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What Your Dollar Buys on Travel Booking Sites

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When it comes to booking online, there are almost too many options. If you have the patience, you can sift through results and try to find the best deal. To find out which sites worked best, contributing writer Margot Black used travel booking sites to find deals on hotel rooms in the middle of the summer. Keep reading to learn more about her experience.

It’s hard not to be lured by online travel sites when there’s a promise of a $46 ocean-side hotel. But on a few summer weekends, that wasn’t my experience. If you’re clever, you can use some of these websites to your advantage—but only if you are willing to make compromises. For my family (consisting of me, my husband and seven year-old son), we used online booking sites as our first point of reference for three Californian trips in summer 2014. We visited Carlsbad, Ventura, and Pismo Beach, all of which produced different results—some magnificent, and some disappointing. The sites I searched—and in some cases used—included Hotwire, Expedia, Priceline, Orbitz, TripAdvisor, Travelocity, and Hotels.com.

Carlsbad

My husband and I took our son to the Legoland Hotel to celebrate his birthday, his karate blue belt, and three As at school. We said yes to the hotel without looking at the price because we were celebrating and figured we’d splurge. Our high season July room charge at the Legoland pirate-themed hotel was $490 for a single night. We decided to stay another night, but, when we enquired at reception, we were quoted a not-very-wallet-friendly $800 for a single night. We had to find another option.

My husband and I went online to see if we could make this last-minute summer weekend decision happen. We looked at Hotwire, Orbitz, TripAdvisor, and Priceline, but they were all sold out for that weekend, and there was nothing worthwhile nearby. When I saw hotels going for $170, I recognized these as hotels that would normally go for $90, and concluded that the money saved wouldn’t be worth the discomfort of staying in a cheap hotel. I called a few hotels in the area directly to see if I could get better rates, but they were mostly sold out.

The Most Expensive Hotel Room I’ve Ever Purchased

The Most Expensive Hotel Room I’ve Ever Purchased

We went back to Priceline and found the Omni La Costa Resort and Spa, a four star hotel for $220 a night that was near enough to Legoland to make it viable. We used their Express Deals and Name Your Own Price (similar to an online auction) tools, but soon realized that we were negotiating against ourselves. After a while, you’ll see that they promote certain locations, and the ones you do want will not always show up in your search, which can be frustrating.

We decided to splurge on the Omni La Costa Hotel deal, which was revealed for a slightly higher price. It was a smart move. Their smallest room was pretty epic. They had a pool and water slides, so it was a steal and our kid was in heaven. We didn’t get the free parking or free breakfast, but we were three very happy people at 3:30 p.m. on a summer Saturday afternoon.

Side note to this booking: we realized that booking online means you probably won’t get upgraded on arrival (in the way you do sometimes if you’ve booked direct and the hotel has vacancies). Many sites take around an 18 percent commission, which means the properties are not as inclined to bump you up to the next level.

Ventura

Also in July, my husband’s friend was throwing a barbecue in Ventura, which is close enough from our home in Los Angeles to drive, but at the last minute we decided to stay over and make a night of it. I’m glad we did, because our journey took four hours in traffic. So this time around, it was a let’s-just-get-a-cheap-hotel-and-go type of deal.

Super Happy with Our Surprise Stunning View

Super Happy with Our Surprise Stunning View

We saw the Holiday Inn Express Hotel & Suites in Ventura Harbor with a marina-facing view on Hotwire for $150. Hotwire said the hotel was three stars, but we cross referenced it with other sites, who had it marked at 2.5 stars. I thought it was a Marriott—based on the rating—but it wasn’t, so I called Hotwire, who told me that ratings are based on a combination of scores from guests on its site and culled results from other travel sites as well.

We were skeptical, so we scoped a lot before booking our room in this situation and tried to be resourceful and not take the first deal we found. We saw what we thought to be the same room on Orbitz and Hotels.com for $205, so we decided to take the room via Hotwire and were ultimately very happy with our decision. It was $150 very well spent; we had a pool and breakfast included, plus a smoke-free room, and somewhere to relax after a tiring four-hour drive. Plus, we had a stellar marina view which was a delight.

Pismo Beach

Later in the summer, we decided to have a weekend away in Pismo Beach, but this time we wanted a hotel by the beach for two nights—Friday and Saturday.

We went online and scoped most of the sites, including Hotwire and Priceline, but we could not find one hotel in Pismo Beach. It was very frustrating. Some of the sites featured hotels five, ten, or even twenty miles away in places like Tascadero, but none of them could guarantee us a water-side location.

The view from our room in Pismo Beach Best Western ShoreCliff

The view from our room in Pismo Beach Best Western ShoreCliff

After almost two hours trawling, we took to calling hotels direct in Pismo Beach and found a room at the Best Western ShoreCliff and got a fantastic rate of $268 for a room with an ocean view on a summer weekend. They only had one night available though, so we booked that and hoped for the best. Luckily, we were offered another room the following day at 4 p.m. when someone else canceled. The hotel was perfect for our needs: we were right on the beach and our kid had a great time in the pool, and parking, Wi-Fi, and breakfast were all included in the rate.

So, unlike our weekend at Legoland or overnight sleepover in Ventura, we really couldn’t find what we were looking for with any of the online booking websites. In this case, calling the hotel directly and speaking to a human worked better for us.

Tips for Making Travel Sites Work for You

Super Happy Kid at La Costa

Super Happy Kid at La Costa

Hotwire came out on top for our family and our situation because it allowed us to refine our search by hotel amenities offered. My son loves to swim, my husband hates to pay for Internet and parking, I dislike paying for breakfast, and we all hate smoky rooms. So, we fell in love with Hotwire because it enabled us to tick the boxes and bring up places that matched our criteria, but again, it didn’t always hit the target.

When you don’t care where you’re staying or what time exactly, these sites offer a lot of options and are a great solution to last-minute booking dilemmas. But never underestimate a human. If you have specific needs, such as a pool, parking, smoke-free rooms and the need to be on the beach, it’s better to call the hotel directly. Also, without that 18 percent commission, they have more wiggle room.

I  also developed a new appreciation for TripAdvisor—mainly due to the reviews from strangers. Reading the opinion of someone who has stayed at a location is important—you can get a pretty good representation of what a place is like by taking a look at reviews from real people.

If you’re going to scope a lot, remove cookies or change computers to avoid spam. You can also search in a private window if you don’t want the search to show up in your history (for instance, if it’s a surprise for your nearest and dearest).

These sites have lots of scary fine print, so read carefully. I wouldn’t be comfortable booking a vacation six months in advance to Iceland, but for a trip I’m taking tomorrow—which is a four-hour drive away—I can deal with it.

Give yourself time to search. We lost hours poring over five or six sites comparing prices and amenities. It was fun, but it wasn’t particularly quick.

Either book in advance or be flexible (and know what you’re flexible about). You can’t always predict what you are going to get on a summer weekend.

For more family travel tips from Margot Black, check out:

Text and Photos by Margot Black for PeterGreenberg.com

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