Want a Great Hotel Deal? Book Direct!

Cindy Richards Avatar

Booking a hotel online isn’t as easy as doing a simple Google search and choosing a room. That online booking may not always be the cheapest. There’s not even a guarantee you will end up with a hotel room! There’s a right way and a wrong way to book a hotel online. Here’s how to do it the right way. 

You must stay at the JW Marriott San Antonio Hill Country Resort and Spa on your weekend in San Antonio
The JW Marriott San Antonio Hill Country Resort and Spa in San Antonio. Photo credit: Breeze Leonard

How to Book a Hotel Online

The experience of a good friend of mine serves as a cautionary tale about booking a hotel online. She found a great deal and booked her hotel through a third party site. When she arrived at the hotel well after midnight, with two tired kids in tow, she learned the hotel had no record of her reservation. If she wanted to stay, she had to pay again. She did, because it was after midnight and she had two tired kids ready to sleep. She then had to fight with the third party site for a refund.

Because of her experience, on my next trip, I came up with a whole new approach to booking my hotel, one that I use for every getaway now:

  1. Google hotels in (name of city) for a one-stop look at what’s available.
  2. Determine which hotel I want to book.
  3. Check the online booking sites like Expedia, Priceline, Booking.com and Hotels.com to see which one has the best price.
  4. Call the hotel’s toll free reservations service to see if the company will meet the best price.
  5. If the toll-free reservation number doesn’t result in a promise to meet the best price, I call the hotel directly and speak to the manager, who is almost always smart enough to meet the price.
  6. Whip out my credit card and book the room directly with the hotel, assuming the hotel manager actually was smart enough to meet the price. If he or she wasn’t, I go ahead and book with the third party online travel agency and hope for the best.

I go through this process even when I am booking a hotel last minute and using one of the company’s mobile apps in the car after a long day of driving. In fact, I once did it in front of the front desk manager while standing in the lobby of the hotel where I wanted to stay. He doubted I had found such a great price until I showed it to him on my phone. 

Smart Hotels Honor the Best Price

Why does it make the manager smart to give me the third party price if I book directly with the hotel? Because that’s how much I plan to pay for the room. Say the hotel charges $120 for a room, but I found a deal for $99/night on a third party site. If the manager agrees to accept that rate, the hotel keeps all $99. If I book through the third party, I still pay $99, but the online booking site charges a commission on the sale so the hotel gets even less — maybe as little as $70 for that room.

That makes booking direct a win-win. I pay $99 rather than $120. The hotel gets $99 rather than $70. And I have no worries about whether the hotel will honor my reservation. 

Marriott's Grande Vista is a favorite home base while visiting Disney.
Marriott’s Grande Vista. Photo credit: Marriott International

Why Booking a Hotel with a Third Party Isn’t Always the Best Deal

Online Travel Agencies (OTAs in industry parlance) advertise they have the best travel deals on hotel rooms and extol you to “book now!” While it’s true the sites have the best hotel prices, that’s not the whole story.

There’s a huge battle between OTAs and hotel companies for bookings. According to one report, OTAs account for more than one-third of all hotel bookings. So hotels need the online travel agencies to help keep their rooms occupied.

But the hotels pay a commission to the OTA for each room. Commissions can be 30 percent of the room rate or more. If hotel companies can get consumers to book direct with the hotel at the same price offered by an OTA, the hotel keeps all that money – no commission paid.

That has led to increased competition between the hotels and the online travel agencies. And that’s good news for consumers.

Read More: How to Book a Hotel that’s Sold Out

The Benefits of Booking a Hotel Direct

A big concern for hotel companies lies in the demographics – more than half of all millennials book their accommodations with third party booking sites.

To reclaim that business, the companies have launched aggressive campaigns to get consumers to book direct rather than through a third party. That means there can be advantages to booking hotel stays direct.

Executive king room at the JW Marriott San Antonio
JW Marriott San Antonio Hill Country Resort Spa. Photo credit: Marriott International

1. The Hotel is Responsible to You

If my friend had booked direct, chances are the hotel would have been able to find her reservation. At least she wouldn’t have had to fight for a refund because she would not have paid twice.

2. No Worries about Getting the Best Price

The hotel companies promise to meet the best price. At Marriott International, for example, the company’s Best Rate Guarantee promises that if you find a better rate within 24 hours of booking, the company will match that rate and provide an additional 25 percent discount or 5,000 Marriott Bonvoy™ points.

How to book a hotel online the right way.
Photo credit: Marriott International

3. Booking Direct Comes with Perks

The hotel company might be offering vacation packages or free nights based on length of stay. Generally, the best way to get access to those deals is to join the hotel loyalty program. That unlocks even more perks – including benefits such as members-only special offers and discounts, free WiFi, mobile check-in, more liberal cancellation policies, more hotel choice and a better shot at a room upgrade.

SheBuysTravel tip: Always join the hotel loyalty rewards program before you book. Join all of them. They’re free. Yes, you have to provide a valid email address. But in return, you’ll get hotel perks and emails offering inspiration for your next trip — one you can book with the reward points!

4. Refunds are Easier to Get

Pre-paid reservations at online travel agencies are not always refundable. Booking a hotel room directly with the hotel usually is, especially if you join the loyalty program.

5. More Hotel Choices

Booking direct at Marriott International, which now owns Sheraton and Westin brands as well, includes the option of choosing the kind of room you want – two queen beds or one king, for example. Most hotels reserve the best rooms for their direct customers and the rooms next to the noisy ice machine for the people who booked elsewhere.

Book a hotel direct with the hotel to increase the chance of getting a room upgrade.
Book a hotel direct with the hotel to increase the chance of getting a room upgrade. Photo credit: Marriott International

6. Free Room Upgrades are Possible

Free upgrades are sometimes available to rewards members if the hotel isn’t sold out. Booking through an online travel agency means you cannot claim the reward points, so you likely won’t be offered the free upgrade either.

7. More Recourse if Something Goes Wrong

If the room has a leaky faucet, the hotel is overbooked or there is some other problem, a customer who booked directly is more likely to get the problem fixed fast.

Cindy Richards is a Pulitzer Prize nominated journalist who serves as the Editor-in-Chief of SheBuysTravel.com. She also is the mom of two now grown kids who have traveled with her since that first, fateful plane ride when one preschooler discovered a barf bag in his seat pocket and his sister, finding none in hers, demanded, “I want a barf bag too!” She has been a reporter, editor and columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago Tribune, an editor at Chicago Parent and Catalyst Chicago and an instructor in the graduate school at Northwestern’s prestigious Medill School of Journalism.
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