As much as I love hostels and other forms of cheap accommodation, there is something nice about the luxuriousness of a hotel: the clean room, comfy bed, desk, iron, strong shower, and bottled soap for the taking (errr…I mean borrowing). They are quiet, relaxing, and a respite from the world.
But luxury comes at a price. Hotels certainly aren’t cheap, and I hate spending money on a room I am only going to be in for a few hours. After all, it’s just a place to sleep (and take soap). It’s why I mostly avoid hotels — I don’t think they are a good use of money. I would much rather stay in a hostel or Airbnb, which cost less, have more social interaction, and don’t make you feel as removed from the destination you’re staying at. I always feel hotels are so isolating like a concrete bubble keeping out the place you’re visiting.
But there are times when a hotel can’t be avoided. Hostels aren’t everywhere, booking a last minute hotel room is easier than finding an Airbnb host, and sometimes you just really need a nice bed and shower. Plus, I have a ton of points so free is worth the isolation.
A few years ago, I was traveling to conferences and other work-related events a lot and staying in a bunch of hotels. I decided to see which hotel booking sites came back with the cheapest results. I picked five cities to research (London, Los Angeles, Paris, NYC, and Seattle) and stays close to the date of my research and then far in advance, on both weekdays and weekends.
I searched six booking websites — Expedia, Hotels.com, Booking.com, Hotwire, Priceline, and TravelPony — in 2-, 3-, and 4-star categories.
The conclusion? Well, there wasn’t really a great conclusion.
The overall numbers showed that some sites were stronger in certain regions or for certain classes of hotel. TravelPony was the winner in the US and for higher-class hotels, and Expedia dominated London and Paris, while Priceline was great for 2-star hotels and Hotwire for 3-star hotels. The big loser? Booking.com.
That was in 2014, and booking websites and options have changed a lot since then. The only constant in travel is that nothing is constant — and a booking website is as only good as its inventory, which, as someone who now owns a hostel that’s not listed in every booking engine, I can tell you varies widely.
So I decided to do another search. This time I searched Expedia, Hotels.com, Booking.com, Agoda, and Priceline for prices in London, New York, Paris, Bangkok, Buenos Aires, and Berlin. I searched on July 3rd for space later that week and then one month later during the weekday and weekend (prices and availability change on the weekend).
Well, the complete opposite of the previous results. Back in 2014, Booking.com was terrible, TravelPony showed promise, and Agoda was only good in Asia.
This time around the clear winner was Booking.com, followed by Agoda. Though it didn’t return the largest number of total places, Booking.com returned the largest number of cheap places – and that’s the most important thing. I found the best deals and largest variety in all the destinations I searched for on Booking. For example, in my September search in Paris, it listed over 2,300 results, including 250 2 star listings and 750 star listings (and it told me the place was over 60% booked when I searched). Agoda still had the best results in Asia (it returned 2,900 results in Bangkok compared to 2,500 for Booking) but had definitely expanded their listings around the world – it roughly tied Booking in Paris, Buenos Aires, and Sydney for overall listings, though they had fewer budget listings than Booking.
And all those other major booking websites? Well, Orbitz and Travelocity are part of Expedia and use the same database, and while they turned back a large number of results, they tilted more to the higher end of the price spectrum. And websites like Priceline and Hotwire have top-notch blind booking and bidding options that can get you a very cheap hotel (in the star category and area you want). Sometimes prices are up to 40% off. The downside? You don’t get to know the name of the hotel you’re staying in until after you have paid.
There are a lot of hotel websites and I’ve tried many over the last few years as I’ve started to book hotels more and more, but this test just proved what I already thought: for cheap accommodation, Booking.com and Agoda are just the best resources that have the largest selection of results. If you search these two companies, you’ll always find the best hotel bargains in the 1, 2m or 3 star category.
Note: Years ago, I said to skip Trivago because I found it misleading: when you went to the other sites to compare results, the hotel classes and prices were different. I found the same thing this time. I clicked over to their cheapest deals, then did the search on the website they took me to only to find out that the place Trivago listed wasn’t even in the same class I wanted — and there were better options on the redirected website. In short, I would still skip Trivago.
How to book a cheap hotel
Besides using the right booking websites, there are some hacks you can use to score the cheapest room rate possible:
Contact the hotel websites directly – If you’re booking a big-name, global-brand hotel (think Starwood, Marriott, Hilton, etc.), book directly with that hotel. They often have the best deals on their website, but if you find a better deal elsewhere, they’ll match it. The big benefit to direct bookings at these global hotel chains is that you only earn loyalty points and status when you book directly, so if you love points, don’t book their rooms elsewhere.
Bargain – Want a better deal? Call up a hotel and ask for one. Sometimes they can give you better rates, especially if it’s during mid-week on some non-peak time of the year.
Use loyalty reward programs – The best way to stay for cheap is to stay for free. Collect points with the big chains by using their branded credit cards, shopping portals, and other travel hacking methods.
Use discount rates like AAA or AARP – If you are part of the AARP or AAA you can get special rates that are cheaper. Fun fact: Anyone can join the AARP. I’m a member. They have amazing travel benefits (including deals on hotels and British Airways flights). It’s well worth the membership.
Get discounted gift cards – You can book major hotel chains with hotel gift cards. Check out a website like Giftcardgranny.com for discounted gift cards and use it to book your hotel. (Gift card purchases also count toward point earnings and status.)
Buy someone else’s reservation with Roomer – Often people can’t go on a trip and can’t cancel the reservation, so rather than lose the money, hotels put these rooms on Roomer, where they sell it at a discount to earn some money back. I’ve never used this website, but I’ve heard decent things about it. It’s worth a try.
Hotel pricing is a lot more set than airline pricing and tends to fluctuate less. I wouldn’t spend hours searching hotel websites or days tracking prices like people do with airline prices. I’d spend, at the most, 30 minutes on booking a hotel. I found that the variation between sites isn’t enough to justify more time.
Just follow the steps above, get a great cheap room, and enjoy your trip.