Should You Book Hotels Through a Travel Website or Directly Through the Hotel?
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There’s been lots of hype by hotels telling us to skip “clicking around” and to book directly through their sites for the best price. But is that really the best deal for paid stays?
I recently wrote it’s usually best to book your airfare through an online travel agency. So I decided to see if it’s the same for hotels!
Let’s look at whether it’s better to book hotel stays with a hotel chain directly, or use an online travel agency.
It’s Not Just About Price
If getting the cheapest rate is your only consideration, it makes sense to shop around and book through the method with the lowest price.
But keep in mind, hotel reservations made through online travel agencies will not offer the same benefits you’d get if you booked through the hotel directly. For example:
- You typically will NOT earn hotel points or stay credits on 3rd-party bookings
- Some chains (like Hilton, Marriott, and Starwood) require you book with them directly to get free Wi-Fi
- You likely will NOT have your elite status recognized or receive elite perks like upgrades, late check-out, or amenities (though there are sometimes exceptions – it’s worth calling the hotel to add your loyalty program number to the booking just in case)
- The cancellation policy may not be as flexible, or you may have to commit to a non-refundable booking
- You often won’t receive the most desirable room (especially for deeply discounted 3rd-party bookings, like Priceline or Hotwire) – for example, near an elevator, lower floor, etc
- You won’t earn bonus points for using the hotel’s co-branded card like you would if you booked directly
- If you’ve registered for a hotel promotion, you won’t earn bonus points or stay credit
Keep in mind, you’ll usually earn bonus points at online travel agencies when you use cards like the Chase Sapphire Preferred, Citi Prestige, or Citi ThankYou Premier, because most online travel agencies code as a travel purchase.
Comparing Online Travel Agency Rates Against Hotel Prices
I looked some random examples to see if booking directly through the hotel would save money. The results might surprise you!
1. Hilton vs. Booking.com, Expedia, and Orbitz
Earlier this year, Hilton launched the “Stop Clicking Around” campaign, which encourages folks to book directly through them to receive exclusive member rates. And guaranteed they’d have the best prices over other websites.
A little while ago, I checked the rates for a standard king room at the Hilton Union Square San Francisco on the Hilton website, Booking.com, Expedia, and Orbitz on October 1, 2016.
To get the best rates at Hilton, log-in to your Hilton account first.
Booked directly through Hilton, you’d pay ~$345 for the best flexible rate. You can cancel 2 days prior to arrival without penalty, and you’ll earn Hilton points for your stay.
Plus, if you’re a Hilton elite member, you’ll get perks depending on your status (like late-check out, room upgrades when available, or free breakfast). And all members get free Wi-Fi when they book direct.
Booking.com has the same room for ~$383. That’s ~$38 more than Hilton’s price! However, the room also comes with free Wi-Fi and the same cancellation policy as Hilton.
Expedia has essentially the same price as Booking.com, ~$383 for the same room and cancellation policy. But Expedia does NOT offer free Internet. Instead, you’ll earn 766 Expedia+ points, which is worth ~$5.
Orbitz had about the same ~$383 rate and same cancellation rules. Again, you won’t get free Wi-Fi, but you’ll earn ~$11 in Orbucks (Orbitz’ reward currency).
So in this example, it clearly makes sense to book directly through Hilton! You’ll save ~$38, earn Hilton points and stay credits, and have your elite status recognized. Plus, if you’ve registered for a Hilton promotion, you’d earn bonus points.
To see if other locations and dates gave similar results, I ran the same experiment at the New York Hilton Midtown on November 1, 2016. Booking direct though Hilton as a loyalty program member saved at least ~$12 and is the only option that offers free Wi-Fi.
And I tried one more time on December 2, 2016, at the Hilton Garden Inn Chicago Downtown / Magnificent Mile and got nearly identical results.
Hilton consistently beat the rates of online travel agencies by ~$12 to ~$40 per night and was the only booking option with free Wi-Fi every time.
And Hilton points earned your stay were always more valuable than Orbucks and Expedia+ points.
2. Choice Hotels vs. Booking.com, Expedia, and Orbitz
Choice Hotels recently began offering discounted member rates, which are only available to members of their loyalty program through ChoiceHotels.com.
I signed-in to my Choice Hotels account and searched for rooms at the Comfort Inn & Suites Love Field – Dallas Market Center on October 1, 2016. The advance purchase rate (no cancellation) was ~$99 and the member rate (able to cancel up to that day) for ~$121.
Free Wi-Fi and breakfast is offered to all guests, no matter where you book. You’ll also earn Choice points.
Booking.com offers a non-refundable rate of ~$105 for the same room, or ~$6 more. And their refundable rate is ~$123, or ~$2 more.
Expedia has the same non-refundable rate as Choice, but their refundable rate is ~$2 more.
Orbitz matched Expedia’s rates exactly.
Unless you really prefer collecting Expedia or Orbitz points over Choice points, it’s better to book with Choice. Plus, Choice often runs promotions which allow you to earn bonus points after a certain number of stays.
I checked the rates at Comfort Inn & Suites Pittsburg and Cambria Hotel & Suites Ft. Lauderdale and got very similar results.
The non-refundable rates were exactly the same on all websites, and Choice beat the refundable rates of online travel agencies by ~$3. Again, free W-Fi and breakfast is offered to all guests, no matter the booking method.
And like Hilton points, Choice points are likely more valuable to most than Orbucks or Expedia+ points.
Hyatt vs. Booking.com, Expedia, and Orbitz
This year, Hyatt also introduced special member rates to encourage folks to book directly through their site. You can save up to 10% off regular prices.
Signed-in to my Hyatt account, I found a member discount rate at the Grand Hyatt Seattle for ~$267 on October 1, 2016. Complimentary Wi-Fi is provided to ALL guests, and you can cancel 24 hours prior to arrival with no penalty. And you’d earn Hyatt points for the stay, plus credit towards promotions if you’ve registered.
Booking.com‘s price is ~$30 more at ~$297! They have the same cancellation policy as Hyatt.
ExpediaExpedia‘s rate is even higher at ~$299. The cancellation policy is also the same, and you’d earn Expedia points.
Orbitz has the same price as Expedia (~$299) and the same cancellation policy. You’d earn ~$9 in Orbucks, which isn’t worth it!
I did find one instance where an online travel agency beat a direct booking. On November 1, 2016, at the Hyatt Regency Miami, you can save ~$10 by using Booking’s non-refundable rate. Hyatt’s rate is ~$233 but is refundable.
I’d gladly pay $10 for a refundable rate that earns Hyatt points and offers elite perks (Diamond breakfast!) and possible upgrades.
Booking’s refundable rate is ~$247, which Hyatt beats by ~$14. Hyatt easily beat Expedia and Orbitz rates as well.
I tried one other date and overall, I found booking direct with Hyatt is cheaper on average by ~$33 for refundable rates, and either the same or slightly cheaper for non-refundable rates. It’s better to book direct with Hyatt.
Booking Direct Is Your Best Bet
Based on the evidence, it’s almost always better to book with the hotel chain directly:
- In the 9 experiments I ran, I saved an average of $17
- Wi-Fi was always included, but that was not always the case with online travel agencies
- The cancellation policies were almost always identical
- The hotel points you’d earn are generally more valuable than those of the online travel agencies
- If you have a co-branded hotel credit card, you’ll earn even more points. For example, you’d earn 12 bonus Hilton points per $1 with the Hilton Honors Surpass Card from American Express at Hilton hotels
- The hotel chains also provided “Best Rate Guarantees,” though I’ve always found those difficult to collect.
- You may eventually earn elite status if you stay at the same chain frequently
- I’ve read reports that booking directly with hotels sometimes translates to better service
Remember, it’s free to join any hotel’s loyalty program.
If you’re not loyal to a specific brand, it makes sense to start your search at a website like Expedia or Orbitz, then book direct with the hotel chain of your choosing. That way you can comparison shop and find the best deal for your travel dates.
Or consider narrowing down your search by checking paid rates on Hotel Hustle.
Now that many hotel chains offer discounted rates to loyalty program members, it’s almost always a better deal to book with the hotel chain directly, instead of an online travel agency.
I experimented with different chains and hotels and found the hotel matched or beat the online travel agency price just about every time. But always shop around to be sure you’re getting the best deal, if price is your only concern.
When you book direct with the hotel, you’ll earn points, stay credits, and promotion bonuses, unlike when you book through 3rd party sites.
Plus, with online travel agency bookings, you generally won’t have your elite status perks recognized. So you might not get benefits like free breakfast, welcome amenities, and late check-out.
That said, sometimes online travel agencies have discount promotion codes.
Have you had a different experience? Please share in the comments!
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