Everyone loves a luxury holiday at a bargain price, but how do you know you’re getting the best deal? William Ham Bevan offers a guide to navigating the often bewildering array of travel offers
When it comes to booking hotels or travel packages, the internet has changed everything. With the range of online tools and services now available, it’s easier than ever to secure a bargain when you book. But many travellers don’t end up with the best deal. There’s now a bewildering volume of travel websites: online travel brokers, aggregators and comparison sites, members’ travel clubs, luxury hotel websites... the list goes on. Many of these sites will offer what look like spectacular savings, but the figures don’t always add up. The only way to make sure you really are getting a good price is to put in the legwork. Every time you book, you need to do your research.
Find the baseline price
When an online travel service quotes a price for a hotel room, it’ll most likely show a figure for the discount being offered: “50% off” or similar. Don’t take their word for it. An old trick (and still much in evidence online) is to compare their “special price” with the highest possible rate for that date – a price that no one pays.
Go to the hotel’s own website to find out the real score. Check their standard rate and any offers that are in operation. It’s worth phoning the hotel and asking them to quote their best price: even hotels advertising a “special internet-only rate” will often match or better it once they’re talking to a potential client in person.
When you compare this rate with those offered by third-party discounters, you may be in for a surprise. In some cases, you will be offered a better rate by going directly to the hotel.
Go for brokers
The rise of online travel brokers has been swift. In the UK the big names include Lastminute.com, Expedia.co.uk, Hotels.com, Travelocity.co.uk and Laterooms.com. Coinciding with their rise has been the appearance of price comparison sites that trawl multiple brokers and hotel chains for you, and sort the offerings by price. These should be your first port of call after obtaining a direct quote from the hotel. Trivago.co.uk, Kayak.co.uk and TravelSupermarket.com are among the most useful and popular with UK customers.
You may notice there’s often little difference between the prices quoted – particularly when looking at UK or European hotels. One reason for this is that many brands are under the same ownership. Expedia is part of the same group as Hotels.com, Hotwire.com and Venere.com. Likewise, Lastminute.com and Travelocity.co.uk are owned by the same people. Trivago is now owned by Expedia, and Kayak by the same people as own Booking.com, but this doesn’t seem to have compromised the independence of their price comparisons.
Another reason for the similarity of quotes is “rate parity”. The big players in the travel industry have exerted pressure on hotels to offer everyone the same price. However, the complexity of the market means they’ve not eliminated variation altogether. As a rule, the further away from home you’re trying to book, the greater the range of prices you’ll see on the comparison sites.
Once you’ve found the best quote online, call the hotel again to see whether they’ll beat the quote (or offer any extras) if you book with them directly. It’s a trick that works less often than it used to, but it’s always worth a punt.
Join the club for a flash deal
Some of the best hotel discounts are available through member-only websites via flash sales. Joining up is usually free, giving you access to a roster of holiday deals. Each one is only available for a short period of time and the best offers swiftly sell out.
For mid-range and smart hotels, Secret Escapes (secretescapes.com) is among the most popular. For luxury travel try Voyage Privé, Jetsetter and Vacationist. Flash selling is a great way for hotels to sell off spare capacity, and if you’re lucky you’ll be able to bag price reductions of up to 70%. But the choice is noticeably poorer at peak times of the year.
Show your loyalty to luxury brands
If you’re seeking a top-end or boutique hotel, there are sites that offer hand-picked portfolios of luxury accommodation. They can provide either a rate reduction or room upgrades. One of the best is Splendia, a Spanish-based company with a selection of hotels worldwide and a good choice of “private deals” for members.
Some of the world’s most prestigious independent hotels belong to marketing groups such as Small Luxury Hotels of the World, Mr and Mrs Smith and Design Hotels. All three have travel clubs that are free to join and that grant perks when you sign up. Small Luxury Hotels of the World, for example, gives new members a complimentary upgrade on their first stay.
The multinational hotel groups all have loyalty schemes and it’s worth joining up even if you’re not a frequent business traveller. Before you start to accumulate points, being a member can entitle you to benefits and preferential rates. The major schemes include the Starwood Preferred Guest scheme (taking in Sheraton, W Hotels, Le Meridien and other brands), IHG Rewards Club, Hilton HHonors and Fairmont President’s Club.
How can you ensure you’re not getting ripped off?
• Before you start searching check websites that offer unbiased consumer advice and the latest news about travel websites. Try national newspapers (though some, such as thetimes.co.uk, are behind a paywall). There’s also moneysavingexpert.com, which includes user forums on which you can glean some interesting tips.
• Don’t get caught out by hidden charges. Some websites will display an all-in price for a hotel stay, but others will show the basic cost of the room before local taxes, service charges and other fees. Though the UK has regulations against this practice, known as “drip pricing”, it’s impossible to eliminate when dealing with websites in different jurisdictions. Don’t assume the headline price is the one you’ll end up paying. Click through to the payment page and check the figure there. And look out for small print about fees payable once you arrive – this is a particular problem outside North America and Europe.
• You’ll only get the best deals if you’re prepared to be flexible. You may have to pay in full upfront, the booking will be non-refundable and you won’t be allowed to change it – even if you need to cancel for reasons outside your control, such as a family emergency.
• Watch out for “ghost rooms” when search results state a hotel room is “on request” – this means the broker doesn’t know whether a room is available, but you’ll still be invited to provide payment details. If it turns out the room is unavailable, your card won’t be charged, but confirmation can take up to 48 hours, and you’ll have wasted time and the chance of a bargain elsewhere.
• The most important tip is one that applies to all offers: if something looks too good to be true, it probably is. Stick with the well-known travel brands – and even when dealing with these, keep your guard up.
William Ham Bevan