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How to shop for the best hotel and avoid disappointment

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Stephanie Patterson

Travel columnist

Searching for the best hotel for your vacation can be challenging, with so many different properties and booking options. Choosing the wrong hotel or booking site can take your trip from one of excitement to a real disappointment. And if it’s a nonrefundable room, you’ll have to pay for that disappointment. 

Let’s keep that from happening.

We have received numerous complaints from consumers who booked their hotel through a third-party booking site without researching the hotel property. Many travelers chose their hotel because of the low room rate. But on arrival, travelers sometimes found the room unsuitable, or the room or view deviated significantly from the online description.

Unfortunately, in most cases, they were stuck with either a hotel they disliked or the loss of a nonrefundable reservation.  The rate they ended up paying is often similar to the rate they would have received by booking directly through the hotel. Hotels will often match lower rates found online if you submit a request.

The best way to shop for a hotel 

When choosing whether to book your hotel through a third-party booking site or directly with the hotel, there are important factors to consider. Your online travel agent (also known as your third-party booking agent) is your middleman between you and your hotel. If you run into any problems, your agent is the one you’ll need to contact. Your contract is with the online travel agent, not the hotel.

That’s where the complaints usually begin. Online travel agents can be difficult to reach and often cannot resolve your problem. 

Online travel agents make it easy to compare room rates and book a room, but the room description or view may be inaccurate. Make sure the rates include all hotel fees and taxes so you are not caught unaware. And remember, most hotels will often match lower rates found elsewhere.

Here are some suggestions to begin your search for a hotel: 

Finding hotels at your destination

Use Google Maps to pinpoint hotels at your desired location. With this search tool, you can type in the area you plan to visit. Choose the hotel option to bring up a list of hotels and their location on the map. You can also narrow your search by choosing one of the following options: guest ratings, brands, neighborhoods, amenities, hotel class, and free cancellations. 

To access more details, click on the hotel from the list and enter your travel dates. You’ll be able to see the room rate and other information to help you select a hotel you will be pleased with.

Booking directly with the property

Once you’ve narrowed your hotel options down, decide on how you want to book the reservation. Booking directly with the hotel gives you greater flexibility and detailed insight into the property and the rooms they have to offer. The room rate is often refundable and can also be modified if your plans change.

If you contact the hotel at the location you plan to visit, you’ll find the local staff to be an invaluable resource. They can access rooms not listed with online travel agents or with the hotel chain’s national reservation desk. And they can give you descriptive details about the hotel and the surrounding area.

You can request a specific floor or location in the hotel. The hotel staff can assist you with any special needs you may have and confirm their availability. 

Many hotel chains offer a best-price guarantee. Some hotel chains will match the lower rate listed with an online travel agent, and sometimes provide an additional discount or extra reward points. For example, Hilton will match the lower rate and give you an extra 25% off if you submit a price match guarantee claim within 24 hours of booking with them. IHG Hotels & Resorts will match the lowest price online and give you five times the rewards points.

Professional travel advisor

Another great option is to go through a professional travel advisor. These professional travel advisors are usually a Certified Travel Associate (CTA) or Certified Travel Counselor (CTC). They can often tap into unpublished rates and pass along insider tips and perks only available to an advisor. Travel advisors can provide a detailed description of the hotel property, its proximity to attractions and public transportation, and other facts that may be difficult to find online. A travel advisor is your advocate if you encounter a problem while traveling.

You can find a reputable travel advisor at the American Society of Travel Advisors.

Third-party booking sites (online travel agents)

Online booking sites can be a helpful search tool. You can easily determine the average room rate for your preferred hotel class for your travel dates. For an accurate comparison, ensure the room rates include taxes and fees. You can compare the different room rates during peak or off-peak travel dates. You can also sort hotel information by location, amenities offered, and the distance from the airport or attractions.

Some online booking sites will bury added taxes and fees in the terms and conditions, so carefully review the payment screens before booking.

If you decide to use a third-party booking site, choose one that is reputable. Start by reading online reviews for the booking site. Avoid any sites that have a sketchy track record or offer extremely low rates. There are usually hidden charges not included in the rate. These bargain rates can become some of the highest overall once other fees are tacked on.

Often, hotels assign their best rooms to guests with elite status or who pay the most for their rooms. Guests who book a discounted room through a third-party booking site may end up in a less desirable room.

With some less-than-reputable sites, the advertised room rate is a come-on and is not even available.  When you go to book the room, a higher rate will appear with a message that you missed out on the lower room rate.

Many hotels will not allow you to earn loyalty points if you book through a third party. 

Always read the terms and conditions completely before finalizing your reservation. Once you book the room, unless it is explicitly stated as being cancelable, it is a binding contract.

Examples of third-party booking sites (online travel agents)

If you are an infrequent traveler unfamiliar with the terminology of third-party booking sites or online travel agents, the list includes companies like Expedia, Hotels.com, Booking.com, Travelocity, Orbitz, Priceline, and more. There are also aggregators such as Kayak, TripAdvisor, Trivago, and Hotelscombined.com who do not handle reservations but will provide results from online travel and hotel sites.

Some sites like Hotwire may offer significant discounts, but you cannot choose the property or receive loyalty points. You will not know the hotel’s name or location until you book it. It is a nonrefundable rate, and no changes can be made. 

How to research a hotel before you book it

The photos of the hotel and the descriptive words online can be misleading. These are marketing tools written to attract visitors, but they often paint an inauthentic picture of the property. 

If a waterfront property is at the top of your list, be aware that hotels may use this term loosely. The hotel may say it’s waterfront but may have only a water view, or it could have a pond out front. 

Ask the hotel if guests can access the beach and what the shoreline is like.  If you plan to swim, find out if the beach is sandy. A rocky beach is not conducive to swimming. 

Here are some helpful tips on how to research a hotel:

  • View the hotel’s exact location on Google Maps. Do a virtual drive-by to see the surrounding area or its proximity to the ocean or other waterfronts. Look at the hotel’s exterior and parking availability.  You can also do an aerial view. (Remember if you make a self-booking mistake – even a really terrible one – when you use a third-party site, you will likely be on the hook.)
  • Find out the hotel’s proximity to public transportation, sights, and restaurants you plan to visit.
  • Read reviews about the hotel, but do so with some skepticism. The rave reviews may be fake, and the poor reviews may be written by someone impossible to please. But if you read enough reviews and disregard the extremes, you can discern a consensus. Reviews can also provide insight into the cleanliness of the hotel and whether it’s well-maintained.
  • Keep in mind that if the hotel is close to a highway, you’ll be hearing road traffic all night.
  • Know the cancellation policy. It may differ during peak or off-peak seasons.
  • Be suspicious of a hotel room rate substantially lower than comparable hotels in the area. That’s a sign that something is probably not right.
  • Choose a pet-friendly hotel and know the requirements if you plan to travel with a pet. Most hotels require the pet to be in a cage and not left alone in the room. Ask if there will be an added charge for your pet. Many hotels charge a cleaning fee.
  • Avoid hotels that allow pets if you are allergic to animals. Some people experience severe allergic reactions to animal fur, so it’s best to avoid those hotels entirely.
  • Find out if the hotel has a pool, hot tub, or water park, and ensure it will be open during your visit. These can be an added incentive when traveling with children.
  • If you are making an all-inclusive booking, make certain to include every member of your party – including babies – or you may be in for an expensive surprise at the check-in counter (See: My Expedia booking went all wrong. How did I end up owing $6, 897 extra?)

Questions to ask the hotel staff

  • Find out how reliable the Wi-Fi service is if this is of importance to you. Ask if there is a complimentary breakfast and what it includes. Find out if there’s a restaurant on-site.
  • Ask the hotel if there is a charge for parking. Some hotels charge exorbitant nightly parking fees.
  • If you have mobility issues or special needs, it’s essential to call the hotel directly and get the specifics on what they offer and if it will meet your needs. Hotels that are handicap-accessible abroad may differ from what you can expect in the U.S.
  • Ask what the hotel’s cleaning protocols are. Sanitizing the rooms has come to the forefront since Covid 19.
  • Find out if there is a hotel shuttle service and the hours of operation. Ask how far the hotel is from the airport. 
  • Check to see if there will be construction going on during your stay.
  • Find out if the surrounding neighborhood is safe to walk or jog in. Especially in larger cities, hotels may be located on the edge of an area considered safe and an area you do not want to venture into. 
  • Know if the property is family-friendly and if there are any added perks if traveling with children. 
  • Get specifics on what the picture will be from your room if the view is important to you — especially if you’re traveling to a scenic location. If you request a waterfront view,  ask the hotel for details.
  • Ask the hotel about package deals, special rates, discounts for seniors, AAA members, etc.
  • For rooms abroad, find out if there is a shared bathroom and shower, if the property has air conditioning, and the specifics on meal arrangements.  Also, check to see if the hotel has an elevator. Not all hotels abroad offer elevators.

Before booking your hotel room

Always read the fine print. Once you book your reservation, you agree to the listed terms and conditions.

  • Know whether the reservation is nonrefundable or unchangeable and if the rate includes all fees and taxes.
  • Ensure the dates are correct. Remember that in Europe, the dates are listed as the Day/Month/Year. That can be confusing, since in the U.S., dates are listed as Month/Day/Year.
  • Know the check-in and check-out times. If you need to check in earlier or check out later, ask the hotel if you may do so and if there will be an added charge.
  • Find out when the cancellation cut-off time is. Many hotels may require a 24-hour notice, and they base it on the check-in time. For example, if you have reservations on September 24 and the check-in time is 3:00 p.m., you have until 3:00 p.m. on September 23 to cancel.
  • Read your confirmation email right away to ensure your reservation is correct. Contact the hotel or booking site immediately if you notice any problem with your reservation.
  • Understand that your credit card is generally used to hold the room but should only be charged after your stay (unless you booked a prepaid reservation). Remember that you will typically be charged for one night’s stay if you are a no-show.

Before arriving at your hotel

Contact the hotel a few days in advance to confirm your arrival date.

If you experience a flight or weather delay and won’t arrive until late evening, notify the hotel. That will secure your room and keep the hotel from considering you a no-show and giving your room away.

What to do if the hotel gives your room away

Hotels may overbook in anticipation that a percentage of travelers will not show up. Hotels often prioritize the reservations of guests who book directly through them. That means if you booked through a third-party booking site, your room is more likely to be given away.

If you arrive and find out you do not have a room, here are some options.

  • Ask if the hotel will put you in an upgraded room (if available) for no additional cost. For instance, if your room reservation was for two queen beds, the hotel could offer you a suite or king-size room.  
  • When a hotel cannot fulfill the agreement by providing you with a room, it may offer to pay for your stay at a comparable hotel and provide transportation to get there. It is not required to do so, but this is often a goodwill gesture. You can speed up the process by searching for an alternate hotel and presenting it to the front desk clerk.
  • If the options above are unavailable, the hotel must issue a refund if the room is prepaid. Ask if it will offer something extra for your troubles. If you booked through a third-party booking site, you will need to call them right away. Ask to be booked at a comparable hotel or request a refund.

Check your hotel room upon arrival

If there is a problem with your room, the sooner you notify the hotel, the better your chances of getting moved to another room. You want to ensure the room is suitable and the utilities are working. 

Check the headboards for traces of bed bugs. If there is any damage in the room, take a photo and notify the front desk. You don’t want to receive a bill from the hotel for damage you did not cause.

If the room is unacceptable, ask for another room. If the entire hotel is unfit, complain to the staff and ask for a refund before you leave. Remember that if you booked through a third-party booking site, you must contact them directly. The hotel staff cannot refund you if you booked through a third party. And don’t expect to receive a refund from the third-party booking site if the room is nonrefundable — unless the hotel is truly uninhabitable and you can document this in detail, preferably with photos.

Consumer Alert: Never pay for your hotel room with a debit card, even one branded with the Mastercard or Visa symbol. These payment forms do not come with the protections that the Fair Credit Billing Act provides for credit card-using consumers. If you use a debit card to pay for your hotel room, you may be in for some surprise charges. (See: How to get a surprise hotel smoking reversed? Just like this)

Hotel fees to be aware of

Hotels may have hidden fees you are unaware of — like resort fees — until you get your bill at check-out.  Some of these fees are avoidable. Find a hotel that does not charge these unnecessary fees.  

An interesting new bill called the Hotel Fees Transparency Act has been introduced in the U.S. If it passes, it will eliminate the following hidden surcharges and cause hotels to be transparent and upfront with all their fees.

  • Local government taxes. These fees are unavoidable.
  • Mandatory resort fees.  Before booking a room, ask if you can avoid paying fees for services you will not use. For example, the resort may charge you for beach towels and chairs, use of the exercise room, and more.
  • Some hotels charge an early departure fee if you leave earlier than your original departure date.
  • Hotels may charge a fee for a room safe. If you will not be using it, notify the hotel and ask that you not be charged.
  • The hotel may charge you a hefty cleaning fee if you smoke in a nonsmoking room or leave the room in shambles. This fee can be $250 and up, so if your nonsmoking room smells like smoke when you arrive, request another room.
  • Additional person fee. Rooms are based on double occupancy, and some hotels charge for each additional person.
  • Some hotels charge a nightly fee for the use of Wi-Fi.
  • Hotels charge you for snacks or drinks in the mini bar. Some minibars have sensors that automatically charge your room if you move items around, even if you don’t eat or drink them. Notify the hotel immediately if you receive a charge for something you did not use. Before partaking in what appears to be complimentary water bottles or baskets with snacks, find out if there is a charge. 
  • Parking fees are often charged nightly by hotels in downtown locations. These charges can be substantial. 
  • Some hotels add a mandatory tipping fee for housekeeping, concierge, spa, bellman, and other services. Other hotels may charge a flat fee for housekeeping and may (or may not) give you the option to choose or decline the service. For example, one of our team members at Consumer Rescue recently stayed at a hotel in New York City that charged $35 for housekeeping. Guests who opted out of the service could get their own clean towels and other items.
  • There is usually a charge for using the phone in the hotel room for local, long-distance, or 800 numbers. Calling the front desk is free.
  • Some hotels charge for a rollaway bed or crib. Ask if there’s a charge before making your reservations.

If you have specific needs, avoid online travel agents

Online travel agents (third-party booking sites)  may not have an accurate hotel description or know precisely what the room view will be. If you require an accessible room, a particular view, or have any other specific needs, it’s best to talk directly with the hotel at the location you plan to visit. 

The Consumer Rescue team recently received a request for help from a traveler that illustrates how misinformation from a third-party booking site can turn disastrous. 

When Ellen G. was planning her trip to London, her top priority was to have a room with windows and city views. Her reason is that she battles with diagnosed claustrophobia. 

The mishap occurred when she booked with Hotels com. The only room available was an accessible room that stated it had a city view. She didn’t need the accessible room, but she booked the nonrefundable room since it had the city view she needed. 

Upon her arrival, she says the hotel assigned her a room “in the basement” with no windows but a “door that opened into an air shaft filled with trash.” When she walked in, feelings of claustrophobia overwhelmed her. 

The hotel informed her that the first floor is the location of all the accessible rooms. Ellen called Hotels com and asked for a refund so she could go elsewhere. After a long wait, the agent called the hotel and confirmed what the hotel management had already explained to Ellen. 

The hotel had no other rooms available, so she says she spent most of the night in a chair in the lobby.  Since Ellen had booked a nonrefundable accessible room and received an accessible room, she wasn’t eligible for a refund.

Ellen was unaware that third-party booking sites may not provide precise descriptions of the rooms or views. Had she called the hotel directly to book the room, she would have discovered the room would be unsuitable for her needs. Instead, she had to deal with the emotional upheaval and financial loss. That was a difficult lesson to learn.

Unfortunately, our consumer advocate, Michelle, could not negotiate a refund because Ellen had agreed to the terms and conditions with Hotels com. Hotels com offered Ellen a $75 credit voucher for her trouble, but she lost out on $337 for a room she did not get to sleep in. 

Airport hotels that offer long-term parking

If you have an early flight and prefer to stay at a hotel near the airport the night before, check out ParkFlySleep.com. You can park your car at the hotel (often for free) for the entire length of the trip. 

The hotels offer complimentary shuttle service to and from the airport. When your trip is over, catch the shuttle back to the hotel, hop in your car, and be on your way back home.

Purchase travel insurance

Purchasing travel insurance is a good idea, especially if your hotel is nonrefundable. If something unexpected causes you to change or cancel your travel plans, you can recoup your losses. 

Not all plans offer the ‘cancel for any reason.’ This option provides coverage if you need to change your plans before your travel date. Be sure to read the insurance policy thoroughly to make sure you have the necessary coverage. You can compare plans and providers on InsureMyTrip.com.

A word of caution when Googling hotel phone numbers

Consumers have run into problems when doing a Google search for a hotel’s phone number. They called what they thought was the hotel, only to find out later it was not. They made hotel reservations and realized their mistake when they received a confirmation email from an unfamiliar booking site. Or worse yet, they received a fraudulent charge on their credit card and realized they had just been scammed.

Unfortunately, the top search results may list the hotel’s name, but it may be a third-party booking site or a scammer. 

These third-party booking sites or scammers often answer the call as the reservation desk or the hotel’s name. 

This situation happened to one of the attendees (who worked for the airlines) at a meeting I was at recently. She Googled the hotel’s phone number and thought she was talking to the reservation desk. She ended up booking a nonrefundable room (unbeknownst to her) from a third-party booking site she had never heard of. When she arrived, the hotel said she had not one but two nonrefundable rooms booked in her name. She had no idea how she ended up with two rooms. Thankfully, another attendee needed a room and reimbursed her for the cost.

FYI: These scammers don’t just plague the hotel industry. Over at The Points Guy, Michelle recently wrote about fake airline customer service centers. So be careful! 

Bottom line

Staying at a hotel is a necessary part of the journey. Most travelers don’t go to a hotel to just stay in their room. But a hotel can enhance your travel experience if it has a spectacular view or amenities that add to your adventure.

Lodging expenses are a big chunk of your travel budget, so you want it to be a pleasant experience.

Keeping the booking process easy, in order to avoid hassles when you arrive, goes a long way toward a happy vacation. Booking your room directly with the hotel at the location you plan to visit is your best bet. Before you book a room with a third-party booking site because of a lower rate, ask the hotel to match that rate. You may even get an additional discount on top of the lower rate.

Ask Consumer Rescue for help

If you need help resolving unwarranted charges or unfair practices, you can submit a request to Consumer Rescue.  Our team is genuine in its quest to help consumers reach positive outcomes to their problems. And the good news  — there is no cost to you.

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Stephanie Patterson

Stephanie is a travel columnist at Consumer Rescue. She has authored several books for corporate travelers (available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble) and also publishes an informative website with a focus on promoting smart and safe travel. When Stephanie is not here helping consumers, she's an interior designer who loves to think outside the norm!