate for a hotel – not the highest rate for a hotel – And above all, treat reviews with scepticism – always – the chances are the good ones are by regulars/friends, the bad ones by competitors/trolls etc

  36. I’m not sure I see anyone saying that the commission is not relevant (maybe I need to read through it all again… it’s been a while) and I don’t think anyone has said that the rack rate is the highest rate. My point was more that it is usually not the lowest.

  37. Re comment by Alan Harris:

    “One advantage of booking.com is that generally, but not always, you do not pay until you check out of the hotel; so it is easy to cancel if necessary without cost. This also allows you effectively to HOLD a reservation whilst continuing your research.”

    This is simply not true! There is NO HOTEL PROPERTY these days that will allow you to pay when you check out. You must pre-pay. Booking.com offers you the option of paying at the hotel when you arrive instead of prepaying online at time of booking. If you don’t show up by 6:00 that day your credit card will be charged the full amount prior to your arrival. So, last minute bookings can not be cancelled. I use Booking.com for places I have never stayed at. I ask to see the room before I pay. I have severe allergies and many hotel rooms are not “safe” for me. They have a special request box when you make your booking to ask for fragrance-free, smoke-free room. This allows you to cancel the reservation if the special request can not be fulfilled. However, most hotels do not look at your reservation until you check in so don’t expect a hypoallergenic room prepared in advance of your arrival. You absolutely MUST call the hotel before making your reservation on a 3rd party booking site to make sure this can be honoured. If not, do not book the property.

    Hotels.com and Expedia are the same company. Their customer service call center must be in the Phillippines. If you have a problem the CSR will talk in circles to you. ” I’m sorry Mis _. I understand” is repeated robotically even if you ask a day ferment question or problem. speaking with the supervisor won’t help rectify your reservation property problem either.

    Advantage of booking with a third party site is accumulating points for a free night stay. And then, some points or free nights are not honoured at some properties. And you do not get to collect points if you are a member of the hotel chain. You will get no no Starwood, Marriott, Wyndham, Choice Hotels, etc points for your stay.

    And yes, some reviews on Tripadvisor are bogus and posted by the property and their relatives (small motels, and other independently owned accommodations). Check for reviews with photos attached as they are the real deal.

  38. Dear Olga

    It seems you didn’t read my later comment about booking.com “note trend towards best prices being prepaid which obviates the cancellation benefit”.

    In addition I was not talking about last minute bookings where cancellation is not normally an option.

    The chains you mention such as Hilton and Marriott do indeed offer special rates for pre-payment but equally they will quite happily guarantee your room throughout your stay on a credit card for settlement on departure.

    It’s nonsense to suggest otherwise.

  39. Hey Paul, thanks for sharing these tips on how to find the best hotels. Reading reviews, though, is the best and the easiest way to make a well-informed decision.

  40. I liked how you mentioned that you should look at online reviews and what other travellers say about a hotel before booking one. My wife and I are wanting to go on vacation with our family and we were wondering where we could find a hotel that would fit our family. I’ll be sure to look at reviews before booking a hotel.

  41. I’m wanting to book a hotel in California next week to see my sister. I like how you mentioned checking online reviews to consider a hotel’s value. It sounds like I should look for last-minute deals for booking.

  42. That’s a good idea to call and talk to the hotel directly. I could see how that would be a good way to get all the info you need from a reliable source. I’ll make sure to do that next time the family and I take a vacation.

  43. good tips, thx. Do you recommend the bigger 3rd party websites like Booking or Expedia? Or is it indeed better to check and compare with the hotel directly?

  44. I appreciate your advice to look carefully at the reviews so that you can spot out the fake ones. My brother is trying to get a new vacation planned out for his family this year. He needs to find some Inns that his family can stay at so they are more comfortable during the trip.

  45. I prefer to choose hotel having good reviews on different review website like TripAdvisor or google reviews. It helps to know the hotel services and client satisfaction.

  46. I found it helpful when you said that you consider calling or emailing a hotel directly so you could check if they could provide a better rate. My husband and I are planning to stay in a hotel for 3-5 days since we want to spend some time together. We both have been busy for months, and we thought of reconnecting our bond. I will be sure to consider all your tips since we want to save money.

  47. I found it helpful when you said that you can contact a hotel directly through a phone or call or an email so you could check if there are better rates. This is something that my sister and I will remember because we are looking for a bed and breakfast lodging facility. We are planning to surprise our parents on their 38th wedding anniversary, so we want to find a place where they could share moments together. We will do all your tips to save money on rates.

  48. It sure was interesting when you said that you can contact the hotel directly to check if they could offer a better rate. This is something that I will consider because I am planning to surprise my husband with a vacation at a luxury private nomad yurt. We will celebrate our 5th wedding anniversary, and it is important for me to find a place where we can stay without breaking my budget.

  49. Ooh la la! I really love it when you reminded us to check on online reviews before booking a place to stay. My friends and I are going on a girls’ trip to Florida later this month. I’ll definitely remember this tip when we make a reservation later.

  50. Thanks for pointing out that you could determine what a hotel is exactly like when you check review sites. My husband and I are planning to find accommodation where we can stay for 3-7 days to relax and at the same time celebrate our 5th wedding anniversary intimately. Since we want to ensure that we will be provided with the best possible experiences while away from our home, we will do your tips on choosing a hotel.

  51. We appreciate you letting us know that there are a variety of hotel booking websites available. We encourage you to select those that meet your needs based on factors such as geographic coverage, user-friendliness, and convenience of search. Before subsequently verifying my mom’s hotel lodge decision, I’ll have to persuade her to recall this seemingly fundamental information. She’s been saving money to go across the country with her canasta friends next month, but she hasn’t decided where she’ll stay just yet.

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