How To Plan Your Travel
The keys to your current most effective hotel strategy elements are (1) use a good metasearch system to locate the best deal, then (2) arrange the deal directly through the hotel or its chain website.
Why Metasearch? By now, you've found that the best way to find a good deal anywhere you're visiting is to cast a wide net. That means using an online hotel search system or a phone hotel search app, of which you find dozens. But search engines come in two fundamentally different business models, and not everybody is clear about those fundamental differences:
-- OTAs, such as Booking.com and Expedia.com, not only search for deals but also complete the actual booking transaction and charge your credit card. They truly are travel agents, and they earn substantial commissions or fees on each booking.
-- Metasearch engines, such as TripAdvisor, Google, and Trivago, search individual hotels and OTAs for rates, but they don't complete the transaction. Instead, they link you with either a hotel or an OTA to finalize the deal. They earn revenue through completing whichever link you select and by selling favorable display position to hotels and OTAs.
Booking direct has two advantages. The most important is that when you book a hotel that belongs to one of the giant multibrand chains -- Accor, Best Western, Choice, Carlson, Hilton, Hyatt, Marriott, and Wyndham -- you typically will not earn loyalty points unless you book direct. Also, several big chains, including Hilton and Marriott, limit "free" internet access to guests who book direct and who also belong to their loyalty program: Book through an OTA, lose your points and pay $10 a day or more for Wi-Fi. Booking direct may also provide minor discounts or other benefits. In addition, my experience is that I usually get a better room when I book direct than when I go through an OTA.
The other reason for booking direct is to avoid "it's the other guy's fault" back-and-forth when you encounter a problem or seek a refund. When you take a look at consumer complaint websites, in disputes with an OTA hotel booking, the OTA and hotel usually blame each other. Getting a reasonable resolution can be extremely difficult and sometimes impossible.
You have to use the metasearch system carefully. In TripAdvisor, for example, your initial hotel search typically displays four results, often with identical prices. Those four results may or may not include a direct booking option, but if you click on "view all deals," the expanded display usually does include a direct booking link. Use that option; you will then book directly with the hotel.
Occasionally, an OTA may have a better price than the direct booking rate. If the difference is substantial, go with the OTA, but recognize and accept the consequences. Of course, you can sometimes find a much better rate through opaque OTA options at Hotwire and Priceline. If you're willing to accept a hotel the opaque OTA chooses, those deals can be great.