BOOKING HOTELS

Nic Trend of the Daily Telegraphy asked a few weeks ago whether travellers should book their holiday hotel through an online agent or directly with the hotel. Well, I think readers know my view – you get better quality rooms if you book direct, even though it may be marginally more expensive.


It’s a fact that hotel agents do save you money.  One side of the travel business that has boomed in recent years has been the number of online agents offering to book hotels. There is now a plethora of them out there. Some trade on the sheer number of hotels they offer, such as Expedia.com. Some, such as Laterooms.com and Lastminute.com specialise in late rooms. Some of the more imaginative ones try to fill a niche – by providing, for example, a carefully chosen selection of quality hotels, such as Mrandmrssmith.com

A couple of years ago, one of the weaknesses of many online agents was that their offering were mainly of chain hotels. More interesting individual, privately run hotels and some of the grand European hotels had yet to sign up. That is changing, and while the results produced by a search on one of the bigger sites tend to be clogged with offers from poorly located, mediocre hotels, more and more often you can find that you can also get results for hotels that you know are a cut above the rest. This makes the sites much more interesting – worth checking even if you like to choose your hotel on quality rather than price. Instead of trawling generally for any odd Florence three-star, or a cheap option in Venice, you can use them to search out the best rates at a hotel that you know well or that has been recommended to you. I always do this before going directly to the hotel for a price comparison.



How good a deal do these hotel-booking sites offer then – both compared with one another and with the rates available if you go direct to the hotel's website or simply phone the front desk? And what are the advantages or pitfalls of booking through them?  Nic Trend did a spot check, comparing the prices quoted for three different hotels for a stay in Venice in April, and for a much more last-minute booking for Paris this month. Here's what he found.

Prices quoted are the total bill for a double room for two nights, including taxes. They were checked on the same day, but all are subject to change and availability.

Paris  
Hotel Mayet
A smart three-star on the Left Bank - the cheapest option was to book direct with the hotel at £209, including breakfast.

Hotel Nicolo
A beautifully presented two-star close to the Eiffel Tower - again, it was best to book direct with the hotel

Hotel Lancaster (below)
One of the best luxury hotels in Paris - this time the cheapest rate by far was through an agent at  £559, though this did not include breakfast.




Venice
Charming House DD724 Hotel
Strange name, admittedly, but this is a stylish boutique hotel in Dorsoduro - the cheapest price was through an agent at £428, including breakfast.

Londra Palace
A smart, well-run hotel with a personal feel and great views over the lagoon – Opodo offered the best rate at £599 for a deluxe double with lagoon view, including breakfast.

Danieli Hotel (below)
One of Venice's historic grand hotels - this was an example of where the cost of breakfast made a major difference to the quotes. One agent rate was £693 without breakfast and was in line with the hotel's online room-only rate of £691. However, continental breakfast for two on two mornings costs nearly £80 in the hotel.


So if it’s about cost rather than room quality, there is no overriding rule. The only way to ensure you have found the best deal is to check all the options. Price comparison websites such as Kayak.com give an overview of what different agents are offering, but they tend to quote prices direct from a hotel only for the larger chains.

Five key questions
1. How can I find the agents?
Most hotels deal with only a few agents; some deal with none. Price-comparison sites, if they list the hotel you are interested in, can help you identify the main agents that will quote for that hotel.
2. What about cancellations?
Policies on charges for cancelled bookings vary widely between agent websites and the hotels themselves, and could make a difference to how you decide to book. Usually, but not always, the hotel offers the more generous terms for late cancellations to those who have booked direct.
3. What about breakfast?
Try to get a rate that includes b & b (if you like breakfast) – top-end hotels can charge £25 a head or more, and even modest three stars tend to overprice.
4. Which room will I get?
Assume you are being offered the most basic room by on line agents. One of the advantages of booking direct with the hotel, by phone or email, is that you can request a specific room or a room in a particular part of the hotel or a room you have stayed in before. You can't normally do that online or with an agent.
5. Pounds or euros?
Most websites will quote in both, though most hotels (big chains excepted) do so only in the local currency. Check the exchange rate used by the sites, it's worth keeping an eye on.

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