Should you book a hotel through a third-party website?
You're about to head on the road for a much-needed vacation. This trip means a lot to you, but you aren't about to pay "rack rate" for a hotel when you can find a room cheaper online. After all, you never pay full price.
Many people think going to what the travel industry calls OTAs, or online travel agencies, is going to net a better deal than by booking directly with the hotel's own website. OTAs are the discount stores of hotels, right? Not exactly.
Understanding third-party travel websites
Many hotels do sell rooms through OTAs such as Expedia, Hotels.com, and Booking.com, because the hotels are not heavily booked for a particular night they and want to sell off some inventory. But many of the hotel insiders I speak with feel they are held hostage by OTAs, which often demand a lower rate for a hotel room when it's offered through their site. Then hotels have to pay a booking commission payment to these sites, in addition to the lower rate. So you know what that means? Someone who books a "discounted" room through these sites is not going to get the best room in the hotel.
When it comes time for any service issues that might arise with regard to credits or refunds, the hotel will often direct you to the site where you booked the room. It is just not their problem anymore. They gave away that room at a discount anyway, so you need to take it up with the site where you booked.
Pitfalls of booking travel through OTAs
Time and time again, I see complaints from consumers who booked through these OTAs and got a really great deal on a room — $79 for a hotel room that normally retails for $150, say — and they get there and wonder why they were given the worst room in the house: a parking lot view, versus a pool or ocean view. A room with two double beds, versus the requested king. This is because the hotel isn't thrilled they had to discount the rate so much, so they aren't going to give this discount customer the best room available when they can probably sell it to a traveler who is going to pay full rate.
Another thing you need to be careful about when booking through OTAs is other applicable charges. Many hotels and resorts have parking fees or resort fees, and suddenly the room you thought was going to cost you $79 plus tax is now adding up with all of these additional charges.
Other travelers try booking through an opaque site like Priceline. You bid for a Los Angeles hotel, but you may end up with a Los Angeles Airport hotel and wonder why you are nowhere near the ocean. You can't have your cake and eat it, too. If you want to get a really low price, you can't expect to get that ocean view room, too.
Deciding if a third-party travel website is right for you
It really comes down to what is the most important part of traveling to you. Want to go visit Disney at Thanksgiving or Christmas, and you really don't care how luxurious the hotel is, what kind of room you get, where it is located or how far you may need to travel to the theme parks? Book a discounted rate through the OTA, and rejoice in the fact you can afford a Florida getaway. However, if the hotel is the destination for you and your priority is a great room on your favorite beach, then your best bet is to book directly with the hotel instead.